Community Destruction in North Dakota Oil Boomtowns

Katharine Berry

Jonnie Cassens is a truck driver who hoped that her move to a North Dakota oil boomtown would help her recover from her previous life in California. In the documentary “Running on Fumes in North Dakota,” she explains how the lifestyle emerging from North Dakota’s rapid oil boom isn’t as glamorous as it is often portrayed; in fact, it is a dirty and unpleasant life. Jonnie’s move from California has left her isolated and lonely with no one to turn to for support or companionship. She expresses her longing for a female friend to “gossip with” or someone she can “get a pedicure with,” but the oil boom has created a society dominated by men and a fractured community (Christenson). Jonnie may be physically alone, but she is not alone in her feeling that the oil boom has resulted in isolation and loneliness. Life-long residents and brand new residents of boomtowns fear the crime, prostitution, and influx of drugs that oil has drawn to North Dakota, and workers often face brutal conditions (Stewart). The unreliable and temporary nature of the North Dakota oil boom has disrupted the existing communities in this region and created deep divisions, preventing new communities from forming. Ultimately, the oil boom undermines community in all forms.

The cohesive rural communities that existed near oil reserves in North Dakota have disintegrated and been destroyed by the nature of the oil boom in the region (Brown). The rapid population flood has created problems of supply and demand in many aspects, especially in relation to housing. There is a great need for housing in the oil boomtowns but little availability, which drives up rent to prices approaching those in urban San Francisco (Warren). These extreme rent increases have made it difficult for many long-time residents to continue to afford their homes and many families are forced to find new housing outside of the region (Stewart). In New Town, North Dakota, a large trailer park, Prairie Winds, which has been home to several Native American tribes for decades, epitomizes this problem. The trailer parks’ new owner raised rents and evicted the long-term residents in order to provide housing for oil workers (Mufson). The original residents were left without roofs over their heads, and unfortunately this type of community destruction is not uncommon. As the oil boom drives housing prices up, families and loved ones are split up. Due to the limited availability of housing in the region, many people leave the area completely. These drastic rent increases have not only taken residents’ housing but their sense of home as well. To make matters worse, the history of oil booms in the region—which features promises of great success followed by sudden failures that leave the state in debt—has left many people skeptical, including construction developers. Since the construction industry anticipates that the region’s oil supply will eventually run out, no new housing is being built to ameliorate the housing crisis. Therefore, the high demand for housing will continue and long-term residents will be driven further from their communities.

Additionally, among residents who try to take advantage of the conditions the boom has created, there is a general consensus that the profit is not worth the trouble (Mufson). Some residents have leased out their land and minerals in exchange for a profit from the oil companies; however, the oil companies have caused physical destruction to residents’ property, leaving them disappointed and angry (Stone). In an interview with a North Dakota native published by The Washington Post, Donnie Nelson reflects on the two oil rigs on his property: “‘I don’t like what it’s done for our communities and lifestyle,’ he said. ‘We had a good life, and now it’s gone forever, or at least for my lifetime’” (Mufsan). He also reports that he would “‘give it all back for the trouble it’s been’” (Mufsan). Bert Hauge, another long-time resident, has large trenches on his property and cows with serious health problems as a result of the boom (Stone). These residents are left disapproving and discontented with the oil boom. North Dakotans remain skeptical that the promises of twenty years of success from this boom will become a reality, and instead believe that this boom will follow the limited course of previous booms (Lindholm). This bitterness has turned existing communities into a group of isolated individuals. No matter what their situation,  all long-time North Dakotans share one commonality: they miss the time, before the oil boom, when communities “didn’t lock their doors and knew all their neighbors” (Mufson). While long-term residents in North Dakota have felt their communities disintegrate, employers in the oil industry have simultaneously prevented new communities from forming. This has resulted in deep divisions between employers and employees and further divisions among employees themselves. The “suits” (as the oil industry employers are called) have dehumanized workers and created an animal kingdom of men. They have mistreated men by implementing long hours and challenging and dirty work (Gale). Employees of the oil industry are on a schedule of approximately twelve-hour workdays for two weeks straight followed by two weeks of no work, but there is some degree of scheduling uncertainty, and sudden decisions often change schedules at the last minute (Chaudhry). These conditions create the sense of a temporary and easily replaceable environment, implying that the employees are inferior to the “suits.” With uncaring employers, there is a certain degree of animosity that allows workers to be deindividualized and take on the role of “rough and tumble oil worker” (Gale). Most workers are away from their homes and families and remain free of ties to any community in the region; occasionally workers act without being held accountable. This misbehavior has resulted in rising crime and drug use, problems that continue to grow (Healy).

