'Black Gold Boom' Brings New Life To North Dakota
Jobs may be scarce around the United States, but not in western North Dakota. A massive oil boom in Williston and the surrounding area is transforming the landscape and culture of this once-tranquil region.
Producer Todd Melby, who has been covering the boom for public media, composed an interactive documentary with radio stories and videos called "Rough Ride: The Oil Patch Tour." This guided tour through the oil patches illustrates the growth of oil fields over time.
Melby tells Tell Me More guest host Celeste Headlee that the documentary includes user comments: "People give their own tips on how to get a job in western North Dakota, if they want to be like the many thousands of people who've come here from all over the country to get that oil, and to get the big money that there is out here to make."
Music included in the interactive highlights the downsides of "fracking," as this method of oil and gas extraction is called. Singer-songwriter Kris Kitko's song mentions potholes in the road and the fact that housing rents have tripled.
There's opposition to fracking for environmental reasons and because of the changes it brings. And some residents don't like the fact that North Dakota's once quiet, pristine countryside has been inundated with trucks barreling down roads.
Melby says an interactive documentary like his enhances the reporting on a topic like oil drilling: "Radio is a fantastic medium, but video and online data and interactive content really adds another dimension, so people can just understand a story better."
'No Shutdown Time'
Melby spoke with Bryan Johnson, a former police officer who worked in Los Angeles for 15 years. Johnson sells fire-retardant clothing for the oil field workers.
"I never thought I'd see a place where I felt driving on the roads would be more dangerous than driving 5 o'clock rush hour in Los Angeles," he says. "Coming up here, the traffic on this two-lane highway is — I've never seen anything like it. It's just amazing that these guys are — they're nonstop. And it's not, you know, midnight it's over. It's 3 o'clock in the morning, they're still hauling. There is no shutdown time."
"Traffic is huge," says Melby, noting that the counties in western North Dakota lead the state in traffic fatalities. But even with negative effects, he says, most people in North Dakota are embracing oil-drilling.
"The state now has an enormous amount of money in its coffers. And remember, North Dakota only has 700,000 people, and it's got a budget surplus of more than $1.5 billion."
An Oil Field Worker's Story
Anita Hayden, 23, works as a roustabout pusher in McGregor, N.D., fixing and maintaining drilling sites. She moved there from the small town of Baker, Mont., with her boyfriend to work.
There was no time for much training, Hayden notes. "I pretty much jumped into the role of the pusher, and I learned as I went. Usually it doesn't happen like that."
She's hoping to put some money away and ultimately move back to Montana to do ranching.
"There's quite a few young people that have just come over because they don't have a job, they don't have girlfriends," Hayden says. "They're just trying to save money — you know, work for two or three years and figure out what they're going to do afterward."
Black Gold Boom is produced in collaboration with Localore, a national initiative of the Association of Independents in Radio (AIR). It's one of several interactive public media stories that NPR's Tell Me More is highlighting.
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, a new documentary sheds light on the sacrifices and risks taken on by Tijuana-based journalists. They put it all on the line to report on Mexico's drug violence. We'll talk with the documentary's director in just a few minutes.
But first, we want to tell you something we've very excited about. It's about new efforts to tell stories in new ways. And the best part is you can participate if you like. Back in December, we told you about the Austin Music Map. That's an interactive map that gives listeners a virtual tour of the city's diverse live music venues - from churches to parades to dance halls.
Today, we bring you the sounds of a changing landscape out west. If you happen to spend time in some of the more remote towns of North Dakota 10 years ago, you might've heard the noise of wind blowing, and not much more. But now the landscape is punctuated by the eerie sounds of oil pump jacks like these.
(SOUNDBITE OF OIL PUMP JACKS)
HEADLEE: Todd Melby has been covering North Dakota's oil boom for public media and he's sharing some of his stories in a project called "Black Gold Boom." It's an interactive documentary that's a guided tour through the oil patches of North Dakota. Pull up the website, you'll be able to see the oil fields of North Dakota grow over time and hear from the men and women who live and work there.
"Black Gold Boom" is a co-production with Local Lore and the Association for Independence in Radio. Todd Melby's kind enough to join us from the epicenter of the activity - Williston, North Dakota. Todd, thanks so much for joining us.
