Life in a modern boomtown is living on the frontier but with a smartphone. “Capitalism on crack” is the way historian Clay Jenkinson referred to it – everyone taking what they can get, as fast as they can.

I spent nearly a year in an oil boomtown: from summer of 2013 to winter of 2014, I worked in the Bakken oil patch out of Williston, North Dakota. At the time, politicians, geologists, and much of the national media claimed the town would be booming for decades to come. They were all wrong.

North Dakota began to boom in the midst of America’s forever wars, when technological advancement in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing made a formerly impenetrable seam of crude oil suddenly recoverable.

Williston, a rural community in an Indian service area with ties to the Turtle Mountain Chippewa, found its population ballooning. Most of those coming to town were men looking for work. Much of the hiring by oilfield companies was pitched toward veterans, but in the wake of the 2008 crash, anyone who could swing a hammer had a shot at landing a job. Williston was swamped by out-of-work carpenters, plumbers and contractors of every stripe.

The author in winter.
The author in winter. Photograph: Courtesy of Michael Patrick Flanagan Smith

At the beginning of the boom, many oilfield jobs had provided signing bonuses, housing and per diems to the ever growing migrant workforce – benefits trumpeted by the oil industry, the media and local lawmakers. By the time I arrived, however, the perks had mostly dried up. I wasn’t the only guy late to the party.  read more…no pay wall….


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  1. I was never in the military, but the oilfield has got to be the next thing to it.
    Time is money out there, and nothing can ever be done fast enough.
    The oilfield will make you grow up real fast, if it doesn’t break you.

  2. I have been working in the oil and gas industry for 14 years. Several million people in Russia are employed in this industry. And it is very important. What is happening to the oil workers in the United States now is wild horror and instability. I am following this. It is a pity that many of my American colleagues are sitting at home without work. In Russia everything is normal in this branch.

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