There might be potential for workers to bond over their dehumanization, loneliness and desire for success, but because of the limited resources in the region, workers must compete, making the formation of community impossible. The housing scarcity has created massive competition between workers over housing (Chaudhry). Temporary man-camps of workers are now abundant, along with RV neighborhoods and thousands of vehicles that have been transformed into homes (Sulzberger). This competition is a free-for-all, and men who cannot find anything substantial have resorted to anything that will be sufficient for a temporary residence. With the harsh winters, some workers are finding it difficult to even stay alive. The inflation in the region also makes eating at restaurants practically impossible (Chaudhry). In a society with so many workers in the same situation, new communities could practically fall into place, but these workers face such a range of harsh conditions and obtaining basic requirements like housing and food take precedence over forming new communities.

The undermining of community caused by the oil industry in North Dakota isn’t the state or nation’s primary concern, and it is obvious that the economic benefits resulting from the boom are overwhelming. This oil boom could bring energy independence to the United States, which some might argue is sufficient reason to overlook community destruction. However, the oil boom has also brought health risks and environmental disturbances. Do the economic benefits outweigh the environmental, health and community drawbacks of oil boomtowns? Workers begin to wonder if leaving their families and homes for an uncertain amount of time, facing hard and lonely conditions, and performing dangerous work is really worth the extra income they will make. Others may wonder if the extreme yet temporary success of the oil industry in the region should be unthinkingly prioritized, especially given the destruction to the family land of native North Dakotans.

Is the temporary success of these modern boomtowns worth the potential long-term consequences they bring? As long as the boom benefits the nation as a whole, it is unlikely that there will be any changes to the industry, which leaves the residents of these North Dakota boomtowns more lonely and isolated than ever with no definite end in sight. This leaves residents like Jonnie Cassens in her trailer, which has no running water or toilet—and instead of confiding and bonding with a friend, the only relationship she has is with her dog.


Works Cited

Brown, Chip. “North Dakota Went Boom.” The New York Times. 31 Jan. 2013. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.

Chaudhry, Mat. Northern Utopia: Rebirth of American Dream: North Dakota Oil Employment. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013. Kindle.

Christenson, James, Eliot Popko, Jonah Sargent, and Lewis Wilcox. “Running on Fumes in North Dakota.” The New York Times. 13 Jan 2014. Web. 13 Apr 2014. Video.

Cohen, Sharon. “Trying to Combat Growing Drug Trade in Oil Patch.” The Washington Post. 14 Apr 2014. Web. 24 Apr 2014.

Sweet Crude Man Camp. Dir. Gale, Isaac. Prod. Alec Soth. From: Life Inside an Oil Boom. The New York Times. 8 Feb 2013. Web. 13 Apr 2014. Documentary.

Greenwald, Judy. “Rail Risks Expand As Oil Shipments Boom.” Business Insurance 48.5 (2014): 0013. Business Source Complete. Web. 31 Mar. 2014.

Healy, Jack. “As Oil Floods Plains Towns, Crime Pours In.” The New York Times. 30 Nov 2013. Web. 13 Apr 2014.

Lindholm, Meg. “Flock to North Dakota Oil Town Leads to Housing Crisis.” All Things Considered. National Public Radio. 28 May 2010. Web. 6 Apr 2014. Transcript.

Mufson, Steven. “In North Dakota, The Gritty Side of an Oil Boom.” The Washington Post. 18 July 2012. Web. 24 Apr 2014.

Oldham, Jennifer. “North Dakota Oil Boom Brings Blight With Growth as Cost Soar.” Bloomberg. 24 Jan. 2012. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.