TODD MELBY: Sure. Hi, there.
HEADLEE: And also with us Anita Hayden. She works in McGregor, North Dakota as a roustabout pusher. That means she and her crew help fix and maintain the drilling sites. Anita, welcome to you as well.
ANITA HAYDEN: Thanks.
HEADLEE: So Todd, as I mentioned, there are a number of interactive elements to your reporting project. How do people interact with this website?
MELBY: Well, "Black Gold Boom" is interactive and it's a website that has radio stories, but it also has a lot more. It has videos and this new thing that just launched today is an interactive documentary. So we see videos of what's actually happening out here in western North Dakota. And then folks can, you know, see user generated comments from people who have already been to North Dakota where people give their own tips on how to get a job in western North Dakota if they want to be like Anita or be like many of the thousands of other people that have come here from all over the country to get that oil. And to get the big money that there is out here to make.
HEADLEE: And so that we don't forget it's radio, you've incorporated a lot of sound, including some music. Let's take a listen here to singer-songwriter Kris Kitco.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BLACK GOLD BOOM")
KRIS KITCO: (Singing) How many politicians does it take to screw a town like this? Didn't their mamas ever teach any manners? If you break it, you better find a fix. They turned our roads into deep pot holes and tripled our family's rent. And if you can't pay, well, don't complain. At least you can afford a tent. Is there a way to do this responsibly? Well, that would take time and a little money.
(Singing) And God forbid the oil men should lose another quarter on the hicks in western North Dakota. Oil and money make the town go 'round. And oil and money make the town go down. As long as the bust don't hurt us, track that oil in Dakota town.
HEADLEE: So that's kind of another view of the oil boom. Have you met a lot of people like Kris Kitco here not sold on the whole fracking process?
MELBY: No. Kris is pretty much the only person in North Dakota that's opposed to the oil boom. But, you know, as a good reporter I want to get everybody's point of view in there. There are other singer-songwriters in North Dakota and one of them is Jessie Veeder and she's from Watford City. And she's written about how her hometown has changed but mostly for the better.
Really, North Dakota has embraced the oil boom and there are very few people that are against it for environmental reasons, for sure. But the people that are against it seem to be people who have lived here for a really, really long time and don't like all the changes. Like, they don't like the big trucks barreling down the roads or how the countryside isn't as quiet and pristine as it once was.
HEADLEE: You know, Anita, I looked at where McGregor, North Dakota is on the map. It looks like you moved on purpose to the middle of nowhere. Why did you do that?
HAYDEN: Well, we came over here because of the oil boom and this is - the McGregor area is where we started working at first before we moved south farther. And so that's why we put our shop here. So we're on the north side, kind of, of the big oil boom. So we're kind of in an area that there isn't a whole bunch of traffic, a whole bunch of trucks. So it's really nice to be in where we're at.
HEADLEE: You're 22 years old, right, Anita?
HAYDEN: Well, I just had a birthday, so I'm actually 23 now.
HEADLEE: Well, Happy Birthday to you. I wonder if you would've made a different decision if you were a little older.
HAYDEN: I'm not sure. It just depends on, you know, if I'm older than I am now I probably would've went through college and got my accounting degree and stuff like that. So it could've been different, but it's hard to say.
HEADLEE: It sounds, Todd, from your reporting like the state is really changing rapidly. Todd, you talked to Brian Johnson. He's a former police officer. He worked in Los Angeles for 15 years. Now he works for a company that makes fire retardant clothing for the oil field workers. Let's hear from him.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BLACK GOLD BOOM")
BRIAN JOHNSON: I never thought I'd see a place where I felt driving on the roads would be more dangerous than driving 5 o'clock rush hour in Los Angeles. But coming up here, the traffic on this two-lane highway is - I've never seen anything like it. It's just amazing that these guys are - they're nonstop. And it's not, you know, midnight it's over. It's 3 o'clock in the morning, they're still hauling. It just goes on and on and on. It never ends. There is no shutdown time.
HEADLEE: OK. So, Todd, other than the traffic what's changed in North Dakota?
MELBY: Well, traffic is huge. I mean, the state of North Dakota Highway Patrol just released data about fatalities in the state on the roads, and it's the highest that it's ever been. And the counties in western North Dakota lead the way as far as number of traffic fatalities. So that really shouldn't be underestimated.
