Author Archive

Dippin’ and Trippin’

Tuesday, August 8th, 2017

One night in North Dakota, our correspondent tries chewing tobacco for the first time.

‘Black Gold Boom’ film documentary

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015

Some Native American tribes have banned fracking on tribal lands. With vast deposits of oil underneath its borders, Three Affiliated Tribes is at a crossroads. Should the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation in western North Dakota drill for black gold or outlaw oil exploration on its land? Tribal member Marty Young Bear worries about environmental effects. Meanwhile, local leaders rush to form a tribal-owned oil company with the motto “Sovereignty by the Barrel.”

The documentary, directed by Todd Melby, is now available for online streaming.

Previously, the documentary aired on PBS World Channel (155 stations nationwide), Prairie Public, Alaska Public Media, TPT (Twin Cities PBS), New Mexico PBS, Wyoming PBS, Arizona Public Television, WOSU Ohio, Colorado Public Television, KEDT (South Texas), SOPTV (Southern Oregon), WTVP (Peoria, Illinois), WSKG/WSQX (New York), KVIE (Sacramento, California) and WDSC (Daytona Beach, Florida).

Black Gold Boom

Press coverage:
MPR News
South Dakota Public Broadcasting
Midwest Energy News
TPT Almanac (begins at 23:15)

Oil Country: A View From The Air

Saturday, August 15th, 2015

Take a tour of oil country with photographer Ben Garvin.

You may also listen to an interview with Ben on the audio player (above). To view the photos full screen, click on the rectangle in the bottom right-hand corner of one of the photographs.

Photo by Ben Garvin

Ben Garvin's Bakken Aerials

Then Came The Bust

Monday, July 27th, 2015

In the summer of 2015, North Dakota’s rig count dipped to 73, the fewest number of drilling rigs working in the state since 2009. In this post, we’re highlighting a series of stories focused on how people are coping with the downside of the boom. In “Going Good, Then The Rig Count Dropped,” (above) we hear from Steve Brown, owner of a water hauling company who is struggling to keep his small business from going under.

In “This Is Our New Home,” (below) we meet Kendra Hill. She moved to the Bakken with her husband a few years ago. Thanks to a high-paying oilfield job, the young couple could afford to start a family and buy a house. No matter what happens in oil country, they’re planning to stay in North Dakota.

(A 2016 update, courtesy of Reuters: In North Dakota’s Oil Patch a Humbling Comedown)

In “Hoping The Downplay Hurts The Greed,” (below) Don Williams offers up an unexpected side effect to the oil patch slowdown: lower prices. When the boom was churning at full speed, rents were too darn high. And now? Williams still has job at transload company in Ross, North Dakota, and things aren’t so expensive.

In 2015, Marketplace’s Annie Baxter also produced several stories on the downturn. Listen here:

Oil downturn takes men out of ‘man camps’
The oil economy, as measured in hot dogs and U-Hauls
North Dakota oilfield slowdown ripples across businesses
North Dakota oil town: Is it a bust or slowdown?

‘Oil To Die For’ – Terms of Use

Monday, May 18th, 2015

Terms of Use


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‘Oil To Die For’

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

For the third year in a row, North Dakota ranks as the most deadly place to work in America and its oilfields are nearly seven times more dangerous than elsewhere in the U.S.

“Oil To Die For,” a 2015 interactive documentary from Black Gold Boom, examines how Dustin Bergsing died of hydrocarbon poisoning at a North Dakota well site just days before his 22nd birthday. He was engaged to be married and the father of an infant. The interactive examines the circumstances surrounding Bergsing’s death, including accusations by a Marathon Oil whistleblower who says his safety warnings were ignored by company bosses.

“Oil To Die For” is compatible with all devices, including Apple and Android mobile phones and tablets.

Press coverage:
Minnesota Public Radio
Rocky Mountain PBS (begins at 7:30)
South Dakota Public Broadcasting
Helios Design Lab
Inside Energy
Fund for Investigative Journalism
This is Radio Cast

Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (CDC)
Hazard Alert from NIOSH-OSHA

Experience “Oil To Die For” now.

Reaction from Twitter to the interactive documentary:

Songs from the Oilfield

Friday, April 3rd, 2015

Driving around North Dakota oil country makes a guy want to crank up the tunes on his stereo. And what better music for the oilfield than oilfield music? Here’s a playlist of songs compiled by Black Gold Boom’s Todd Melby. It also includes finds from SoundCloud, that terrific resource of online music. If you know of other songs we should add to this playlist, send us a note at todd[dot]melby[at]gmail[dot]com.

Note: Some songs on this playlist may not be suitable for all audiences.

Fight Night in Crude Country

Friday, October 10th, 2014

A visit to the Williston Basin Blowout, a night of mixed martial arts fights in Williston, North Dakota. For 30 bucks, attendees witnessed 10 fights.

Photos by Ben Garvin

Child with Beer Cans

Smash to the Head

A Fighter Awaits Destiny

Ripped Body

Honoring America

Bikini Girl Enters The Ring

Lisa Westberg Peters: Fractured Land

Monday, October 6th, 2014

Lisa Westberg Peters is a children’s book author who began investigating the Bakken boom after oilfield royalty checks began pouring into her mother’s mailbox. Peters’ grandfather, Oscar Westberg, purchased several parcels of farmland near Tioga, North Dakota, nearly a century ago. Today, that investment is paying big dividends.

But Peters wondered: Did Oscar buy that land as a short-term business bet or a long-term oilfield gamble?

In a conversation with Black Gold Boom’s Todd Melby, Peters discusses her book, “Fractured Land: The Price of Inheriting Oil,” and how her family’s history and North Dakota’s decades-long search for oilfield riches intersect.

Minnesota Historical Society Press, publisher of “Fractured Land”

Photo by Ben Garvin

Made possible by a grant from the North Dakota Humanities Council

Stuffed Shirts v. Blue Collars

Monday, August 25th, 2014

People who hate it, call it “pollution.” People who love it, call it “rollin’ coal.” We’re talking about the plumes of black smoke that come pouring out of some diesel pickups. These pickup truck owners are retrofitting their rigs to allow for unburnt diesel fuel to spew from a tailpipe or vertical stack during a fast acceleration. When smoke pours from a pipe or stack, the unburnt diesel is thick and black. An interview with Mark Pyatt of Killer Diesel Performance about the young men and women who love to roll coal in oil country.

Top Photo: Calvin Fields in Williston, North Dakota.
Bearded Man Photo: Mark Pyatt in Williston, North Dakota.
Other Photos: Calvin Field and friends in Williston, North Dakota.

Story and Photos by Todd Melby

Made possible by a grant from the North Dakota Humanities Council





Past and Present

Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

Al Newman, Sr., a retired carpenter, traded in his hammer for a paintbrush. The artist has painted on buffalo hides and metal, but his most recent work is a straightforward oil on canvas. It shows three Native men on horseback pointing at an oil derrick. He’s titled the painting, which hangs in the Three Affiliated Tribes council chambers, “Past and Present.” Newman lives near Mandaree, North Dakota.

Made possible by a grant from the North Dakota Humanities Council

Past Present by Al Newman Sr

The Other Boomtown Hamm

Monday, July 28th, 2014

Billionaire oilman Harold Hamm has made a name for himself in the Bakken. As CEO of Continental Resources, his company is the biggest oil producer in western North Dakota. But he’s not the only Hamm in town. A man named Phil Hamm lived in Williston before the boom came to town. He stills lives there today. In this interview with Black Gold Boom’s Todd Melby, it’s clear he’s got something to say about the changes the boom has brought.

Made possible by a grant from the North Dakota Humanities Council

Peace and Quiet

Monday, June 30th, 2014

Her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents lived on this piece of land in McKenzie County, North Dakota. And now she does.

Years ago, when oil company representatives first knocked on her door asking for permission to drill, she welcomed them. But in the years since the boom exploded, she’s had second thoughts.

Story by Todd Melby

Photo by Ben Garvin

Made possible by a grant from the North Dakota Humanities Council

Grandma’s Got a Nice Truck

Sunday, May 11th, 2014

Oil tankers rumble on lots of roads near Mandaree and New Town, North Dakota. Both towns are on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, home to the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara. But another tribal town — Twin Buttes — is just east of the Bakken oil field, making it a quiet place.

Twin Buttes resident Cory Spotted Bear and friends recently constructed a traditional earth lodge there. Spotted Bear talked to Black Gold Boom’s Todd Melby about the project and his thoughts about the nearby boom.

Photo by Philipp Batta

Made possible by a grant from the North Dakota Humanities Council

Woo Pig Sooie

Monday, May 5th, 2014

Arkansas will always be home to Oscar Everetts, but that didn’t stop him from coming to North Dakota to make ribs for roughnecks. Oscar and another friend from the Razorback state arrived in the oil patch in October and stuck it out until winter sent them back home a couple of months later. They’re back now at a makeshift stand on the side of Highway 2, just west of Ray.

Story by Todd Melby

Photos by Phillip Batta

Made possible by a grant from the North Dakota Humanities Council

They’re Like Packs of Wolves

Friday, March 21st, 2014

When Nathina St. Pierre moved to Watford City, North Dakota, she received lots of attention from men. “It was flattering at first,” she said. But it never stopped. Everywhere she went, men of all ages hit on her. The sexual harassment became worse and worse. So St. Pierre took action. This is one story of the oil boom, as told to photojournalist Ben Garvin and produced by Black Gold Boom’s Todd Melby.

Related content: “A Scary Place for Women,” Black Gold Boom’s most popular video. By Ben Garvin.

Tioga Oil Spill: ‘Yeah, That’s a Big One’

Monday, October 14th, 2013

(Editor’s note: This story includes updates.)

By Todd Melby

Unlike most people in this bustling boomtown, Steven Jensen rarely thinks about oil. Instead, the third-generation farmer worries about rain, the short autumn days and whether he’ll get his crops harvested before the first snow.

But oil found him.

On Sept. 29, Jensen, 55, was steering his combine through wheat fields when he happened upon a large swath of emptiness on his western North Dakota farm. Instead of gold-colored wheat, he spied black crude oil spewing from the ground.

“It was just coming out like a faucet,” he said.

Jensen had discovered a busted, underground oil pipeline — known as Tesoro Logistics LP — leaking with such force that the crude bubbled four to six inches above the surface. In the area of the spill, nothing remained of his wheat crop.

“It had just disintegrated,” he said.

By the time cleanup crews plugged it, an estimated 20,600 barrels of oil had seeped into the environment, making it one of the biggest U.S. oil accidents in recent years. The spill covered seven acres of Jensen’s land, which is located about nine miles northeast of Tioga.

Although Jensen reported the spill on the night he discovered it, the pipeline may have been leaking for days. While in the area four days earlier, Jensen said, “I could smell sweet gas, but I wasn’t getting too concerned.”

Neither are people in Tioga, a once quiet town that’s likely tripled in size since the Bakken boom exploded five years ago. “It’s oil and it’s flowing,” said Levi, a 32-year-old father of three who refused to give his last name. “There will be mishaps.”

“It doesn’t surprise me,” said Dan Williams, 46, a construction worker who lives in an apartment above the Model Bar in the city’s downtown. “These accidents happen.”

Williams, who moved here from Minnesota last year, does worry how the spill might affect President Obama’s willingness to approve construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. “If things like this keep happening, it’s going to affect that,” he said.

Outside the Rig Lounge, a bar on the city’s edge, Don Newland, a stout man wearing a brown fire retardant shirt, took a drag on a cigarette and said he hadn’t heard about the spill. Told of its size, Newland, who once worked on oil cleanup sites, said, “Yeah, that’s a big one.”

Jensen, the farmer who discovered the spill, thinks so too. “It’s an animal,” he said of the oozing crude. “It’s a creature that’s let loose and they are trying to get control of it.”

The Dakota Resource Council, a North Dakota-based group that describes its as “watchdogs of the prairie,” says the spill “should put to rest the calls for fewer regulations.” The cleanup is expected to take months.


In remote field, North Dakota oil boom suffers first big spill (Reuters, Oct. 10, 2013)

Corrosion may have led to pipeline leak: regulator (Reuters, Oct. 11, 2013)

Exclusive Greenpeace Photos of North Dakota Pipeline Oil Spill (EcoWatch, Oct. 14, 2013)

Tioga Oil Spill: Who Knew What and When (Oil Patch Dispatch, Oct. 15, 2013)

Feds: Lighting may be cause of ND oil spill (Associated Press, Nov. 6, 2013)

U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration page on Tioga spill (Updated by agency)


Location of spill: 9 miles northeast of Tioga, N.D.

Estimated number of barrels spilled: 20,600

Date of spill discovery: Sept. 29, 2013

Date of spill announcement: Oct. 10, 2013

Owner of pipeline: Tesoro Logistics

Government agency responsible for spill investigation: U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)


All photos by Todd Melby, except photo of oil spill burnoff (first of several below). Oil spill burnoff photo by Renae VanBerkom Evensvold of Dakota Resource Council.

