eyes on the U.S.

In North Dakota, The Dreams And Dark Side Of Shale Gas "Black Gold Rush"

Williston, ND
Williston, ND
Philippe Bernard

WILLISTON ­- Corey Driver, 21, had never seen snow in his life. Back home in Jacksonville, Florida, nobody wears boots in April. When he got off the Greyhound bus at Williston, North Dakota, the epicenter of the new shale oil frenzy, the cold night had already taken hold. And he only had $30 in his pocket.

His bag was stolen during the 51-hour long trip. He had no place to sleep and the streets were covered in snow. In Williston, someone told him about the Concordia Church, the only place that provides shelter for the homeless in this little town on the verge of implosion.

Every day, hundreds of unemployed people arrive in Williston from all over the country, and you would be lucky to find a seedy motel for $130 a night. The next day, Corey Driver bought the necessary $25 pair of boots and filled out a job application at the nearest Pizza Hut. “The guy told me: ‘that won’t be necessary,’ and asked me how much I was making by the hour back home. He told me that I could start tomorrow and that I was going to earn twice as much – $15.”

Here in Williston, the black-gold rush fever has increased everything: population, wages, prices, traffic, work accidents, single men, sexual assaults and delinquency in general. This agricultural town was dying five years ago. Now it’s expanding by the day with its warehouses, prefab buildings, fast-food joints and hotels – spreading far into the huge prairie that surrounds the city, and which has been transformed into a Swiss cheese of oil wells and easy money.

International jets now fly into the city, which has absorbed the airport – that used to be just a country shed. Cereal silos are left to rust while derricks and oil drills are taking possession of what used to be a vast Sioux territory.

Today the battle is played out three kilometers below the surface, in the Bakken formation, this super deep North Dakota rock formation that is filled with oil, and that hydraulic fracturing – fracking – makes accessible. By injecting huge quantity of highly pressurized water, sand and toxic substances into the rock the “badlands” of North Dakota have been transformed into an Eldorado of shale gas potential.


This forgotten and misunderstood state has multiplied its oil production by 150 in six years – producing up to 660,000 barrels a day. In the U.S., only Texas has a bigger yield. North Dakota has the reputation of being a redneck state but it now has the country’s highest average wage – $78,000 per year, and lowest unemployment rate – 3.2%, down to 1% in Williston.

According to North Dakota Republican State Senator Kelly Armstrong, only two scenarios can threaten this prosperity: a drop in global oil prices or new environmental standards implemented by Washington. “We were isolated from the rest of the world and now people are coming to us from all over the country,” says this lawyer whose position as an elected official doesn’t prevent him from running his father’s oil company.

Two weeks after his arrival, Corey, the new pizza guy, is still sleeping in the church with about 40 other people who came here to escape the blizzard. He is still wearing the worn-out green hoodie he had when he arrived, but he smiles under his blond mustache. In Florida, he was sometimes forced to sleep out on the street. He pulls out of his pocket a piece of paper on which he has scribbled down his budget and says: “in four months – $3,630 of savings.” He has drawn little stars around the amount. It is enough to start repaying his debts and dream of a future.

Man camps and high salaries

“I have come to change my life,” says Victor Brown, 22, unemployed. He came here from Georgia. “I am not afraid of working hard,” he says. His target is to work 80 hours a week to pay back the student loans on a biology degree he wasn’t able to finish. “Everyone who arrives here has the same goal: to save their house from foreclosure, save their family, or put their past behind them and start over from scratch,” says Jay Reinke, the Lutheran pastor who provides shelter for these men. Ten days after his arrival, Victor, who is originally from the Virgin Islands, started the nightshift at Walmart, for $19 an hour. It is less than half of what he would make if he was working on an oil rig, but he is worried about accidents.

Joe Wallace, 33, has come to the Williston McDonalds for some heat. A welder from Georgia, he spent a year assembling pipelines in 2012. Twelve hours a day, seven days a week. He broke his back and broke a finger but made a lot of money, “easy money,” he says, which he has all spent. He is having a hard time renewing his contract.

On a vacant lot around Williston’s particularly depressing railway station, Joe takes a piece of plastic he got from the back of a pick-up truck, and places it on the ground. That’s his bed for now, in between the piles of dirty snow. This is the only place in the city the police doesn't chase the workers out of. Most of the men are sleeping in their cars, which are buried under the snow.

Why doesn’t Joe the welder apply for a mobile home in the many “man camps” for workers that line the roads to Williston? “I’ve spent some time in prison, I don’t want to go back.”

The man camps are surrounded by fences and protected by security guards. They look like military camps. What war are these men fighting?

Loren Kopseng, founder of United Energy says: “Every new well we open brings the U.S. closer to energy independence. The more Dakota opens itself to the oil business, the less we have to import from countries that hate us and support terrorism.”


Abel Johnson, 25 an African-American father from Missouri doesn’t care about geopolitics. He is proud of his annual salary – “in the six figures” – $115,000 in 2012, even though it comes at a high price. For more than a year he has been living near Williston, in the man camp that is located next the garage of his employer, a drilling company. He goes home once a month, at best.

His mobile home is parked in the middle of nowhere, by the highway. It can accommodate up to six workers in its three bedrooms with bunk beds. “It’s a shame to have to live here without my wife and without being able to play with my kids. It’s especially hard on days off,” he says, hardly looking away from the TV screen in front of which he had fallen asleep after his daily 15-hour shift. “My debts are paid, I have children and money on my bank account, but I can’t enjoy any of it.”

The drill floor where Johnson works is the most dangerous place of the rig: heavy pieces of steel, risks of explosions, hydrogen sulfide… “It should smell like a rotten egg. If you don’t smell anything, that’s when it gets dangerous.” He is proud of his know-how and hopes to put it to good use under the Texas sun –with his family along him this time.

Before I leave, he wants to show me something – a picture on his cellphone. It is a portrait of President Obama, with a cross in the middle – like a target. His team leader pinned it on a fence, right at the company entrance. “I have to watch this every day,” he says. Abel asked his White colleagues what they thought about it. They said: “It’s great!” – which depressed him even more.


North Dakota used to be a poor state, but now it’s sitting on a pot of gold – $1.2 billion in benefits in 2013! Where does all the money go? Apparently not into fixing the narrow and hole-riddled roads. Not in the absent public transportation system or affordable housing projects either. Most likely the money goes to the eastern part of the states – where all the voters are, but where there are no oil wells.

Pastor Reinke is worried. His own flock, the people who worship at his church, are accusing him of being too “welcoming” with the new arrivals, who sometimes pee under their windows, or even commit thefts. “Everyone talks about petty theft, but no one says that renting a room for $1,500 a month is criminal,” says the Reinke, who says his views in general are “very conservative” –he is against gay marriage and the ordination of women.

That night, about 40 people are setting up their sleeping bags in the parish hall. But the city authorities have just asked him to stop giving shelter to the homeless workers. “I can’t leave people outside,” he says. “I try to remain optimistic – when a new man arrives, I say ‘you are a gift.’ But it’s hard to see all these new changes as a gift.”

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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