Boom, bust, yawn


There’s nothing new about a natural resource boom and its ugly twin, the bust. When reporting on how these economic hurricanes blow through communities, writers tend to tell similar narratives.

First, there’s the sepia-toned photo of what the place used to look like, maybe a quote or two from some old-timer at the local diner who remembers when the streets were quiet and everyone knew each other’s name. Then the newcomers show up: the speculators, land men, company men, all rolling through town with their shiny cars and pockets full of investors. They usher in a wave of rapid growth. There's hastily-constructed housing developments and roads. Then come even more newcomers, usually young men from somewhere else. Next the story shifts to impacts of the boom: traffic, drugs, violence, high rent and environmental degradation. Finally (wait for it!), the inevitable bust. Prices drop, the man camps empty out and rigs and wells rust away. Locals are left wondering: were we better off with the boom, or without it?

Fortunately, there are journalists out there figuring out how to tell tired energy stories in exciting ways, hooking readers and listeners even though they’ve heard about oil and gas development hundreds of times. It’s important for people to see and feel the effect of their energy consumption—the stuff always comes from someone’s backyard—but if a story is predictable it’s less likely to have an impact. Here’s five ways to escape that trap.

1. Focus on how quickly everything changes

That’s what Jan Falstad did in this October piece for The Billings Gazette about Bainville, Mont., which is about to get a fracking sand terminal. The lede (reporter-speak for first sentence) tells you everything you need to know: “The final meeting to change tiny Bainville forever took an hour.” Falstad then details the scope of the changes to come: a 350-man camp that will more than double the population of the town, a huge truck stop, a 400-home subdivision and, of course, the rail yard where up to 600 truckloads of sand a day will be offloaded and sent over the border to North Dakota, where it will be combined with unpronounceable chemicals and injected deep underground. Throughout the story, Falstad emphasizes the speed of development. Locals first heard about the project at the end of September, but by the time they had, construction was already underway. The boom didn’t exactly come as a surprise, though, to residents who had been watching construction crews move along the railroads all summer. Despite this, few asked questions, something area rancher Kirk Panasuk attributed to “apathy and ignorance.”

2. Go undercover in a man camp

I can’t say I liked the tone of this gonzo-style Men’s Journal article, but I appreciated that the author, Stephen Rodrick, put himself in the shoes—or the puddles of urine on the boarding house bathroom floor—of the itinerant workers flocking to Williston, N.D. to work in the Bakken oil fields. Rodrick viscerally introduces us to Williston’s new residents: the dazed truck driver from Maine, watching Westerns in his dirty underwear; the 42-year-old with swollen, shaking hands who looks 60 and quits the rig when his Vicodin prescription runs out; two unemployed loggers from Oregon who sleep in a tent outside of town; and the deputy sheriff who likes patrolling the lonely plains. The boom narrative is still there, and Rodrick shows us how crime, litter, and sprawl now plague this formerly quaint prairie town. Unlike other boom stories, which leave you feeling sorry for the place, this article makes you want to take a shower.

3. Use an innovative platform to deliver your story

StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration between local public radio stations and NPR, follows the typical boom narrative when telling the story of Towanda, Penn., a town transformed by natural gas drilling. What’s new here is the presentation: a slick, full-screen audio slideshow and snazzy website allowing listeners to explore the photos and data behind the boom at their own pace. Text overlaying some of the photos displays key facts, like how criminal caseloads in Bradford County increased 40 percent from 2009 to 2011, or how rent jumped from $300 for a one bedroom in 2008 to over $1,000 in 2011. There’s links to a story on Towanda’s first two booms, in coal and lumber, and an interactive map showing well sites, gas companies’ environmental violations and fines.

4. Pick something wonky and make it accessible

This American Life has a reputation for turning complex stories into great listening. (The Giant Pool of Money, a collaboration with NPR that explains the housing crisis, is an excellent example). The second half of their June 2011 show, Game Changer, explores the natural gas boom in Pennsylvania by focusing on zoning laws in Mt. Pleasant, where a gas company has leased 95% of the township’s land. In the next half hour, reporter Sarah Koenig tells us how a gas company turned citizens against their elected officials and of one town’s fight to have some control over where gas drilling can happen. It speaks to the knowledge, savvy and money mismatch between rural towns and the gas companies that seek to drill them.

5. Hone in on just one or two impacts of the boom

Rather than giving every impact superficial treatment, Alexandra Fuller focuses on just two of the effects of the natural gas boom in Sublette County, Wyoming, in this 2007 piece in The New Yorker. Fuller wrote the piece just as drilling was starting to boom (back when ‘fracking’ needed an explanation) and tried to capture early signs of change. She focuses on methamphetamine use among gas workers, telling the same stories about workers faking urine tests as Rodrick does, but without any of the foul locker room language. She’s an expert at picking dialogue, like this quote from a former user: “I didn’t feel addicted, I just felt like I wanted more meth.” But what makes the piece stand out is how she connects the social and environmental impacts of the boom. “A place in the throes of an energy boom isn’t so different from a person in the throes of addiction: there’s the denial that things are out of control; there’s the sleeplessness and the moral carelessness, and the fact that you’re doing something that you know isn’t good for you but you just can’t stop.”

So if you’re sick of reading about energy development, I hope these stories will help you see booms, and busts, with fresh eyes.

Emily Guerin is an intern at High Country News.

Photo of gas well in Pennsylvania courtesy Flickr user wcn247.

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