Tioga Oil Spill Burnoff

Steven Jensen

Jensen views spill cleanup

Steven Jensen at work

Jensen views spill cleanup

A Fresh Start

Monday, October 14th, 2013

Elsie Ejismekwu is a trucker and cabbie in Watford City. Divorced and a mother of five, she moved to the Bakken for the work, which pays more than most other places in America. Says Ejismekwu, “I wanted a fresh start so I came to North Dakota.”

Story and photos by Todd Melby

Made possible by a grant from the North Dakota Humanities Council

Truck View - Watford City

Coco and Elsie

In The Eye Of The Boom

Tuesday, October 8th, 2013

Todd Melby, reporter and lead producer at Black Gold Boom, has written an essay on his experiences of living in the Bakken. “In The Eye Of The Boom” appears in the summer issue of “On Second Thought,” published by the North Dakota Humanities Council.

The article begins, appropriately enough, at DK’s Lounge, a watering hole in Williston. Click below to read, beginning at page 12.

Photo by Ben Garvin

Oil Patch Code Blue: Juhnke v. Marathon Oil

Thursday, September 12th, 2013

This report aired on Sept. 12, 2013 on Prairie Public. It’s part four of a four-part series on injuries and deaths in North Dakota’s oil patch. Todd Melby was the reporter. Photo of Dustin Bergsing’s H2S monitor courtesy of OSHA.

Made possible by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

As oil field jobs go, Dustin Bergsing seemed to have a pretty safe one. He wasn’t swinging pipes on a drilling rig or working near big, moving trucks. He was a well watcher, monitoring tank levels near Mandaree.

Bergsing worked alone, often at nights, for a Marathon Oil contractor. Once every two hours, he climbed a ladder, walked across a metal catwalk, opened hatches and peeked inside a series of giant brown storage tanks that were filled with a mix of crude oil, gasses and frac water. If one of the tanks was nearing capacity, he changed the flow so another tank would start filling. One of the few dangers Bergsing faced was possible exposure to hydrogen sulfide gas, also known as H2S gas. It’s an odorless, colorless gas that some wells naturally produce. It can kill a person. So Bergsing wore a yellow H2S monitor on his helmet to warn him of high levels of the deadly gas.

Still, something went wrong on the night of January 7, 2012. Just after midnight, Bergsing failed to respond to an alarm indicating a tank was almost full. So a co-worker came to check on him. The co-worker found Bergsing’s lifeless body on a catwalk.

“His death was reported to us as a fatality,” says Eric Brooks, the local director of OSHA — the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “All right. I’ve got the case file here.” Brooks sent an investigator to determine how Bergsing died. The most likely cause of death seemed to be H2S poisoning. But it turns out Bergsing’s monitor was working and that wasn’t what killed the 21-year-old oil worker.

“The medical examiner’s identified professional opinion was that the hydrocarbons found in the victim’s blood did not appear to be work-related,” Brooks says.

After Dustin Bergsing died, his mother, Trista Juhnke, hired an attorney.

“Hi, my name is Fred Bremseth and I’m a personal injury trial lawyer,” says Fred Bremseth.

Bremseth agrees with one part of OSHA’s findings. “He had no other abnormal chemicals or drugs in his system. And the coroner’s report indicated that in fact the cause of death was exposure to hydrocarbons.”

 But Bremseth believes those hydrocarbon vapors were definitely work-related. You see, hydrocarbons come from natural gas, a byproduct of crude oil. If that gas isn’t captured or flared properly, it can fill the air and suffocate a person. That’s what he learned when a surprise witness who came forward after Bremeth sued against the Houston-based company.

“He had been fired from Marathon Oil. And of course, we asked him why,” Bremseth says.

The man, whom we’ll call Mr. X, has a chemistry degree and works as an environmental engineer. He didn’t want us to use his real name for fear of losing his current job. Mr. X was hired by Marathon Oil in October 2011 — about three months before Bergsing died. Soon, Mr. X noticed that large amounts of hydrocarbon vapors were leaking from oil storage tanks. In the past, Marathon routinely used two flare stacks per tank. Now, according to Mr. X, the company was just using one. As a result, that natural gas flowed into storage tanks like the ones where Bergsing worked.

 In a statement under oath, Mr. X described how he documented the problem with co-workers. He recorded the leaks with an infrared camera. He created a spreadsheet estimating the amount of the leaks. And …

“In fact they had gone and measured some of the gas levels,” Bremseth says. “And to his belief, those levels were not only toxic, but lethal.” So Mr. X began writing emails to supervisors. Here’s what he told Fred Bremseth in his sworn statement.

MR. X: “I asked why they had reduced the number of flares from two to one. I asked why the piping was undersized during the flowback. … They actually punished me because I wrote e-mails like that to them stating that there was compliance issues that they needed to address.”

BREMSETH: “What do you mean they punished you?”

MR. X: “They told me I couldn’t write any more e-mails. I was supposed to pick up a phone and not — not call on — or not write any more things like that, because they — lawyers could discover it.”

BREMSETH: “Really?”

MR. X: “That was their exact words.”

Still, Mr. X persisted. He continued to write emails, including one accusing his co-workers of “not living up to Marathon standards.” Says Bremseth, “Executives at Marathon Oil were concerned that what he was putting in writing could be discoverable by lawyers precisely in a situation like this.”

Voice of Todd Melby: “It sounds like they actually flew a lawyer from Houston to North Dakota to tell him how to write emails.”

Says Fred Bremseth: “That’s what the testimony was. They actually brought a corporate lawyer up from Texas and had put on a presentation for him trying to correct his ways o that he would write emails in the way they wanted him to do it.”

Mr. X’s 19-page statement also notes that a second oil field worker became dizzy on a Marathon-owned well in May 2012, four months after Bergsing died. Mr. X and two co-workers went out to the well, took measurements and concluded that “the oxygen content was below breathable. It had displaced the oxygen around the tanks. It was almost deadly.”

Says Fred Bremseth, “If you become overcome by the gasses, it’s too late.” Mr. X believes those circumstances were deadly for Dustin Bergsing. “Yep, that’s what got him,” Mr. X told Bremseth. In June 2012, less than one year after he started working at Marathon Oil, Mr. X was fired.

Marathon Oil executives refused to be interviewed about the case or Mr. X’s testimony. Instead, the company issued a statement. Marathon Oil says Mr. X was fired for “performance reasons” and that his statement to attorney Fred Bremseth was “grossly inaccurate and wholly without merit.” The company says Mr. X’s statement happened without its corporate lawyers in the room and therefore, it’s one-sided. I asked Bremseth about this last point.

“The court process certainly would allow Marathon Oil to take a comprehensive discovery deposition as part of the normal pre-trial procedures,” Bremseth says. “They could have done that if they wanted to.”

In its statement, Marathon Oil also says it “saddened by the loss of Dustin Bergsing” and called his death “tragic.”

Four months after Bergsing died and a second person became dizzy while working near oil storage tanks, Mr. X says Marathon finally took action when it began supplying its contractors and employees with air respirators. “Nobody should be going out to those well sites without self-contained breathing apparatus or supplied air respirators or not being there alone,” Bremseth says. 

The company eventually reached an out-of-court settlement with Dustin Bergsing’s family for an undisclosed sum of money.

More stories from the series are here:

Oil Patch Code Blue: Beautiful Man

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

This report aired Sept. 11, 2013 on Prairie Public. It’s part three of a four-part series on injuries and deaths in North Dakota’s oil patch. Todd Melby was the reporter.

Made possible by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

I’m at a pizza place in Laurel, a small town just west of Billings.

Lacey Breding is at a booth with her daughter and a friend. Outside, the sun is mercilessly hot so everyone is wearing shorts. 

“Whatcha doing, monkey?” says Lacey Breding.

That’s Lacey. She’s watching McKinley, her toddler, fuss with the salt and pepper shakers.

For about a year, Lacey dated a man who worked in North Dakota’s oil fields. They met at a rodeo. She was just there because she had nothing else to do. And then she saw a cute guy with unruly brown hair tucked under his cowboy hat. “I knew his friends, but I’d never had seen him before,”  Breding says.

His name was Dustin Bergsing. The pair started talking, then flirting, then talking some more. Lacey says for the two days of that rodeo, they got to know each other pretty well. “It was like we’d known each other forever,” she says. “I remember going home and texting my little brother and saying, ‘I met this guy tonight and I’m going to marry him someday.’”

Shortly after they started dating, Lacey got pregnant. When McKinley was born, Dustin took the lead. “As soon as she was born, I was terrified of her,” she says. “I didn’t know what to do. And he just stepped right in and took over changing diapers. Taught me how to swaddle her. He just stepped right up like he knew what he was doing.”

Lacey and Dustin, who were both just a couple years out of high school, made plans to spend the rest of their lives together. Dustin landed an oil field job that paid about $60,000 a year. They planned to marry. They planned to buy a house. They planned to open a business together.

Then on one cold January night last year, Dustin reported for work as a well watcher, He worked alone, monitoring fluid levels on giant tanks near Mandaree. He spent most of his time in a trailer. But every two hours, he climbed a ladder, walked across a catwalk and opened the hatches on multiple storage tanks containing oil, frac water and gases. Sometime around midnight, a co-worker called Dustin. When he didn’t respond, the worker drove to the site and found his lifeless body on a catwalk. 

Doctors say he died of “hydrocarbon poisoning due to the inhalation of petroleum vapor.”

He was 21.

“Ahhh, he was beautiful,” Breding says. “He was a beautiful man. He had brown hair. And it was always kinda shaggy, curly like my daughter’s. She has his curls. He had the cutest grin. You could not be mad at him if he had a smile on his face. And his face would turn beat red when he would laugh. I could just see it.”

It’s been more than a year and half since Dustin died. “I have people all the time asking me if I’ve started dating yet or if I’ve found somebody else,” she says. “It drives me crazy because I am so madly in love with that kid. Even now. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to.”

Says her friend Jason Bold, “She might sound like a broken record, but that’s her favorite record.” He’s wearing a tan cowboy hat and eating cheese sticks. He and his girlfriend used to hang out with Lacey and Dustin.

“He was just so awesome fun to be around all the time,” Bold says. “I mean, you can be around some people and after a day or two, you get sick and tired and bored of them. No. I want to be around you all day, every day. You crack me up. You make me giggle. He was so fun. Just thinking about him.”

After Dustin died, Jason was so upset to see Lacey alone with her daughter that he organized the Dustin Bergsing Memorial Bull Ride. The event was held at Miller’s Horse Palace near Laurel. “We had damn near 300 people show up at the horse palace, which is the largest, biggest event the horse palace ever had,: Bold says.

The bull ride raised several thousand dollars for Lacey and baby McKinley, so Jason lassoed a bunch of volunteers, offered up some prize money and put on the bull ride again this year. Another thing about Jason …

He used to work on drilling rigs in the Bakken. He didn’t like it. “They just care about that little green dollar,” Bold says. “That’s all they care about. They don’t care about who you are or where you’re from. All they care about is you get to work, you bust your ass,  and we want to hit TD. You know, total depth or bottom hole. We want to hit oil and move on to the next hole.”

After Dustin died, his mother sued Marathon Oil. They own the well where Dustin died. The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum of money. As is typical in cases like these, Dustin’s mother and his fiancée, Lacey Breding, can’t discuss the details.

So they go on living.

Lacey carries around a soft cover photo album for McKinley. Inside are photos of a father McKinley will never see again.

More stories from the series are here:

Oil Patch Code Blue: Mad as Hell

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013

This report aired on Sept. 10, 2013 on Prairie Public. It’s part two of a four-part series on injuries and deaths in North Dakota’s oil patch. Todd Melby was the reporter. Photo by Ben Garvin.

Made possible by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

I spent Williston and wandering around the oil patch, talking with residents, newcomers and workers. We talked about all sorts of things. But when I spoke with workers, one subject kept popping up.

(Montage of worker voices: “You gotta be careful out there. A lot of people can get hurt over stupid stuff, not paying attention.”/“You never want to be the guy who turns down work or who doesn’t do something. It’s also that kind of attitude that makes things dangerous sometimes, right?”/“I had back surgery when I was 21. I crushed my arm in ’96 and they was going to cut my left arm off. But I still got it.”/”I know that I’ve seen people doing jobs without the right safety gear.”/“Everything out here has potential to seriously hurt you or a lot worse.”)

A lot worse is right.

Government accounts of fatal accidents make for grim reading. There are reports of men falling to their deaths, suffering deadly burns, getting struck in the head with giant pipes and crushed between forklifts and trucks.

As drilling peaked last year, so did oil field deaths.

“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of fatalities largely due to the dramatic increase in the oil and gas work,” says Eric Brooks, local director of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). That’s the federal agency responsible for workplace safety.