Schultz, E J. “Williston: The Town the Recession Forgot.” Advertising Age, 82.39, 31 Oct. 2011: 1. Web. 5 April 2014.

Stewart, Dan. “North Dakota: Trouble in Boomtown.” The Week. 19 Sept. 2013. Web. 29 Mar 2014.

Stone, Andrea. “Oil Boom Creates Millionaires and Animosity in North Dakota.” USA Today. N.d. Web. 24 Apr 2014.

Sulzberger, A.G. “Oil Rigs Bring Camps of Men to the Prairie”. The New York Times. 25 Nov 2011. Web. 28 Mar 2014.

Warren, Michael. “Highest Rents Found in Oil Boom Towns of North Dakota.” The Weekly Standard. 14 Feb 2014. Web. 28 Mar 2014.

Instructor’s Memo

Kate’s essay is a testament to how individual stories can make large-scale geopolitical debates feel real and emotionally relevant. Over the past year, the news cycle has featured stories of the Keystone XL pipeline bill, global warming, and peak oil, but Kate leaves us with the image of a woman living alone in a trailer near the North Dakota oil fields. As Kate notes, this woman is surviving without running water or a toilet, her only significant relationship with her dog. Reading Kate’s paper, I am reminded that arguments—even critical and scholarly ones—are sometimes more effective when conveyed through images as opposed to direct statements.

Kate did a tremendous amount of research for this project. Her sources range from newspaper articles to videos to radio transcripts to full-length books. This research allowed her to situate her argument within the larger historical context of boomtowns while also quoting contemporary residents of North Dakota oil communities. Kate’s research also allowed her to consider her argument from multiple perspectives: if existing communities in North Dakota are undermined by the sudden economic influx of an oil boom, then the people who arrive to work in the oil fields also report feeling dislocated and lonely. In this sense, Kate’s writing helps us understand how there are always multiple perspectives on disaster.

Sarah Dimick

Writer’s Memo

The skills I learned in English 100 have helped me to become a much better writer because I learned the basics of how to compose a good paper, not just how to write to meet the requirements for a specific paper. When told that we would write the last paper of the semester about a contested place, I had no idea what I would write about. In class, we read several pieces from various sources that gave us an idea of what a contested place could look like. I asked my parents for some examples and one of them mentioned hydrolytic fracking in North Dakota. I didn’t know much about the topic but I liked that it was a contested place in the U.S. Determining a topic to write about was one of the hardest parts of the paper for me, but I took the idea and looked at a specific aspect within the place — the communities.

I knew very little about what was happening in the oil boomtowns in North Dakota, and even less about the communities within them. In class, we learned how to: gather information and utilize library resources, integrate quotations, write a thesis, and structure an essay and the paragraphs in it; all of which made writing the paper less intimidating. I met with my teacher periodically throughout the writing process, which in turn helped me stay on top of the paper and do the necessary work to write a great paper.

I have never enjoyed writing and have instead dreaded it, generally finding it to be intimidating and overwhelming. However, after learning skills to write a good paper, meeting consistently with my teacher, and working at a steady pace, I began to enjoy writing and I eventually produced a paper I am truly proud of. Different from many of the papers I had written before, I also enjoyed researching about the community destruction in North Dakota oil boomtowns. I found the topic fascinating, so much so that I wanted to share what I had learned with others, and get involved in some way to help address the problems in the oil boomtowns.

The most challenging part of the paper was identifying what I wanted the paper to be about, and narrowing a broad idea into a specific focus that I could form into a thesis statement. I identified the main points I wanted to use, compared them and looked at what they had in common; then, my teacher helped me narrow down and look at the big picture and I determined the specific focus of the paper. After developing a thesis, the rest of the paper was easy. I realized that sometimes the thesis statement comes later on in the process, and it may change several times before it is right. The process of writing this paper has turned me into a  much better writer, and I continue to use the skills I learned in English 100 for all my papers.

— Katharine Berry

Student Writing Award: Critical/Analytical Essay
This essay was previously published in the 9th edition of CCC.


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Community Destruction in North Dakota Oil Boomtowns Copyright © 2019 by Katharine Berry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.