The New York Times has preemptively posted the cover story from the upcoming edition of their magazine, and once again, North Dakota has taken center stage. Titled, “North Dakota Went Boom,” the story is one of the many recent pieces covering the transformation occurring in the state; an evolution hurtling forward due to the millions of gallons of oil that lie beneath the otherwise largely uninhabited expanse of land.
Though this is nothing new - with publications from the Washington Post to Rolling Stone covering the nation’s latest oil excavation spree - author Chip Brown’s piece touches on a few subjects that have previously been left buried under the cloud of dust left by journalists racing towards the Midwestern state. Unfortunately, Brown leaves many of these ideas only partially uncovered.
The piece begins with mundane talk of the frontier; certainly nothing new for a state with history steeped in windswept plains and vast amounts of sparsely populated land. The juxtaposition between this emptiness and the new mammoth machines that now cover the land is also known to us by now - for those of you that have yet to see it, the image of North Dakota’s economy seen from space is truly impressive. As Clay S. Jenkinso told Brown:
“It’s our gold rush, our Silicon Valley. It reverses decades of anxiety about out-migration and rural decline and death. Suddenly the state that never had anything is in the middle of an oil boom that is larger than anybody could have predicted. We aren’t going to do anything to jeopardize it. People aren’t interested in stepping back.”
Far away from the nation’s economic hubs, North Dakota has seen this trend before, with oil rushes occurring each decade for the past 50 years, a topic Brown touches on (unlike many authors before him).
One of the pieces main characters, 65-year-old, Bud Light-drinking, deer-hunting “petro-preneur” Loren Kopseng, began his oil obsession 30-years-ago. After years of failure and bankruptcy, Kopseng’s oil company has since found success, one of the many in the state who has undergone a rags-to-riches transformation.
“It has minted millionaires, paid off mortgages, created businesses; it has raised rents, stressed roads, vexed planners and overwhelmed schools; it has polluted streams, spoiled fields and boosted crime,” wrote Brown, making sure not to leave out the negative aspects that have come with the influx of “newly minted millionaires.”
Momentarily straying away from this played out storyline, Brown switches his focus to topics like the problems occurring on the rural roads of North Dakota, creating a new lens for us to view the prolific economic undertaking occurring in the state. “Each well in western North Dakota requires about 2,000 truck trips in its first year of operation,” wrote Brown, pointing out the huge upswing in the number of vehicles taking to the once-unoccupied roads. The problems faced by the county and state highway departments have been less explored, but Brown gives the dust clouds and ride ratings of the state’s roads a closer look in his piece.
This is where “North Dakota Goes Boom” thrives; when it steps away from the tropes surrounding newfound wealth and examines issues largely unseen, such as the lack of environmental concern found in the state.
“But oil development, and fracking in particular, raises little of the hue and cry it does in Eastern states sitting above the natural gas in the Marcellus shale,” said Brown, adding a new question to the environmental woes of eastern fracktivists. Briefly touching on the reasons this may be the case – such as a much smaller population – Brown doesn’t take the opportunity to treat the reader to a new view of the oil boom, his piece instead choosing to narrow its angle on North Dakota’s well-trod story.