Last year in North Dakota, 14 people died while working in the oil fields. So far this year, another nine workers have been killed. That’s 23 dead oil workers in two years. That loss of human life recently has brought North Dakota unwelcome notoriety. In its rankings of the most dangerous places to work in America, the AFL-CIO labor union listed the state as number one at 12.4 deaths per 100,000 workers.

That’s higher than another big oil-producing state — Alaska — which in recent years had topped North Dakota in the rankings.

“You have a lot of new workers, a lot of new workers, a lot of young workers that are associated with the accidents,” says Brooks. “We have found training and communications violations, not universally, but consistently, among the accidents.”

The deaths have prompted OSHA to ramp up training efforts. In February, the agency sponsored a “Stand Down for Safety” meeting for oil companies doing work in the Bakken. Greg Baxter is regional administrator of OSHA. He spoke at the event. “My folks in Washington are essentially asking me, ‘What’s going on? How can you have that many fatalities?” Baxter says.

One of the things going on is that as the boom rolled through Williston, Watford City, Stanley and other towns in the west, OSHA’s Bismarck office failed to keep pace. In 2008 and 2009 — before the boom really got under way, OSHA had a team of seven senior investigators working in Bismarck. But as drilling rigs flooded the west with new workers and dangerous equipment, OSHA’s North Dakota staff became smaller and less experienced.

In 2010, it had six senior investigators. A year later, its staff shrunk to five. By 2012, the office again had a staff of seven — just like in the pre-boom year of 2008. But with a difference. Instead of seven senior investigators, it employed just one. The other six staffers had a lot less experience. And three were trainees.

“For those particular years when it was quote-unquote lean, we were bringing in additional compliance officers to help us conduct inspections,” Brooks says.

Brooks downplays the importance of on-the-job experience. He says an inspector’s knowledge of a particular industry is more important. So I asked him: how many of the inspectors working in Bismarck have oil and gas expertise.

“Now? All of them,” Brooks says. “All of them have been through well training and are actually card-carrying well control compliance officers.”

“How about 2011?” I ask.

“2011?” Brooks says. “You’re asking me to think here. Depending on what time you’re talking in 2011, it could have been three or four.”

That’s a problem, says Bill Kojola. He’s a health and safety expert at the AFL-CIO. “It’s absolutely crucial that inspectors understand the industry so that they have a very good sense of what the hazards are,” Kojola says. One of Kojola’s jobs at the union is to work on its annual job safety report titled, “Death on the Job.” It’s filled with all sorts of statistical analysis, including the number of years it would take OSHA to conduct surprise inspections at every U.S. workplace. According to the report, it would take OSHA 93 years to visit every work site in North Dakota.

“It’s really ridiculous when you think about it. An employer can say what are my chances of getting a random inspection by OSHA? Well, the chances are slim, very slim,” says Kojola.

Last year, North Dakota made just 25 impromptu visits at oil industry work sites. This year, it ramped up inspections. In April, Eric Brooks ordered his inspectors to roam the western plains. “The nature of this inspection was, our guys are out in the field, if you see a rig, you’re stopping,” he says. In one month, the group made 56 inspections — double the number for all of last year.

Perhaps the state’s OSHA office is beginning to take to heart the words of its regional boss, Greg Baxter. “We got to get mad as hell and we got to stop this,” he says.

More stories from the series are here:

Oil Patch Code Blue: There’s the Pager

Monday, September 9th, 2013

This report aired Sept. 9, 2013 on Prairie Public. It’s part one of a four-part series on injuries and deaths in North Dakota’s oil patch. Story and photo by Todd Melby.

Made possible by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

I’m in downtown Killdeer trying to cross the street with Ann Hafner. She’s the ambulance director.

“Right over here,” she says. “I don’t want us in the back of that new rig as much as I like it.”

Big semis are everywhere.

“This one is going to stop,” she says. ” Thank you.”

(Sound of truck honking.)

“Thanks,” Todd Melby says.

Killdeer, a little town out west, used to be a quiet place. But that was before the oil boom. “Yeah, if you were looking for a changing ambulance service, you found it,” says Hafner.

Hafner is a 51-year-old paramedic. She’s trim, short and full of energy. Before becoming a paramedic, she was a mom and a volunteer EMT. After her daughter graduated from high school, Hafner hit the books, earned a paramedic’s license and in just two years, she’s in charge of things here.

“This is going to be our new combination office and garage,” Hafner says. “We got a four-stall garage going in. We only have three ambulances. We are concerned about the future in five years. Five years ago we wouldn’t have thought we needed two.”

In 2010, the Census Bureau counted 751 people living here. Back then, Killdeer was best known as a rodeo town. The place to buy beer here is Lariat Liquors. Its high school sports teams are known as the Cowboys.

Nearby drilling has likely tripled the town’s population.

Before the boom, the Killdeer Area Ambulance Service averaged one or two calls a week. Now it’s one or two calls every day. Before the boom, everyone who responded to ambulance calls was a volunteer. Now the nonprofit service couldn’t survive without paid staffers like Hafner.

The calls they’re getting have changed too. Before the boom, the ambulance service mostly helped out car and farm accident victims and those with medical emergencies. Now? There’s lots of oil field accidents. “People fall off of things,” says Hafner. “People get crushed by things. People get hit by things. Things blow up.”

Those accidents result in all kinds of injuries, including concussions, broken bones, piercings and something called “degloving.” Says Hafner, “A degloving is where the skin is grabbed by something and removed from the body. So what you have is a head or a face or an arm or a leg with the skin peeled off.”

Hafner and her colleagues aren’t just dealing with gruesome injuries. Some of the most dangerous situations they face in the oil fields involve H2S also known as hydrogen sulfide gas, a colorless, odorless substance that can be deadly. “If we’re called to a scene and somebody is unconscious for an unknown reason, nobody knows why, we have to assume that’s what they’re unconscious from,” she says. “And if we get out without the proper protection, we’ll be unconscious from it too.”

Oil field accidents aren’t the only reason for the surge in emergency calls. More trucks are on the road, resulting in more accidents. “A lot of these guys work longer hours straight with less sleep than they ever have before,” Hafner says. “And they have to drive some of them quite a distance to where they’re sleeping. So you add a two-hour drive a day on top of working 12 hours in the heat like you’re not used to doing. If you ever had any inclination to high blood pressure, you’re going to have it now. So we have a lot of heart-related medical calls.”

Killdeer isn’t the only boom town where this is happening. More and more people with traumatic injuries are being admitted to hospitals in western North Dakota. Tom Nehring works at the state health department. He’s in charge of emergency services. “We’re seeing exponential growth in trauma patients, exponential growth in EMS calls, exponential growth in the number of patients that come into the hospital,” he says.”

Nehring’s use of the word “exponential” isn’t hyperbole. Since 2008, hospital trauma admissions have more than doubled in Dickinson, tripled in Williston and Watford City and quadrupled in Tioga. “Can the system handle the demand?” he asks. “At times, I believe that’s questionable.” The state is rich in oil revenues. North Dakota currently has $4.7 billion in the bank. That’s billion with a B. About one-fifth of that money is being sent back to the west to expand roads and build stuff. In fact, Killdeer’s new ambulance was purchased with an oil impact grant.

I asked Nehring if there was more the state could do to help nonprofit ambulance services like the one in Killdeer. “One of the things they could use is some staffing money to actually hire some full-time people,” he says. And just as soon as he said it, Nehring backed off.

If we were going to replace all the volunteers in the state of North Dakota with paid people that would cost us $31 million a year,” Nehring says.

$31 million a year. That’s less than one percent of $4.7 billion. Again, Tom Nehring. “I don’t think it’s just the state’s responsibility to run an EMS system. You don’t find that model anyplace else,” he says.

Back in Killdeer, I asked Ann Hafner, the ambulance services director, how things are holding up. “Do you have the resources to do what you need to do?” I asked.

“No. Spirit wise and drive and desire, yes we do,” Hafner says. “We have all the drive and enthusiasm of any group of people I’ve ever seen. We don’t have enough people. We don’t have enough equipment. We don’t have enough money.” But Hafner and local officials keep trying. Local taxes are enough to pay for two full-time paramedics and one full-time EMT. A few other medical personnel get paid to come in every now and then. The rest of the time, Killdeer relies on volunteers.

“Our volunteer base has gotten really low,” Hafner says. “But since April we’ve picked up 15 new volunteers so we’re building it back, gradually.” Near the end of my ambulance service visit, I sit down in the offices to talk to Chris Jeske. She’s a board member here.

“These guys have had anywhere from one run a day up to five or six runs a day,” Jeske says.

(Sound of pager beeping.)

“There’s the pager,” Jeske says.

Pager Announcement: “Killdeer Ambulance. Killdeer Ambulance. Please respond to a semi rollover, possibly an oil tanker.”

Hafner springs into action.

“Yeah, can you meet Aaron at the bay and bring six-seven,” Hafner says. “He’s on his way back from Manning. OK, thank you. Beth and Aaron are going to meet up here. Todd, I’ll talk to you later. Welcome to my life!”

More stories from the series are here:

It’ll Make A Man Out OF You

Sunday, July 7th, 2013

Tait Salzer works on drilling rigs in North Dakota. Before joining the oil boom a little more than a year ago, the 21-year-old Salzer (at right in photo) labored on a South Dakota cattle ranch. An audio portrait by Todd Melby. Photo by Ben Garvin.

This is Localore

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

Black Gold Boom is one of 10 Localore projects nationwide. What is Localore? What are these projects?

Watch and learn, my friend.


Mathew Henderson: The Lease

Monday, May 6th, 2013

What do you get when you cross a poet and an oilfield worker? Mathew Henderson. He lives in Toronto, but his first job out of high school was in the oilfields of Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada. The New York Times calls “The Lease,” his book of poems on the hardships and satisfactions of laboring in the oil patch, “spare and elegant.” In an interview with Black Gold Boom’s Todd Melby, Henderson talks about his time in the patch and reads several poems.

More on Mathew Henderson:

Coach House Books, publisher of “The Lease”

New York Times review of “The Lease”

The Millions review of “The Lease”

Mathew Henderson reads from “The Lease”

Photo by Ben Garvin

Stan Reep’s Milkshake

Sunday, January 27th, 2013

Imagine you owned mineral rights in western North Dakota. And crude oil was stuck inside rock under the land where you owned those rights. You’d be rich, right? That’s what one Williston man thought too. Then the state came along and took that oil. Black Gold Boom reporter Todd Melby has the story of one man’s fight for oil he believes is rightfully his.

Black Gold Boom: In The News

Friday, January 18th, 2013

Black Gold Boom radio stories have aired on several national public media shows, including Marketplace, Tell Me More, The Story, All Things Considered and PBS NewsHour. Others have written about the series, including Nieman Journalism Lab, The CurrentThe Arts Partnership and Columbia Journalism Review.

Todd Melby, lead producer of the public media project, has also been interviewed about North Dakota’s oil boom on KCUR, KALW, Minnesota Public Radio, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Rocky Mountain PBS and elsewhere.

In addition, Black Gold Boom has won a few journalism awards: 2012 Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi award for “Specialized Journalism Site,” a 2013 Online News Association award and a 2013 Radio Television Digital News Association regional Edward R. Murrow award for top news series.

All Black Gold Boom stories premiere on Prairie Public, the statewide public broadcaster in North Dakota.

This SoundCloud set features Black Gold Boom stories heard nationally on public radio.

Mousey the Mudlogger

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

North Dakota’s oil boom has made lots of people rich, including workers. Many people are buying new toys: Pickups, boats and the like. But one Dickinson woman is spending her oil field cash on a possible pop music career. Story and photos by Todd Melby.

Bacon Ends, Not Baking Hens

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

In the last 60 years, Williston has seen its share of oil booms. And with each boom, come lots of male oilfield workers. In 1952, a group of oilfield workers’ wives decided to form a social group called the Ladies Petroleum Club. They’ve been meeting monthly to share meals, play cards, host dances — all kinds of stuff. Audio portrait and photo by Laura Candler.

Photo (left to right): Peggy Heth, Donna Peterson, Linda Alton, Sylvia McCauley, Steph Eslinger and Wendy Bauste.

The Dirty Girls Aim to Clean Up Williston

Wednesday, December 26th, 2012

The oil boom of western North Dakota is mostly a man’s game. The number of men working on rigs tripping pipe far outweighs the few female faces found there. But women, including Tammy Paskvan (left) and Alexandria Markham, have found opportunity in oil country, tackling jobs men don’t traditionally do.

Story by Diane Richard

Photo by Todd Melby

Williston Changes Before Her Eyes

Saturday, December 22nd, 2012

Beth Hafele once lived on the western edge of Williston, North Dakota. Then the oil boom came. From the third floor of her apartment building, she’s seen hundreds of houses and an oil rig pop up on the previously empty prairie. Now her apartment is pretty much in the middle of town. Audio portrait and photo by Todd Melby.

