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for people who care about the West

We need new words for the Bakken boom


I live in western North Dakota in an area filled with life, from feisty small towns to wildlife, prairies, a national park and the national grasslands. But all of this has been buried underneath one simple term: The Bakken. 

The Bakken is the geological term for a shale formation of the same name that extends deep below Earth’s surface. As most people know, we are mining western North Dakota relentlessly. Everything else has become secondary to the precious “black gold” beneath the wheat, sage and cottonwoods of North Dakota. We have become known only for one thing -- oil production.

In my youth, I ran through wheat fields in coal country, drove at night under star-speckled skies, and passed through slowly dying towns in the western parts of the state. Now, all that is changed. Business is booming, and North Dakota has adopted a new vocabulary that suits our new state.

The word “boom” comes from the Dutch word bommen, meaning “to hum, or buzz.” Business is certainly buzzing, and the state enjoys the lowest unemployment rate in the country. Meanwhile, gas flares are blazing, so noisy that they rival the blast of a jet engine. Another definition of boom is “ultimately imitative,” and if the Bakken oil boom is anything like the West’s previous booms, it will bust sooner or later, leaving a mess so extensive that only another Superfund effort can begin to repair the damage.

The “Oil Patch” is another term that many North Dakotans use to describe the western part of the state. People say things like, “Life in the Oil Patch is dangerous, unfriendly and rough.” The word “patch” sometimes makes the boom sound smaller than it is, as though it were a scrap of fabric. It is true that residents are forced to patch together a life, searching endlessly for reasonable rentals as well as a safe neighborhood. But patch has yet another meaning, as in a limited time period: “He might just be going through a bad patch.” 

The patch in this case is both very big and very bad: Over 7,200 oil, chemical, and saltwater spills have plagued the state, including the largest inland oil spill in the nation’s history--865,200 gallons of oil. There was also the recent spill of 1 million gallons of saltwater in Bear Den Bay, which supplies drinking water for the town of Mandaree. During this unfortunate “bad patch,” which doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon, the new normal is an industry that’s currently flaring 36 percent of the region’s natural gas, threatening wildlife with constant truck traffic, and fouling our water supplies. 

Despite these problems, the phrases “Rockin’ the Bakken” and “Drill, Baby, Drill” have become prominent state mantras. You can see them on bumper stickers, billboards and in advertisements. Drilling is certainly a fact of life as we penetrate even down to the bedrock of the Devonian Period, a period of time nearly 400 million years ago. But what might it mean to remove a level of earth that was created by the compression over the millennia of flesh, bone, rock and plants? What might be shifting, both in the ground beneath our feet and in our own minds, when we remove the bedrock of the prairie? 

In a state that formerly prided itself on neighborliness, and where residents routinely leave houses and cars unlocked to take time for simple tasks -- like picking juneberries in the White Earth Valley -- what happens when the bustle of oil development not only affects daily traffic, but also our daily thoughts?

In his novel, 1984, George Orwell wrote, “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” We in North Dakota have listened too long to words that care about nothing but the extraction of oil. It does not have to be this way. We can talk about humility, and we can talk about the beauty of this isolated land and the need for its conservation and care. This part of America may be harsh and uninviting, but those of us who live here find beauty in unexpected places. 

We need to plant new words and new ideas in our conversation, clearing away crude terms that represent destruction without a single thought. If we don’t take control of our words, I am afraid that we will see a future in North Dakota that is bleak and sterile. It will be dominated by the rusted remnants of a boom that came to an end before anybody was ready.

Taylor Brorby is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He grew up in western North Dakota and is currently pursuing his MFA in creative writing and the environment at Iowa State University.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].