Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
'BOOMTOWNERS' examines how American communities weather rapid transformation in the thick of an oil boom.
"Fracking" is surely among the most loaded terms to emerge in the national conversation within the last decade. The arguments on both sides of the enviro-political aisle are vigorous. Is fracking a job-creating revolution in energy technology, or an environmental disaster exacerbating economic inequality?
Whatever your view, you've probably spent less time considering the communities behind the controversy. BOOMTOWNERS, a new documentary series on the Smithsonian Channel, follows the lives of the workers flooding into towns across the Bakken shale formation, dreaming of better lives made of black gold. While the show focuses heavily on the labor involved in hydraulic fracturing, it also raises questions about the meaning of community and the value of city planning as small towns across Montana and North Dakota struggle to meet the needs of a soaring—and transient—population.
In the once-sleepy boomtown of Sidney, Montana, we meet Ray and Deanna Senior. The couple, with their four teens in tow, were lured all the way from Southern California by promise of a high salary. Ray's intake isn't bad, but increased costs of living in booming Sidney keep him working and away from the family during most waking hours. To make matters more stressful, the Senior's home is falling apart as quickly as it was slapped together.
Housing problems are just the beginning of trouble in Sidney. Local judge Greg Mohr has seen his caseload skyrocket since 2010, when the boom began. Mohr's courtroom, and the town jail, are packed every day. Drug crimes are particularly rampant—including a horrific 2012 crack-related murder. “No one could sit there and predict what was going to happen,” Judge Mohr says. “We woke up and here’s an 800-pound gorilla in bed with us called the Bakken.”
Sidney wasn't prepared to meet the demands of the growing population; no one saw the "gorilla" coming. Some $55 million is needed for new infrastructure, including new water and sewer mains, and improvements to roads, which have taken a beating from massive trucks hauling fracturing equipment. Local schools are also struggling to find enough teachers to cover the surge of students.
And that's the tip of the iceberg. In 2012, Bret Smelser, mayor of Sidney, said this to the Montana Policy Review:
We are overwhelmed with increases in garbage collections and overwhelmed with police having to respond to more incidents. Our volunteer fire department is stretched: as an example, the other day they responded to three fires before noon. This is a volunteer fire department. Infrastructure, manpower, and the increases we’re seeing in water, sewer, garbage collection–those are the major challenges.
On the flip side, says Smelser, an increased population could eventually mean an increased tax base, providing at least some of the funds necessary to achieve these massive infrastructure improvements. New development is going up every day, which many old-time residents enjoy.
But what happens when the oilfield dries up, and the Seniors—and the other migrant families, couples, and solo dreamers BOOMTOWNERS introduces—leave Sidney? And not just Sidney, but the countless communities across the Bakken undergoing this very same explosion? The same thing that happens to so many boomtowns, across the planet and across history: One day, they go bust.
That's the precarity the show explores. You won't find too much discussion of fracking's environmental controversy—for that, take a look at the Academy Award-nominated Gasland. But to get a grasp on the human side of an often abstract word, BOOMTOWNERS is worth a watch.
BOOMTOWNERS airs 9 PM ET on Sunday nights on the Smithsonian Channel, and is available online.