Richard Karpe: You Gotta Be Careful Out There

Sunday, December 16th, 2012

While other boys were working on paper routes or not at all, Richard Karpe labored on drilling rigs. Today, he supervises a truck operation near Watford City, North Dakota. He spoke to Black Gold Boom reporter Todd Melby about life in the oil field.

Photo by Ben Garvin

Finding Homes for Boomtown Teachers

Saturday, December 15th, 2012

How does a booming small town help its teachers find affordable places to live? In Stanley, North Dakota, they’ve built a pair of apartment buildings across the street from the school. In this story, you’ll meet a trio of 24-year-old educators who share a two-bedroom apartment. Some people call them “The Triplets.” Photo and story by Laura Candler.

Teachers pictured in photo (left to right): Tom Butler, Matt Quintus and Kelly Roemmich.

It’s Simply A Meal: Come and Eat

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

If you’re hungry or lonely on a Sunday evening in Williston, North Dakota, First Lutheran Church is the place to be. Volunteers from many churches and civic groups take turns cooking meals and providing fellowship to newcomers and those who have been in town for decades.

Audio portrait by Todd Melby and Diane Richard

Photos by Todd Melby

Kris Kitko: Accidental Activist

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

Kris Kitko, a singer/songwriter who lives in Bismarck, is worried about the societal and environmental effects of the oil boom. Kitko describes herself as an accidental activist who writes songs about the negative effects of the oil boom. “I write about whatever moves me,” she says. “I felt very moved by … what I heard people were going through.” In this interview, Kitko sings “Frack That Oil” and “The EPA Hates Babies.”

More information on Kitko is here.

Interview by Diane Richard

Photo by Todd Melby

Cramped, Crammed, Crowded: Raising Four Boys in a Skid House

Sunday, November 4th, 2012

North Dakota’s oil boom has forced many families to make tough decisions. Shannon Atwell is living proof. Shannon recently moved her four young boys from their farm in Missouri to a cramped trailer near Williston, North Dakota. The boys’ father moved there over 2 years ago to work in the oilfields, and the family finally decided join him. This is Shannon’s story.

L to R: The Atwell family: Levi (2), Shannon (31), David (4), Jesse, Jr. (7), and Daniel (4)

Audio portrait by Laura Candler

Photo by Laura Candler

Daniel Brock: It’s Way Worth It

Sunday, November 4th, 2012

Daniel Brock of Rock Springs, Wyoming traded in a teaching job for an oil field job. He doubled his money in the first year. “It’s way worth it,” he says.

Audio portrait by Todd Melby

Photo by Todd Melby

The Sound of Money

Monday, October 29th, 2012

Drilling rig

If you have mineral rights in western North Dakota, the sound of a pumpjack is the sound of money. Click and listen to the eerie sound of one pumper, located a few miles east of Williston, North Dakota.

Recording by Todd Melby

Photo by Ben Garvin

Jessie Veeder’s Boomtown [video]

Thursday, October 25th, 2012

In this Black Gold Boom video, singer/songwriter Jessie Veeder reflects on how the oil boom in western North Dakota has affected her hometown.

I Miss My Wife and Kids

Saturday, October 20th, 2012

Brian Martindale drives truck in North Dakota, but his family is back home in Minnesota. Martindale is married with three young children, all under the age of seven.

Audio portrait by Todd Melby

Photo and video by Ben Garvin

No View, No Seats: Maeda’s Tasty Tacos

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

Boomtowns bring with them appetites. Restaurants catering to oil workers in western North Dakota try to meet diners’ demands. But waits are long, and so are lines for drive-thrus. One solution is the food truck. In Williston, one food truck is putting an authentic twist on Mexican takeaway.

Story by Diane Richard

Photos by Todd Melby

Trooper on the Bus Goes Round & Round

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

School buses have always had to share the road with other vehicles. But in oil country, country roads and highways now throb with traffic. And fatality rates are at an all-time high. A North Dakota Highway Patrol safety program called “Trooper on the Bus” helps buses reach schools safely.

Story by Diane Richard

Photos by Todd Melby

Pumpers Outside School Bus Window

Trucks, Trucks, Trucks!

Saturday, September 22nd, 2012

Trucks are ubiquitous in the oil patch. So what’s a reporter to do at sunset? Why he stands in a ditch along Highway 85 just west of Arnegard, North Dakota and points his camera at whatever screams by at 70 mph. That includes trucks hauling cars, trucks carrying hay, pickups, trucks full of sand, service trucks, pretty much everything. (Well, on this night he didn’t see trucks barreling down this narrow two-lane with a house, but he has seen that on other occasions.)

What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen a truck hauling in the oil patch? Let us know in the comments section.

— Todd Melby

Truck 34

Truck 33

Truck 30

Truck 32

Truck 7

Truck 28

Truck 9

Truck 24

Truck 23

Truck 31

Truck 16

Truck 10

Truck 12

Truck 11

Truck 4

Oil Patch Businesses To Lose Foreign Help

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

Story and Photo by Diane Richard

WILLISTON, N.D. — The oil fields of North Dakota have an unemployment rate of less than one percent. Employers here are desperate for workers. That’s why many area retailers have come to rely on temporary foreign labor to fry hamburgers and stock shelves.

But those employers will have to make new, permanent hires after September. The designated sponsor of the J1 student work visa, Maryland-based United Work and Travel, has canceled its western North Dakota program. A company spokesman said the J1 visa, intended for cultural exchange and temporary work, was not meeting its mission here.

“It’s a big deal for us. I’m very, very disappointed,” says Williston Mayor Ward Koeser. “That’s certainly not good news. I’m really troubled by that. I’m not sure what their reasons are.”

A spokesman for United Work and Travel, Kasey Simon, told Prairie Public the J1 visa is designed for businesses that need seasonal help—think summer beach resorts. The oil boom, however, presents a permanent need. The J1 visa is also supposed to emphasize cultural exchange, not raw capitalism.

“From my perspective, it’s a great program that works well,” Koeser says. “Probably there’s no place in the country where these students can have a better interaction with the natives, with people from all over the country who are coming here. So it’s a great work experience for them. I think they’re making good money. At the same time, they’re really helping out our local business.”

These days local businesses, hub of oil country, resemble the United Nations. Students from Jamaica, Turkey, Bosnia and Macedonia take your orders, clean your rooms, fry your chicken. The students are drawn by the region’s ample jobs and high wages.

Elitsa Dimitrova — Ely, for short — works the deli at Economart in Williston. Ely is from Sofia, Bulgaria. She’s spent the last three months working here at this grocery store.

Reporter Diane Richard: “Why did you come to North Dakota specifically?”

Elitsa Dimitrova: “Money.”

Ely’s a college student back home. She came here for an American immersion—and a paycheck. She earns nine dollars an hour, almost two dollars more than federal minimum wage. That hardly offsets what she’s been paying to rent a house with four friends. Rents in Williston rival those in New York City. But that’s the only similarity.

Reporter Diane Richard: “Is North Dakota sort of what you expected from your American experience?”

Elitsa Dimitrova: “Well, not really. I expected more people. It’s like the country, countryside here.”

On this day, Ely is planning her next stops to Miami and New York.

Reporter Diane Richard: “Today’s a big day for you, right?”

Elitsa Dimitrova: “Yah, it’s my last day here. I’m excited and sad, at the same time.”

Reporter Diane Richard: “I saw your friend hugging your coworkers goodbye.”

Elitsa Dimitrova: “They made us presents, like balloons and candies and some nice bracelets. These are not just people you work with. These are friends.”

That’s exactly the sort of culturally immersive experience Mayor Koeser wants to continue to take place in Williston. He says temporary foreign workers are critical to the service industry here. In 2010, fifteen J1 visas were issued for work in North Dakota; in 2012, that number grew to one thousand.

Vern Brekhus is manager at the Williston McDonald’s. Over the past two years, about a third to one-half of his work force has been international students. His reaction upon hearing of termination of the J1 program? “Disbelief,” Brekhus says. “I was like, oh crap, you’ve got to be kidding me. This is not going to be good. From a working standpoint, it’s not good. From a business standpoint, it’s not good. The whole program is so beneficial to everyone. One of my crew members told me, ‘I will never go to Brazil. I will never go to Ukraine. Having them come here, I can at least experience their culture a little bit, and they can experience ours.’ Losing that is going to be a shock.”

Jeff Peck is one of the franchise’s owners. He’s also alarmed. “We’re heavily dependent on the program to provide the service and meet the demand that the community has encountered in the last two to three years,” Peck says. “It would be an absolute hardship if we lost our J1 students.”

Mayor Koeser says losing the student workers is a big blow to local hospitality. “It’s going to be really difficult for us,” Koeser says. “I actually envision restaurants that will have to be closed part of the time. Everybody is going to have to try to find somebody to replace them. And that will not be easy. I think that’s going to be detrimental to our community.

At McDonalds, that might mean shorter hours in the storefront and longer hours — and lines — at the drive-thru.


Black Gold Boom public art campaign debuts

Friday, September 14th, 2012

Veeder poster

Black Gold Boom’s public art campaign has begun.

Four large-scale photographs are now on display in Watford City, North Dakota. The photographs feature people living and working in oil country who were featured in Black Gold Boom stories. To date, we’ve posted photographs of singer/songwriter Jessie Veeder, fire retardant clothing salesman Bryan Johnson, trucking supervisor Richard Karpe and oilfield hand Geoff Swenson.

You can see the photographs here:

• Meyers Department Store, Watford City

• McKenzie County Farmer, Watford City

• Long X Trading Post, Watford Ctiy

• B & J Distributors, Watford City

In December, Black Gold Boom added large-scale posters at these additional businesses:

• Books on Broadway, Williston

• Tioga Drug, Tioga

Each photograph also includes a QR code that provides a direct link to that person’s Black Gold Boom story.

So what the heck is a QR code?

A QR code is a set of high-tech squiggles in the shape of a square. Each QR squiggle square is unique, kinda like a digital snowflake. If you own a smartphone you can take a picture of the QR code and it will take you to a website. Or in the case of Black Gold Boom’s public art campaign, the QR code takes you directly to SoundCloud’s mobile site, where you can listen to that person’s Black Gold Boom story.

Karpe poster

Johnson poster

Swenson poster

Wes St. Jon: The Oilfield Cowboy

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

Interview and Photo by Todd Melby

Did you ever wonder what a toolpusher, roustabout or derrick hand does on an oil rig?

Wes St. Jon, also known as “The Oilfield Cowboy,” aims to tell you. Wes is a singer/songwriter from Nashville who fell in love with the oil industry while living in Oklahoma and Louisiana. He got to know roughnecks, truckers and others folks in the business. They taught him how things worked. And he wrote songs about it.

In this interview with Black Gold Boom’s Todd Melby, Wes sings a whole bunch of oilfield classics, including “Redneck Roughneck,” “An Oilfield Man’s Wife,” “Fracin’ The Hole” and “The Story of the Derrick Man, Toolpusher, Roustabout, Roughneck, Driller and The Company Man.” That last one explains the jobs.

In this music video we made with Wes, he sings about the ups and downs of oilfield life. It’s called “Boom or Bust.”

More information is available on his Oilfield Cowboy website.

They Call Us ‘The Sardines’

Saturday, September 1st, 2012

To make it in the Bakken boom, North Dakota newcomers need to work hard and make sacrifices. But what exactly are those sacrifices? Black Gold Boom reporter Todd Melby recently met Chris Larson, Jeffrey Prather and Domanick David (left to right), a group of young men who came to the oil patch looking for work. What they found surprised them.

Photo by Ben Garvin

Roughneck Family [video]

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

Tait Salzer has been working on a drilling rig for less than a year. Still, he says the guys he works with are family.

Photo and video by Ben Garvin


Perspective on the Bakken Boom from a Top Economist

Friday, August 24th, 2012

The president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, an economist named Narayana Kocherlakota, recently toured the western North Dakota oil patch. Before delivering a speech in Williston, he spoke with local reporters, including Black Gold Boom’s Todd Melby.

Although the impact of the boom on local residents is huge, and it’s the biggest economic story in the state, its affect on the region’s economy is small.

North Dakotans want to know how long this surge in oil drilling will last. Is this a 5-year, 10-year or 20-year boom? Most folks think of this from a “How many barrels of oil are in the ground?” perspective, but not Kocherlakota. He answered the question from a classic supply-and-demand economic perspective.

Agriculture and energy production now dominant North Dakota’s economy. Is that how North Dakota sees itself in 20 years? Kocherlakota urged the state — and western leaders — to imagine what kind of economy it wants in the decades ahead.

To find out more about Narayana Kocherlakota, go here. To read about the bank’s take on the Bakken boom, go here.

A Rig Will Make You or Break You [video]

Monday, August 20th, 2012

William Scherf, an oil roughneck, says working on a drilling rig will “make you or break you.” Find out why in this Black Gold Boom video by Ben Garvin.

