When a boom is not a boon

by Sarah Gilman

Dark nights have long been a hallmark of the West's vast rural High Plains. But a 2010 nighttime satellite photo from the National Geophysical Data Center reveals a striking change in the arid, once-empty sweep of western North Dakota -- a smear of light that spreads far wider than any of the state's cities.

This is the nimbus of the Bakken oil boom. Over the last few years, the Bakken has become the hottest energy play in the United States. More oil rigs than in Saudi Arabia -- over 200 total, in fact, brilliantly lit and grinding throughout the night -- ply the ground in North Dakota. Millions of cubic feet of the natural gas produced alongside the oil each day are burned in flares visible from outer space.

Energy companies control more than 6,500 square miles of leases in the area -- larger than the collected landmass of the Hawaiian Islands. Last November, thanks largely to the Bakken, North Dakota's oil production surged past that of OPEC member Ecuador to more than half a million barrels per day, about 10 percent of overall U.S. production. The boom has brought a flood of outside workers, with a concomitant rise in strip-club revenue and the end of affordable housing. There's even a Montana-made microbrew called "Bakken Bock," potent enough at 8.4 percent alcohol that a night spent swilling it might prove almost as heady and disorienting as the boom itself.

The action has given North Dakota an enormous boost. Even as the Great Recession lingers elsewhere, its unemployment rate hovers around 3 percent and its government basks in annual billion-dollar budget surpluses.

Lost in the media frenzy over all this, until now, has been Fort Berthold Indian Reservation -- home to the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes -- at the Bakken's center. Like many Indian nations, the Three Affiliated Tribes have endured more than their fair share of injustice and privation. The Bakken, at first, appeared to be an economic savior -- a chance for the people to achieve financial independence. But as Sierra Crane-Murdoch explores in this issue's cover story, that goal still hovers tauntingly out of reach. The byzantine federal bureaucracy that manages all tribal resources discouraged companies from developing Fort Berthold at first. Then, when the oil rush finally arrived, it caught the reservation woefully unprepared.

For though the influx of hundreds of millions of dollars has brought undeniable benefits, the tribes' long history of poverty and weak regulatory structure have sharpened the boom's negative effects on both the environment and the community, leaving the tribal government scrambling to catch up.

And since many tribal members hold no individual stake in the oil rights, the divide between the haves and have-nots has only deepened, sometimes leaving those who had little before with even less today. As this issue went to press, some of the reservation's poorest residents faced eviction. Their 45-lot trailer park had been sold to a developer who plans to build oil-worker housing.

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