Correction: The city mentioned at the beginning of this video is Watford City, not Watford. Black Gold Boom regrets the error.

Catch of the Day

Friday, August 10th, 2012

Most workers in the oil field try to maximize their sleep time. After a long shift, they go home and rest. But some roughnecks prefer to get out and enjoy North Dakota’s great outdoors.

Photo by Ben Garvin

Nowhere To Lay My Head

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

They arrive in oil country by train, bus and automobile looking for work. Or if they’re like Robert Reid, they shove everything they own into a backpack and hitchhike to North Dakota. Reid, a 49-year-old man from Florida, came to oil country looking for a job as a dishwasher. He spoke to Black Gold Boom reporter Todd Melby.

Photo by Ben Garvin

Concealed Weapons Permits On Rise In Oil Country

Monday, July 30th, 2012

Newly released data from the North Dakota Attorney General’s office shows a fast rise in concealed carry permits so far this year. From January 1 to July 27, the state issued far more concealed weapons permits than in all of 2011.

The permission to carry a concealed handgun is most popular in the oil-producing counties of western North Dakota. In oil country, concealed weapon permits are up 84 percent this year — and that’s comparing the first seven months of 2012 with all of 2011.

Outside oil country, concealed weapon permits are up 51 percent this year.

One of the sharpest increases in concealed weapons permits is in Stark County, home to Dickinson. In 2011, the state issued 188 permits in Stark County. So far in 2012, the state has issued 719 concealed weapons permits there — a 282 percent increase. And five more months remain in 2012.

In addition, concealed weapons permits have more than doubled in these western counties: Divide, Dunn, Golden Valley, McKenzie and McClean.

The west isn’t the only place where carrying a concealed handgun is popular: Permits have more than doubled in Burleigh County so far this year, meaning more residents in Bismarck are likely to be legally carrying handguns while walking on city streets.


Western N.D. Oil Counties, 2011: 2,375 permits

Western N.D. Oil Counties, Jan. 1 – July 27, 2012: 4,387 permits

Other N.D. Oil Counties, 2011: 2,637 permits

Other N.D. Oil Counties, Jan. 1 – July 27, 2012: 3,982 permits


County With Most New Permits, Jan. 1 – July 27, 2012: Burleigh, 1,374

County With Least New Permits, Jan. 1 – July 27, 2012: Eddy, 15

Oil County With Most New Permits, Jan. 1 – July 27, 2012: Ward, 1,026

Oil County With Sharpest Rise In New Permits, Jan. 1 – July 27, 2012: Stark, 719 (versus 188 for all of 2011)

Source: North Dakota Attorney General’s Office, July 30, 2012


Oil Patch Crime: How Bad Is It? [audio + video]

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

This story contains both audio and video elements. The radio story (click orange button to listen) includes interviews with Nathina St. Pierre (with gun, above), the North Dakota attorney general, Stanley police chief and the Dunn County sheriff. The video story focuses on St. Pierre’s struggles with sexual harassment in Watford City, North Dakota.

When Nathina St. Pierre goes jogging in the oil patch, she never goes alone.

“I carry a .22 pistol,” she says. “I have an eight-inch blade, a taser and pepper spray. I don’t leave home without one of the few — if not all of them. Ever.”

That’s because when St. Pierre runs on the streets of Watford City, she receives lots of unwanted attention from men. She says they gawk. They whistle. They catcall. Sometimes, they even rev their engines.

“They’re like packs of wolves,” she says.

St. Pierre is 21 years old. She moved from Florida to North Dakota two years ago.

“It was flattering at first to have people hitting on me all the time,” she says. “It was almost like, they really thought I was pretty. After about three months of it and it was everywhere I went, the grocery store, you can go into the gas station, pumping gas, you could be walking. Every man — it didn’t matter how old he was, it didn’t matter — they’d hit on you. They’d say something. They’d hoot and holler out the window. It was everyday. Every time you turn around.”

She’s not alone. A Watford City mother of two young children recently complained about similar catcalls in a letter to the editor of a local newspaper.

St. Pierre, like an increasing number of oil patch residents, has state-approval to carry a handgun. Concealed weapon permits in the five biggest oil-producing counties jumped 57 percent last year. Data for the first two months of this year suggest another rise in concealed weapons permits in oil country in 2012.

So, the fear of crime is on the rise. But does the fear match the facts?

Says North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem: “Crime is up in the oil patch.” He says some areas, especially the major oil producing counties of Williams and McKenzie, have seen big increases in the number of rapes, aggravated assaults and motor vehicle theft.

But Stenehjem also says that the chance of being the victim of an aggravated assault — a felony that’s tripled statewide — is about the same in western North Dakota as it is elsewhere. Here’s Stenehjem at a recent press conference discussing crime in the state: “While it is certainly accurate that crime is up and up considerably in a worrisome way in some of those counties in the oil patch, the major reason that is happening is the population is up.”

A demographer working with Stenehjem estimated the population in western North Dakota’s oil counties and used that data to compare crime rates between the oil patch and the rest of the state. Based on those calculations, the attorney general says a person is less likely to be raped in the oil patch than elsewhere in the state. For aggravated assault, the chance of being a victim is about the same.

“The likelihood of being a victim of a crime out there isn’t really not that much greater than it is in any other part of the state,” Stenehjem says.

But the crime reports the attorney general is using are missing data.

Many law enforcement agencies in those 11 counties simply didn’t report crime data to the state. Dunn and Divide counties didn’t report data in 2010 or 2011. McKenzie County reported only partial data in 2010. In addition, at least four local police departments — Stanley, Tioga, Killdeer and Powers Lake — didn’t report crime details in one or both years.

The state doesn’t penalize local law enforcement agencies for not reporting data. However, if they don’t report, police and sheriff’s offices can’t apply for state grants.

In an interview with Prairie Public, Stenehjem says the missing data might affect his conclusions about crime in the west being no worse than elsewhere. “We can’t be sure when we don’t have some of the information,” he says. “We can only report the statistics that we have.”

I’m in a police cruiser with Stanley Police Chief Kris Halverson. He’s showing me the flashing light panels on the car’s visors. “If you push you ‘em down then that’s the red and blues and this one is the red and white,” he says. “That’s my lights for stopping them.”

Stanley, North Dakota is a fast-growing oil patch city that’s home to lots of new people, a growing suburban-style housing development and a big oil-to-rail transfer facility. Halverson hasn’t reported crime data to the state in recent years. One reason is lack of time. Despite Stanley’s booming growth, he’s been the only guy on the job for weeks at a time. Today, Halverson’s department totals two officers. Next month, it increases to four. Halverson did share several years worth of crime stats with me.

Here’s are the details:

Felonies, including rape and aggravated assaults aren’t happening in Stanley or haven’t been reported to police. About the worse that can be said is that there’s a big increase in drunk driving and simple assaults.

But drive a couple hours south and things aren’t so peaceful.

Dunn County, which is home to dozens of drilling rigs, also hasn’t reported crime data for two years. But in an interview with Prairie Public, Sheriff Don Rockvoy says it’s on the rise. “Our crimes now we’re seeing now are pretty good vandalism with oil field equipment, huge increase in domestic violence situations. We’re seeing lots of assaults, [aggravated] assaults,” Rockvoy says.

In other words, fights — usually between guys at closing time.

“Where we’re seeing those coming out of bars,” Rockvoy says. “Of course, with an [aggravated]  assault you have to have a broken bone or weapon used. There are some pretty tough characters in the area. We are starting to see some pretty nasty fights.”

When Rockvoy was appointed sheriff in 2009, Dunn County employed just four officers. The influx of newcomers — accompanied by increased traffic and crime — prompted Dunn County to add seven more officers, a nearly tripling in staff. Crime here isn’t as bad as in bigger oil patch cities, but Rockvoy worries it might be.

“Williston is seeing it. Watford City is seeing it. Dickinson is seeing it. With the higher crimes and more of them,” he says. “Definitely, I’m not going to forget about it in Dunn County. I hate to say it. Will it happen? It’s probably a pretty good chance.”

— Todd Melby and Ben Garvin

Photo by Ben Garvin


Boomtown Stats

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

Working as a reporter in the oil patch is great fun. I meet all kinds of people: Knife sellers, hamburger slingers and roughnecks. You’ve probably heard some of those stories here on the radio.

But there’s another way to tell a story. It’s with numbers. For a few weeks now, I’ve been asking bureaucrats in Bismarck to illustrate how life has changed in oil country.

Here are some highlights:

• Did you know the average oil worker in Williams County — which includes Williston — makes about $99,000 a year? That same North Dakota Job Services report showed that the average wage for all workers in Williams County —— is $77,000 a year.

Those high salaries are attracting people to the oil patch.

• For years, the fastest growing cities in America have been in the south. Places like The Villages, a retirement community in Florida.

JINGLE: “The Villages. America’s Friendliest Hometown!”

The Villages is growing fast. Its population jumped 4 percent last year. But it’s no match for Williston. Williston grew at a rate of 8.8 percent last year, that’s about twice as fast as the Villages. And Williston doesn’t even have a jingle.

• While most of those newcomers are adults, some are children. Public school enrollment in the oil patch is on the rise. In September 2007, fewer than 370 students were enrolled in the Stanley Public Schools. Four years later, that number had increased 66 percent to 552 students.

• Roads are increasingly crowded too. I’ve driven thousands of miles in the oil patch. And I’ve seen — and been intimidated by — lots of big trucks. But even I was surprised to learn just how many permits the states has issued for oversize trucks in the first five months of this year. Ready? 45,000. And that’s just for the first five months of 2012.

Most of those permits were issued in four of the biggest oil producing counties: Williams, Dunn, Mountrail and McKenzie counties.

• Trucks aren’t the only form of transportation on the rise. The number of people boarding planes and trains in the oil patch has taken off faster than a 747.

In the space of a single year — from 2010 to 2011 — the number of people jumping on planes in Minot increased by almost 60,000 people. That growth was so explosive that Minot shot past Grand Forks to become the third busiest airport in the state.

2012 is on track to be even busier in Minot. And that’s undoubtedly tied to the city’s proximity to the Bakken. Boardings are up 68 percent in the first five months of the year.

More people are also riding Amtrak trains in the oil patch. In Williston and Stanley, ridership is on track to double at those stops in 2012.

• At night, the orange glow of natural gas flares are a common sight in the oil patch. It’s also a big reason why pollution from such flares increased 4.5 percent last year. The World Bank cites North Dakota oil production as the main reason for the increase.

There are other downsides to the boom too.

• Oil companies don’t just pump black gold. Sometimes they spill it. During a recent 20-month period, 720,000 gallons of oil leaked out of pipes and trucks in North Dakota. That much oil would fill an Olympic-size swimming pool – and then some.

Pro Publica, an investigative journalism website, uncovered that data. Pro Publica also found that companies spilled more than 1.7 million gallons of fracking wastewater during that same 20-month period.

The biggest offenders were Continental Resources and Whiting Oil and Gas. Each spilled more than 100,000 gallons of oil during the 20-month period. The biggest fracking wastewater spillers? Whiting and Encore Operating.

— Todd Melby

Photo by Ben Garvin

CORRECTION: In the audio version of this story, Todd Melby reports that the “average worker in Williams County … makes about $99,000 a year.” That should be “average oil worker in Williams County.” Black Gold Boom regrets the error.

McGregor: It’s A Huge Change

Sunday, July 8th, 2012

Forget Cheers. The Sportsman’s Bar in McGregor, North Dakota really is the place where everyone knows your name. “Gee! Max is here. Imagine that!” shouts Gayleen Grote from behind the bar.

If Grote knows you, she’ll have your drink ready when you walk in. If she likes you, she’ll come around the bar and give you a big hug. “I am a very social butterfly,” she says. “I get to talk to a lot of different people. And meet a lot of people.”

Even by western North Dakota standards, McGregor is a small town. Located on the northern edge of the oil patch — not far from Tioga — McGregor is so small that the U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t even track its population. The roads here are dirt. The bar’s name isn’t displayed outside — there’s just an old Schlitz beer sign above an open door.

Cory Goreringer loves the décor inside the Sportsman’s Bar, which consists of dead caribou and dear heads mounted to the walls. “It’s frickin’ awesome,” he says. “There’s a caribou here and one, two, three, four, five deer that are probably 140, [150] class. And a bunch more behind me that are definitely 140 class.”

Goreringer is a South Dakotan working on a nearby oil rig. He likes drinking here. “We talk a lot about huntin’ and fishin’,” he says. “It’s a good, old hometown bar, really. That’s what it is. That’s what McGregor is. The locals ain’t trying to push me out and I’m an outsider. But there is outsiders they don’t want here. I guarantee you that.”

But since the oil boom, the Cheers-like feel of the Sportsman’s Bar has changed — significantly. Business is up, but so are tough customers. “It’s a part of the job to be friendly and to make them feel welcome and make them want to come back, but there’s a line that you do not cross,” Grote says.

Some guys cross that line — where flirting becomes harassment — and are asked to leave the bar. So far, they always have. Without incident. If only Grote had the same power outside the bar as she does inside. “It used to be one or two vehicles a day going by,” she says. “You knew who they were. They were your neighbors. And they went by at about the same time every day. Now it’s constant trucks, it’s constant pickups. It’s all night, all day. Before if you saw headlights late at night, you assume there was a problem. Now there’s a bustle of activities and people who don’t know how to drive very well and don’t know where they are. It’s a huge change.”

Grote grew up on a farm outside of town, married a local boy and built a house on her family’s land. The couple have three children. When their teenage daughter drives to school, Grote worries more about traffic accidents than before the boom. Road conditions are sketchy now. Not too long ago, their girl’s car bottomed out on a gravel road filled with divots.

Poor road conditions also affect her husband’s livelihood. Scott Grote owns a semi-truck with a grain hopper. Sometimes the roads are so bad, he can’t get it down the gravel road to the main highway, he says.

That may be due to all the oversize trucks on the road. In May 2010, the state issued 690 oversize truck permits in Williams County, which is where McGregor is located. In May 2012 — just two years later — oversize truck permits in Williams County skyrocketed to 3,294, a fourfold jump.

And then there’s personal safety. Sherry Arnold of Sydney, Montana was murdered earlier this year not far from here. Two out-of-state men who came to North Dakota for oil work are accused of the murder. That has many people on edge.

Including Grote. “Usually right now I just carry a little .380, something in my pocket I can run with or walk with something that isn’t heavy and burdensome. Does it give me peace of mind? Yeah. Should I have to worry about it? No. But the reality is, we do.”

Her husband, Scott Grote, always has a firearm nearby. “Kind of the common law up here is everybody has a rifle in their vehicle,” he says. “Nowadays it’s for protection.”

His gun comes in handy sometimes.

“I happen to take a drive around the country,” Scott Grote says. “I found a truck dumping salt water on the road. Just open the valve and they drive down the road. I followed him into location to have a little talk with him. He was going to have a talk with me with his hammer. And I had my .45. That’s how I got away from that one. It’s not much fun. Wherever you go, you got one eye open looking for what’s coming.”

The Grotes aren’t the only people who wish the boom would just go away. Back at the Sportman’s Bar, most of the locals huddle in a corner near the front door and ignore everyone else. Lynn — he didn’t want his last name used — is one of them. He’s a farmer who has lived here all his life. He hates the drilling, the trucks, the dust, the pipelines, the newcomers, the everything about the oil boom.

“It is destroying the way of life in this part of the state,” Lynn says. “And they don’t seem to care. It wrecks roads. They put roads where there weren’t roads before. It brings the dregs of society into this state. … It’s not all good the way … the state of North Dakota is in bed with the oil companies.”

The boom doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon. There are currently more than 210 active drilling rigs statewide.

— Todd Melby


Tattoo Your Ride, Not Your Hide

Sunday, June 17th, 2012

James Goeres sells pickup truck stickers from a mobile home. His motto: “Tattoo Your Ride, Not Your Hide.”

How Oil Leaves North Dakota — For Now

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

(Editor’s note: This story includes updates.)

Drilling rigs are the most visible sign of the oil boom. The tall, thin structures stand out on the western prairie like birthday candles on a sheet cake. After about a month of noisy, dirty work drilling a hole, the oil starts flowing.

A grasshopper-shaped pumper replaces the drilling rig. This machine churns day and night, sucking oil out of the ground, quickly filling up nearby tanks.

Now, normally, from the tanks, the oil would be piped to refineries in Louisiana, Texas, Illinois and other places. But the pipelines aren’t finished yet. That causes oil companies to look for alternatives to pipelines.

“Once you’ve discovered the crude, royalty owners want to be paid,” says Jack Ekstrom of Whiting Petroleum. “You obviously want to sell the production so that you can take the cash that you receive for that and complete the development. So it is, by necessity, that you will find the means, whatever that means is, to get that crude to market.”

It may be years before enough new oil pipelines are built to serve the Bakken. So, in the meantime, a lot of crude oil from North Dakota is being shipped by train. Canadian Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe — also known as BNSF — have beefed up operations in western North Dakota. In 2011 alone, BNSF added more than 460 people to its North Dakota payroll.

“On any given day you can ship just about anywhere in North America through the rail system,” says Tom Williams, top salesman for BNSF’s Industrial Products division.

To make that possible, BNSF and Canadian Pacific have built nine oil-loading terminals in western North Dakota. And that’s just in the past two years. In addition, BNSF is planning to open three more oil loading terminals by the end of 2013. BNSF’s Rangeland Terminal at Epping — located just east of Williston — has committed to carry 100,000 barrels of oil — daily. That’s about one-sixth of North Dakota’s current daily output.

Moving oil by rail is a lot more expensive than pipelines. Which is probably why all this talk of railroads seems to make Ekstrom rather grumpy. “You’d rather not have to do rail,” he says. “But if you have no alternatives and it becomes a matter of being able to transport the crude, obviously you’d build a rail facility.”

BNSF’s Williams believes that even after oil pipelines are built, his railroad will hang on to market share. “We really think there’s a long-term play for rail,” he says. “As pipeline expands, they’ll have a position and they’ll have their share. But we don’t see that completely pushing rail out of the equation. We are able to get crude directly to the refineries.”

In the meantime, North Dakota is poised to pump up its oil infrastructure. Governor Jack Dalrymple hosts a pipeline summit during this week in Bismarck.

— Todd Melby


Black Gold Boom didn’t report on shipping costs in its story so we bring this information to your attention.

A July 19, 2012 story in the Washington Post asserts big costs for shipping oil by rail.

“Burlington Northern Santa Fe, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, carries three-quarters of the oil transported by rail, often extracting steep fees. [Jack] Ekstrom of Whiting Petroleum estimates that transportation has been costing North Dakota petroleum producers $13 to $19 a barrel, much more than normal.”

The Post also used the worded “gouged” to describe these costs. Burlington Northern Sante Fe objected to that word, as the Washington Post ombudsman notes in this August 2, 2012 post.


Since this story aired in 2012, train derailments in Quebec and Alabama have raised questions about the safety of transporting Bakken crude via rail.

Lac-Megantic disaster (Montreal Gazette)

U.S. oil worries predated Lac-Megantic disaster (CBC, Aug. 30, 2013)

Analysis: As Alabama flames fade, new oil-by-rail questions arise (Reuters, Nov. 11, 2013)

In Lac-Megantic’s wake, shippers test rules, not oil (Toronto Globe and Mail, Nov. 23, 2013)

Casselton, North Dakota explosion (Dec. 30, 2013, YouTube)

North Dakota Republican calls for oil boom slowdown after train crash (Jan. 3, 2014, Reuters)

North Dakota governor: Crude oil safety rules needed now (Jan.22, 2014, Reuters)

Gotta Be An Eight [audio + video]

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

Jayce Mitchell and Logan Bice are stepbrothers who like to spend their free time roping steers. They’ve moved to North Dakota to clean tankers. Reporter Todd Melby bumped into the pair at a truck stop in New Town. They were practicing their roping skills on a dummy steer, a plastic replica with horns. “Gotta be in an eight” refers to the length of time in seconds they’d like to rope a particular steer. Eight seconds is a very good time.

Jessie Veeder’s Boomtown

Monday, May 21st, 2012

Not too long ago, Jessie Veeder returned to her family ranch near Watford City, North Dakota. Soon, change started to arrive. Oil wells and pipeline construction began dotting the landscape. And people from all corners of America arrived to work. So the singer/songwriter decided to write about her transformed hometown. Listen to Todd Melby’s portrait of Jessie Veeder, which includes Jessie’s performance of “Boomtown.”

To read more about Jessie Veeder’s new album, go here.

— Todd Melby

Photos by Ben Garvin (top) and Todd Melby

Truck and a Big Rig

Pipeline, Alternative View

Chug and Jessie

Highway of Hope

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

The first time I met Adell Hackworth, she was lounging atop her food truck. It was a Sunday (a rare day off), so the Tennessee woman had pulled out a ladder and climbed aboard. A friend joined her and they watched big rigs rumble past their perch. I spotted the pair, pulled over and asked for permission to join them. Like just about everyone else in oil country, Hackworth says she’s here to make a buck. That’s why she calls Highway 85 — the narrow ribbon of road between Alexander and Watford City, North Dakota — the Highway of Hope.

“Everybody that comes down this road, they’ve all got a story and all got a bunch of dreams,” she says. “Everybody’s up here to start over.”

— Todd Melby

Photo by Ben Garvin

A Visit to the 4P BBQ Food Shack

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

When a group of guys from Kalispell, Montana, arrived in the oil patch, they didn’t find many places to eat. So instead of looking for jobs, they opened a BBQ shack. The 4P is located along a mostly deserted stretch of Highway 23 in Keene, North Dakota. Its surroundings are humble: Tucked inside a small, green building is a pair of plastic picnic tables, some beat-up beige carpet and a fridge that looks older than the young men working there.

Bow Fishing with Ben Audet

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

Bow Fishing in the Oil Patch

Photographer Ben Garvin has joined me in western North Dakota. And what a difference it makes. During our first day together, we spotted a guy bow fishing in the Missouri River. We pulled over, chatted with him and discovered that he’d just finished his oil patch shift.

Instead of curling up at home with a video game, Benjamin Audet grabbed his bow and arrow and headed to the water. He’d been awake for 24 hours in a row, or maybe 36 hours, he wasn’t sure. His gig, like many oil jobs, isn’t on a rig, but does require long hours. On the night before we met, he worked from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Now the sun was rising in the sky and Audet was pointing his arrow into the murky Missouri at flashes of carp he saw fluttering in the water. His New Jersey Devils cap was backwards on his head and his running shoes were drenched with mud. But he didn’t seem to care.

In fact, Audet was intent on showing his visitors how well he could shoot. On the first few attempts, he missed. “Ain’t this always the way it works,” he said. “As soon as you want to see someone shoot as fish, it doesn’t happen.”

And then it did. A carp swam too close, Audet aimed, fired and impaled his nemesis.

Then Garvin stepped in to capture an image of man and fish.

— Todd Melby

(Photo by Ben Garvin)

All Aboard! The Oil Patch Train

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

Amtrak’s Empire Builder travels from Chicago to Seattle or Spokane every day, making several stops in North Dakota. Before the oil boom in the western part of the state, not many people got on and off the train around these parts. That’s changed.

The passenger train’s ridership is booming:

  • In the first seven months of Amtrak’s fiscal year (Oct. 2010 – April 2011), nearly 34,000 people jumped on or off trains in Williston. That’s nearly as many riders as Spokane, a city with about ten times as many people as North Dakota’s biggest boom town.
  • If ticket sales continue at the current pace, Williston ridership will hit 57,000 by the end of Amtrak’s fiscal year — a 93 percent jump from just a year ago.
  • Ridership in Stanley is also on track to nearly double. For the first seven months of the fiscal year, it’s at 6,500 people, more than all of 2011.
  • Instead of riding coach, an increasing number of oil patch customers are opting for more expensive sleeper cars. For the first seven months of this fiscal year (Oct. 2010 – April 2011), more than 5,000 people have plopped down big bucks for sleeper cars in Williston and Stanley.
— Todd Melby

Born To Be A Roughneck

Sunday, May 6th, 2012

In cities, people express their style any number of ways, including personal appearance. A man might favor a certain brand of shirt or get his hair cut just so. Style in the oil patch of western North Dakota, is well, uniform: Jeans or overalls, shirt and a ballcap.

So where does personal style come into play?

The pickup truck sticker.

The pickup truck sticker is like a bumper sticker, only it’s placed on the back of a pickup window, not on a bumper.

Since arriving in the oil patch, I’ve become obsessed with these pithy stickers and have snapped lots of photos of them. And if the owner is around, I ask about his sticker.

Like other day in Watford City, there was this sticker on a black truck driven by a burly guy with a thick moustache. It read: “I Came For The Cash Cause I’m Oil Field Trash.” The owner of the sticker was Richard Karpe of Oklahoma. His sticker is a standout in the patch. I’ve seen it and a slightly different version — “Oil Field Trash and Proud” — on several vehicles.

I asked him what he liked about the “Oil Field Trash” sticker. “Just the saying of it,” Karpe says. “Everybody likes it.”

One day while filling up with gas at the Cenex in Watford City, I saw a guy with three stickers on the rear window of his silver Chevy. He wouldn’t give me his name, but he told me he works on a drilling rig. “It’s hard, dirty work. But all and all, it pays big money. Why not do it?” he says.

This guy — we’ll call him Montana Roughneck —has a trio of stickers that tell his life story, from birth to school to present day. His stickers read: “Born To Be A Roughneck. University of Hard Labor. That was my graduatin’. And now it’s Bleep, Fight or Trip Pipe.” Trip pipe? That’s drilling rig jargon for putting pipe into a hole or taking it out.

“I have the stickers because it warns off other roughnecks looking for trouble,” says Montana Roughneck. “It kinda shows you are a little bit of trouble.”

Although Montana Roughneck’s stickers are macho tough, he says others are even more in-your-face. “I’ve seen some pretty foul ones,” he says. “The ones I see are pretty derogatory towards women. A lot of roughnecks have those. I try to shy away from that. This is probably enough. I’ve had people that might be churchgoers that say something about my stickers the way it is.”

While I had Montana Roughneck’s ear, I asked him about a sticker I saw on a pickup parked near Williston High School. “Have you seen the one that says, ‘Welcome to North Dakota. Frankly We Don’t Give A Bleep How You Did It Back Home’?

His reply: “That would most likely pertain to Texans. Lots of Texans come up here believin’ that the Texas way is the best way. Up here, that doesn’t fly.”

A revelation! “So, how does the Texas way differ from the North Dakota/Montana way?” I wondered.

“Texans have the phrase, ‘We invented the oil field,'” Montana Roughneck says. “North Dakotans have the phrase, ‘We perfected it.’ I’ve heard that many times.”

A few days later, I sat next to a Texan at a PBR event in Williston. That’s Professional Bull Riding, not Pabst Blue Ribbon. The Texan looked the part. He wore a big 10-gallon hat and a surly expression. When I tried to make small talk, he stared straight ahead and said he wanted to get lit up. I kept my tape recorder in its case.

By the way, Men aren’t the only ones with stickers. I’ve seen ones in Williston reading “Oil Field Wives: The Backbone of the Oil Field” and “Bad Ass Girls Drive Bad Ass Toys.”

So where do these stickers come from? I’ve been in plenty of truck stop out here and haven’t seen any good ones. I asked Montana Roughneck about that. “Sticker bus right here in Watford City,” he says. “It comes through in the summertime.”

I’ll be on the lookout.

— Todd Melby

Correction: When this story was originally published, we spelled Richard Karpe’s name incorrectly. We also mispronounced Karpe’s name. Black Gold Boom regrets the error. 

Born To Be A Roughneck


Stroke Me

Welcome To North Dakota

Rebel Tinkerbell

Bad Ass Girls

Remember This One Time At Man Camp

Earth First

Oil Field Trash and Proud

North Dakota Crude

Horse Powers For Life


Big Girl Panties

I Wanna Be Like Barbie

Flare, Baby, Flare

Friday, May 4th, 2012


Global gas flaring is up 4 percent.

In fact, the release of natural gas at drilling and well pumping sites — as commonly seen in North Dakota’s oil patch — is the main reason the U.S. is now in the Top Ten worldwide for gas-flare pollution, according to a Reuters news story.

A source at the World Bank’s Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership told Reuters: “The challenge in North Dakota is that there is a lot of initial exploration and production going on, and often some flaring is necessary at that stage.”

The source added: “We are hopeful that when the full data is released, both policymakers and companies in North Dakota will pay more attention to this issue and take the necessary steps to minimize flaring.”

The full report is due later this month.

Photo by Ben Garvin

From Worm’s Corner To The Corner Office

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

David Unkenholz works as a trust officer in Watford City, North Dakota. Many of his customers are ranchers with new oil wealth. Before he sported a tie at work, Unkenholz labored on a drilling rig. Well, for a while anyway. He spent one month working the night shift in worm’s corner, the lowest, dirtiest job on a drilling rig. The experience inspired him to enroll at the University of North Dakota, where he earned two degrees, a bachelor’s degree and a law degree.

Audio portrait by Todd Melby

Photo by Todd Melby

Gun on the kitchen table: Not so different around here

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

Diane Richard on Oil Rig

The gun was on the kitchen table. A Kimber .45.

I’ve never seen a gun this close before.

“What’s this?” I ask.

“A gun,” Gayleen says.

“Why’s it here?”

“I’ve got guns all over the house,” she says.

Oh. I make a joke about Chekhov’s gun and dramatic inevitability. She glowers and moves the gun from my place at the table.

It’s my second day visiting Black Gold Boom producer Todd Melby in western North Dakota.

Sure is different round here.

Gayleen, a bartender at the one bar in McGregor, a tiny hamlet nearby another tiny hamlet called Hamlet, pointed to her own personal packing site, snug between her cleavage.

Nobody gives her trouble at the bar, now full to the taxidermied walls with male migrants trying to make it rich on the boom of black gold.

Or they might die trying.

The day before, we stop by Outlaws Bar & Grill, in Watford City. Watford City was once a sleepy little town, but oil has it mainlined on 5-Hour-Energy and it hasn’t napped since.

It’s prom night. Couples stream in, the girls wearing glistening taffeta and spandex confections, their dates sporting matching garters like funereal bands around their biceps. One prom goer hoists her toddler on her hip. The teens drive up in a white stretch limo and a kit car, a pair of flip-flops in the passenger seat, and pose for portraits beside the crick.

The day before, Bobcat John the itinerant knife seller tells us, a woman in a Cadillac Escalade collided with a truck on the ribbon of road between Alexander and Watford City. The Escalade squished like escargot. “You can’t miss it,” he says.

What’s hard to imagine is that it doesn’t happen every day. Trucks have conquered the landscape here, running 24 hours a day over roads built 50 years ago for wagons and dirt-caked pickups.

Because of the ruts the trucks make, and the way their weight bites into the asphalt and gravel, a temporary paver now rouges the roads. I learn a new word: “SCOR-ia.” It sounds like a rash and is the color of Spam and it doesn’t seem to help the roads much.

My first night, Todd takes me to Ray, N.D., for dinner. From the outside, the storefront looks long vacant, a plastic 7Up sign the only glimpse of 20th-century occupation. Inside, though, the tables are packed. Todd notes that the décor resembles an old lady’s bathroom, all peach and lavender and gauzy white curtains and calico wallpaper borders. He’s dead on.

By 5:30, many diners are already ordering their ice cream desserts.

While we wait on our orders—steak (Todd) and walleye (Diane)—a man in his 30s or 40s walks in and asks for a table for seven. A family, I figure.

Through the door come six other men, similar age span. I’ve haven’t seen so many men communing together since I walked by a church in my neighborhood that hosts an AA meeting, during an outdoor smoke break.

I squirt a second package of sour cream and chives on my baked potato, doubting that I should eat dairy products that require no refrigeration.

In Williston, we go to a PBR—professional bull riding competition. All I can see are broken necks and limbs and concussed skulls. So I study the women in the stands. One is wearing butt-skimming cut-off denim shorts over black lace stockings and boots with stiletto heels. She’s about my age. Another woman’s hair is dyed in silky ribbons of dark brown and white, like fudge ripple. Some of the men’s eyes look positively dead.

Todd introduces me to a woman whose family farm and ranch is now a burgeoning oil field. From her living room, she can look up at the dinosaur apparatus soon to be extracting, so she and the oil companies hope, millions of dollars’ worth of crude from miles under the soil. She drives us to the site, past the little plaque hammered into the ground announcing the company’s claim.

Using her landowner’s privilege, she breezes us through the company hand/company man’s trailer, grabs some hard hats and lets us climb into the rig. Up near the heavens, five men are wrestling metal anacondas dangling from the air and wrapping the jaws around metal rods, for what purpose I do not know. The clanging is deafening.

Walking back down, my hands glint with oil tinged the color of yolk.

Everyone has Purell in their trucks. Every business has a boot wiper, like a conjoined hedgehog with bristles to remove gunk from your boots. At the Bakken Buffet, a man camp also open for public dining, mud-packed boots are lined up under seats like you’d see outside a mosque. Burly men in trucker’s caps wear pale-blue paper booties while standing in line for all-you-can-eat spaghetti and grilled cheese and ham sandwiches.

If you go away hungry, the line assistant tells us, it’s your own fault.

I will not go away hungry.

— Diane Richard

Diane Richard lives in Minneapolis and will be producing stories and audio portraits for the Black Gold Boom oil series. 


Dreaming of Sleep

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

Roughnecks and other oil field workers make big money. But that money doesn’t come without sacrifice. Many workers are separated from families. The job can be dangerous. And the long hours can mess up a person’s life.

Just ask Geoff Swenson of Williston. A typical week for Swenson is 70, 80 hours or more. During one marathon hitch in the oil field, Swenson was on the job for 11 days straight.

“It seemed like one long day,” he says.

That grind takes a toll. “I don’t get much [sleep],” he says. “It’s pretty rare anymore. Days off you sleep a lot. You don’t enjoy it. Even when you go to sleep there’s a million things you should be doing. Running errands. Cleaning your house. Not enough hours in the day to do the stuff you miss.”

So Swenson, 27, sleeps whenever he can. One day he was folding clothes on a carpeted floor. He got tired. So he took a nap right there on the floor. “I’ve done it in Home Depot when my parents were looking at lawn furniture,” Swenson says. “I probably looked like an 80-year-old man just camping on the mall bench. All I needed was a woman’s purse to hold.”

Movies? Forget about it. “I don’t remember the last time I sat through an entire movie,” he says. “There’s always at some point when I sleep for 20 minutes. I take a nap. I usually have to watch a movie three or four times before I see the whole thing.”

The days become indistinguishable. Sometimes Swenson’s co-workers ask him what day of the week it is. Often, he doesn’t know. “I’ve driven to the bank many times on Sunday because I have no idea what day of the week it is,” he says. “I don’t have a clue. To me, every day of the week is Tuesday. Or I ask my parents, ‘How work was today?’ They say, ‘It’s Sunday. I see, Oh yeah.’”

— Todd Melby

Photo by Ben Garvin

More from Geoff Swenson on APM’s “The Story.”

Warning: Cute Dog Photos Ahead

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

Chug and Jesse

Maybe it’s because I miss my Minneapolis dog. Or maybe it’s because there’s something appealing about an animal with spunk who is living life to the fullest. Whatever the reason, I am smitten with Jessie Veeder’s dog Chug. Veeder lives on a ranch outside Watford City, North Dakota. I dropped in the other day to interview her about how oil is changing her life and to record her singing “Boomtown,” a song she wrote about things around here.

As I pulled into the driveway, a black pug mix raced beside my SUV. That’s not unusual in the country. Dogs run free and they like to chase cars and trucks. However, most ranch dogs are collies and labs and the like. Pugs are rare. What made Chug even more endearing is his missing eye. He got into it with a porcupine, got a needle stuck in his eye and had to have his eyeball removed and stitched shut. That hasn’t slowed him down one bit. He often runs over to a nearby oil rig and hangs out with the roughnecks. And then Veeder has to go looking for him. When she finds him, she lugs him into the pickup and drives home.

He stays there. For a while.

Homeless in the Oil Patch

Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

His trip to the oil field was a bust. So about two hours before sunset, John, a ruddy-faced man in his mid-fifties, walked into a Moorhead homeless shelter looking for a place to sleep. “I would love to get one of them oil field jobs. Them guys make 25 dollars an hour,” he says.

John — he didn’t want me to use his last name — is a barrel-chested man with a walrus moustache. A native of Richmond, Virginia, John arrived in North Dakota about a year ago for one simple reason. “Because the rest of the country the employment rate is terrible,” he says. “They say 10 percent, but I think it’s a lot higher than that. Plus with my age — I’m in my middle fifties — I mean ‘C’mon boss, you gonna hire someone to roof that’s eighteen or some 55-year-old guy?’”

Last summer, he worked the sugar beet harvest and a few other odd jobs before recently heading west to strike it rich. Due to a couple of drunk driving convictions, John doesn’t drive. But he had good luck hitchhiking, getting from Grand Forks to Williston in two rides. Once in Williston, John started making the rounds. And while he didn’t expect to land a job right away, he had hope.

After Williston, he worked his way to Dickinson, applying for more jobs there. In total, John says he completed 24 applications at drilling companies, restaurants, stores — all sorts of places. One company he’d really, really love to work for is Halliburton, an oil company based in Houston.

“I mean if Halliburton called me tomorrow, I’d be there,” he says.

Halliburton has a big, big presence in western North Dakota. People in Williston see Halliburton’s white trucks on the road all the time. “Every time I saw one go by, I just saw a little prayer inside my head, you know,” John says.

John is far from the only one to arrive in the oil patch looking for work. “The word is out nationwide that there are jobs in North Dakota,” says John Roberts, a former Methodist minister who now works at Churches United, a homeless shelter in Moorhead. “So people travel here. They arrive here with no funds. They arrive here homeless. And so they seek out the shelters as a place to stay as a launching pad to finding jobs and moving on to the next better part of their lives.”

Churches United has been busier than usual this winter and spring. Its 65 beds are consistently filled. So are the other 210 beds in other Fargo-Moorhead homeless shelters. As a result, the chapel has been turned into a place to sleep for about 10 people every night.

“We’re not complaining, however,” Roberts says. “Our mission is to provide shelter and so that’s what we’re doing. The need for shelter beds among the homeless in our community has increased.”

On this night, Churches United is housing at least one other oil field job seeker: John Hales of St. Louis. He spent a couple of weeks in Williston looking for work. Despite what he says is a spotless work record, Hales came up empty. To save money, Hales slept in his car during his oil patch job search.

“Funny waking up in [a Williston] parking lot,” Hales says. “The first thing you see is exhaust from probably 25 other cars in the parking lot from other folks sleeping in their cars.”

Once he arrived in Fargo/Moorhead, Hales found Churches United and a bed. That transition was surprisingly difficult. “I got back here and I got in a bed and for the first two nights the bed was uncomfortable because my body I adjusted to the seat,” he says. “My back wasn’t used to laying flat.”

In Killdeer, North Dakota, a small town near Dickinson, Robbie Reid is humping his backpack down Main Street. “I call it my mountain backpack, like the mountain climbers wear,” he says. “I’ve got my sleeping bag in there. I sleep on the street, not on the street. But I find me a patch of woods or an abandoned building or something. I’ve just been winging it, you know.”

The 48-year-old Floridian arrived in the oil patch for the same reason as thousands of other men: He came to work. “I found a job washing dishes 10 days ago at a truck stop, but I just got laid off because the boss said they had too many people on the payroll,” Reid says.

One night earlier, Reid slept in an unoccupied building at a construction site. According to a 2011 survey by the North Dakota Coalition for the Homeless, about 40 percent of the state’s homeless population is like Reid — they arrived here from elsewhere. Most want to work. Reid noticed that a café in Killdeer had a “Help Wanted” sign posted. If that’s a full-time job, Reid says he’d be interested. If not, he plans to hitch a ride to Dickinson.

“I got Jesus in my life,” Reid says. ” I’m confident. I’ll find me something. I got my food stamps while I was here. So I won’t starve to death. But I’ll find a job soon.”

That may be the easy part. Finding a place to sleep — a permanent home in the overpopulated oil patch — that’s the tough part. I asked Reid if he expected to be sleeping outside all summer long.

“I honestly don’t know,” he says. “To answer your question, I don’t know.”


Meet Bobcat John. He Sells Knives To Oil Workers.

Saturday, April 7th, 2012

What’s not to love about Bobcat John? He’s a burly bear of a man who sells knives to oil workers. On the day I met him, he was setting up shop in New Town, North Dakota. He got the name Bobcat because he once owned a pet bobcat, declawed and now deceased. These days he owns a pet lynx named Jinx who sleeps with him when he’s back home in Idaho. Jinx, also declawed, joined Bobcat on a previous trip to North Dakota. The game warden, not mollified by Jinx’s lack of blades, booted them both. “I got escorted to the county line,” he says. “I had to go all the way back home.”

After looking at dozens and dozens of knives and watching Bobcat’s customers examine his wares — one man bought a small set of three throwing knives for $20 — I got to see photos of his pets. “Here’s one of my babies,” he said, reaching for a photo of the lynx. “That’s my new one, Jinx the lynx.”

Bobcat says he once worked as a bricklayer, but is now too worn out to do that work. So he hooks a trailer full of knives to the back of his pickup and travels around hawking spring-assisted knives, pocket knives, throwing knives, skinning knives — all kinds of knives. He came to the oil patch for one simple reason: People here have money. Back home in Idaho, they don’t. “Nobody’s got any money over there,” he says. “The economic conditions in Idaho are horrible.”

In addition to selling knives, Bobcats also makes knives. “It’s better than catching cabin fever. I live up in the mountains. Sometimes I work on them in the winter time when I’m not hunting or fishing.”

— Todd Melby

Photos by James Reeves (top) and Todd Melby

Bobcat's Pet Lynx

Bobcat's Sign

Guys Looking At Knives

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On Man Camps, Bakken Billions and Foosball

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

Oil drilling on federal lands may soon happen faster. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announces plans to decrease the amount of time it takes the feds to tackle oil permitting on U.S.-owned property from an average of 298 days to as few as 60 days. Currently, all federal oil permitting is done the old-fashioned way: On paper. By May 2013, the U.S. government promises to fully implement a new, online system. Salazar, a former U.S. senator, visited a so-called man camp in Dunn County, near Dickinson.

Target Logistics building

Want To Go To The Movies?

Monday, April 2nd, 2012

When you’re working in the oil patch thousands of miles from home, friends are more important than ever. Just ask Kelvin Lacey, Alfredo Cantu and Julio Pulido.

Lacy, Cantu and Pulido (left, center and right in the above photograph) are from Southern California, Detroit and Chicago, respectively. The men drive water trucks for a firm in Tioga, N.D. I met them at a Mexican restaurant in nearby Stanley, where it was Julio’s turn to buy dinner. Lacey and Cantu teased him about ordering extra food just so his bill would be a little higher. When the men get a little free time, they drive to Minot, a bigger city east of the oil patch, to watch movies or go grocery shopping. Cantu says he’s never seen so many movies with guys before.

A couple of footnotes to this story. Before arriving in N.D., Pulido spent more than five years driving trucks in Iraq for Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR), a U.S. military contractor. Pulido says the gravel roads in North Dakota remind him of roads in Iraq. Lacy, an African-American, says locals in the oil patch — a region that is overwhelmingly white — have treated him kindly. However, a little girl reached out to touch his hand while he was waiting in line at a Wal-Mart. The girl’s mother apologized, saying, the girl hadn’t seen an African-American before.

Shane Osborne: It Ain’t Working Out So Good

Saturday, March 24th, 2012

Shane Osborne arrived in boom country looking for work. He found it. But housing is too expensive so he’s toughing it out in a trailer. Life isn’t great, he says.

Audio portrait by Todd Melby

Photo by Ben Garvin

An Early Dispatch From Oil Country

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

A peek inside a drilling rig

Roads in western North Dakota used to be peaceful, almost quiet places. About eight years ago, my niece and I happened upon a dead snake on one of these two-lane highways. We stopped the car and got out to take a look. We didn’t pull over to the shoulder. We didn’t have to. We were the only ones around for miles and miles. These days, an act like that can get you killed. Thousands of trucks hauling oil, water, rigs, pipes and dozens and dozens of other things cram crowded highways and narrow gravel roads. The oil boom has come to western North Dakota and changed the way of life here.

In the first few weeks here, I’ve met men from Detroit, Chicago, southern California, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming. One trucker compared the gravel roads here to gravel roads in Iraq — he’d previously hauled military supplies in the Middle East. A former Los Angeles police officer, who now sells fire-retardant clothes to oil workers, says traffic is more dangerous near the tiny town of Watford City than in L.A. during rush hour. Some men are shift workers, hitting the oil fields at night. Which explains why one 27-year-old told me he sleeps every chance he gets. On a rare off-day, he’s been known to curl up on the carpet or slump in patio furniture at a store for cat naps.

Dirt is everywhere. Signs warn men (nearly everyone who works in the oil business is a man) to wipe their feet before entering the mall in Ray or the showers at the swimming pool in Williston. At a gas station in Watford City, men are told not to spit tobacco juice or “loogies” in the public urinal. Most truck stops sell shirts, hats and Wrangler jeans, the only blue jean for a true westerner. Most gas stations sell pre-packaged sandwiches and pizzas, but one place in Bowbells went out of its way to offer homemade goulash and breadsticks for $3.50.

Housing is scarce. During my first month on the job, I paid $1,100 for a one-bedroom apartment that lacked a bathroom, shower and kitchen. All three were down the hall. Some workers live in poorly insulated trailers with limited access to utilities. One man told me he drives down the road to shower and complains that his $30/hour salary isn’t enough to buy anyplace better. Others don’t mind living in so-called “man camps” because food is included and their employer pays for most of the cost.

Although I haven’t met any of these folks yet, some people are getting rich. One banker whispered to me that hangars at a local airport are filled with private jets. It’s also rumored that one rancher has so much money that he’s traded in his pickup for a Cadillac and that he actually drives that around his pasture, dirt and mud be damned.

— Todd Melby, March 2012

Black Gold Boom on SoundCloud

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

There’s lots of ways to listen to Black Gold Boom stories. One of them is on SoundCloud, which is available online, on the iPad and on your phone.

Bryan Johnson: I’ve Never Seen Anything Like It

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

Everyone says traffic is bad in oil patch of western North Dakota. But until you see it and drive it, you really don’t believe it. Bryan Johnson is one man who has seen it and driven it. Once a week, Johnson and his business partner, Jim Bacon, make the trip from Spearfish, South Dakota to sell fire retardant clothes to oil workers in Watford City, a small town that’s getting bigger every day. Before moving to Spearfish a few years back, Johnson worked as a cop in Los Angeles. And get this: Johnson says the traffic is worse on two-lane highways near Watford City than in car-crazed Los Angeles.

$1,100/month in Bowbells, North Dakota

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

While researching this project, I made several calls to men and women living in the oil patch. From my office in Minneapolis, I was trying to get a sense for the issues that were on people’s minds. I also had practical concerns such as “Where am I going to live?” I knew housing was tough to find so I started asking everyone for advice. The best tip I received was from an oil worker whose job it is to send explosives down drilling holes. “If you find a place, rent it,” he said.

A few days later, I saw an ad on the Bismarck Tribune website for apartments near Stanley, a small town that’s getting bigger every day. I quickly called the listed phone number. At that point, I was put at the top of the list for an apartment building that was due to open about the time my project started. Although I’d never seen the apartment in person — or even pictures on the Internet — I took it. The cost: $1,100 per month, which is $50 more per month than my son paid on the Lower East Side of Manhattan when he moved there two years ago.

When I arrived on March 1, 2012, I found a long, narrow building that’s reminiscent of a three-lane bowling alley. Lane 1, on the left, is one row of rooms. Lane 2, in the middle, is a long narrow hallway. Lane 3, on the right, is a second row of rooms. I was assigned Apartment 1, the first door on the left at the beginning of Lane 1. The apartment consists of two rooms. Neither room includes a kitchen or bathroom.

The first room features a table, recliner, mini-fridge, dresser, television and a window that overlooks Main Street. From this perch, I can see the Post Office (it’s open until 12:30 p.m. every day), Bowbells Crop Insurance, A & L Truck Sales and Farmer’s Union Oil Company. These comprise the majority of businesses in Bowbells. The second room contains a bed, dresser, bedside table and television. Both rooms are about the size of prison cells. The walls are cinder block and covered with a shade of light green paint. The bedroom floor is carpeted; the first isn’t. Despite wearing thick wool socks, my feet are often cold in the non-carpeted room so I sometimes place an old bath towel under my feet.

The bathrooms and kitchen are located elsewhere. A pair of restrooms is located about nine or ten steps away. These don’t include showers. Those are set in a row just inside a big that’s occupies the end of Lane 3. That same L-shaped room also houses two sets of washer/dryers, a dining room table with chairs and two vending machines. One sells soda, the other sells candy and microwave popcorn. In the rear are two doors: One leads outside and the other leads to a kitchen. There’s an oven, sink, cabinets, table and refrigerator. This sign hangs on the fridge: “Honor System. Tombstone Pizza – $7.00. Bottles of Water – .25¢ each. If Honor System does not work it will no longer be available.” Then in handwritten letters: “Breakfast Sandwich $2.00. Lunch Sandwich – $3.00.”

Nomadic groups of oil hands and drivers move in and out of the building. Some stay overnight or a few days. I’m not sure they even know where they’ll be the next day. One night, several Haliburton guys show up, pull their suitcases in on wheels and then hang out in the hallways chatting. I overhear one of the crew members tell a friend, “This is just like a man camp, only there’s no food.”

Farmer’s Union Oil Company sells gas, diesel, coffee, chips and all the usual convenience store stuff. The boom has prompted them to offer daily food specials. On two occasions in the past week or so, the special has been goulash and breadsticks for $3.50. On my first full day in Bowbells, I looked for people drinking coffee and gossiping inside the store. I was not disappointed. Mary, a sturdy woman of sixty years or more, invited me to sit down and even offered to get me coffee. I declined, excused myself and poured a dark, hot cup in a Styrofoam container. For the next 45 minutes, Mary peppered me with questions and I tried to wake up. An older man, sitting in a folding chair next to her, thumbed through a tractor magazine and kept one ear on the conversation. After a while, a second man showed up. He wore an NRA cap and talked about a loose dog that came after him one day while he was mowing the lawn. He thought about shooting it, he said.

That’s a little bit of what it’s like to live in Bowbells. I’ve since found a place to live in Williston, which is the heart of the boom, for the same price.

I will be moving soon.

— Todd Melby, March 2012

Dickinson Speaks

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Rising oil prices and record production are boosting oil revenue for the state of North Dakota. But what impact is it having in the west — where trucks are rumbling down highways and some people can’t find a place to live. The North Dakota Economic Security and Prosperity Alliance held a public forum in Dickinson on Sunday to ask people that question.