But other things that have changed, is that the state now has an enormous amount of money in its coffers. It has more than $1.5 billion for a state that had...
HEADLEE: Holy cow.
MELBY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That's a lot of money. So while other states are, you know, struggling with, you know, how to cut the budget, how to find money, North Dakota is swimming in money. And remember, North Dakota only has 700,000 people and it's got a budget surplus of more than $1.5 billion.
HEADLEE: Well, Anita, paint this picture for us there. I'm kind of imagining this as sort of a San Francisco gold rush boomtown. What is North Dakota like right now?
HAYDEN: Busy. Everywhere is busy. But the towns kind of haven't grown enough for the oil boom yet, so it's kind of really packed a whole bunch of people into smaller towns. Where if it was bigger, like bigger areas, then the towns were bigger, it'd be a lot better.
HEADLEE: Well, Todd, before this oil boom I can't imagine there was a very active night life in Williston on a Friday night, for example. But let's take a listen here. You visited fight night there during one of the boxing matches. Take a listen here.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY "BLACK GOLD BOOM")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Two, three. This is big for Williston to have events.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: As the population grows we need things to do to keep us out of trouble. Agreed?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I like it. I think it's awesome. The fighting, the blood, broken bones. The possibility there's a broken bone.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Our first bout tonight. Let's load up the blue corner, ladies and gentlemen. North Dakota Fighter, six-foot, 140 pounds, Brett Shinner(ph).
HEADLEE: So, Anita, I just heard you reacting to that. Is a woman kind of an anomaly in one of these towns at this point?
HAYDEN: Yes. We are very unique in this area.
HAYDEN: There's not a whole lot of women. There's probably like one to every 10 guys, but...
HEADLEE: So you are popular, Anita.
HAYDEN: Yeah. Pretty much.
HEADLEE: You know, you mention that if you'd been a little older you might've gone through college. Do you see yourself, Anita, staying with this job for years?
HAYDEN: Yeah, I do. My boyfriend's here and, I mean, he owns the company and runs another company, so this is pretty much where we'll stay for a while, in the oil field, until we move back home and then hopefully the oil fields will move south farther.
HEADLEE: Did they train you? Did you show up knowing how to repair things or did you just go to North Dakota for a job and they trained you?
HAYDEN: No. I pretty much just jumped into the role of the pusher and I learned as I went. Usually it doesn't happen like that. Usually you work with somebody and they train you in while you're working with them and then you move from, like, a hand to pusher, but unfortunately I didn't get to do that. I just jumped right in and learned as I went.
HEADLEE: Or maybe you're just a really quick study there, Anita. You know, Todd, I wonder, how does doing something - a project like this, using interactivity - how does that help or not with your reporting?
MELBY: Well, radio is a fantastic medium. We can let people tell their stories and people can imagine what it's like, but video and online data and interactive content really adds another dimension so people can just understand a story better, and so that's what we're trying to do, is - with the addition of these videos that are on the website, people can do all that and get a more in-depth perspective, really.
HEADLEE: So explain to me, Anita. Where did you live before you moved to North Dakota?
HAYDEN: Baker, Montana, where I was born and raised.
HEADLEE: That sounds kind of like a small town too.
HAYDEN: It is, like 2,500 people.
HEADLEE: So is North Dakota busier and more lively than Baker, Montana?
HAYDEN: It is. The area is like Williston, obviously, but over where we're at, it's not. I mean it's smaller, so where we're at specifically, Baker has a lot more stuff going on.
HEADLEE: So you know, I'm not trying to pry into your life plans, but what's the future like for you? Are you putting money away so you can move away from North Dakota at some point? Do you plan to just stay with the oil industry?
HAYDEN: We are starting to put money away to move back to Baker again and we want to do the ranching thing, and so that's what we're kind of...
HEADLEE: When you say we, you mean you and...
HAYDEN: My boyfriend.
HEADLEE: OK. Are you guys pretty typical? I mean are the workers there in North Dakota young people who are kind of trying to save up money to start a life?
HAYDEN: Yeah. There is quite a few young people that have just come over because they don't have a job. They don't have girlfriends or anything like that, so they're just trying to save money for - you know, work for two or three years and then figure out what they're going to do afterwards.
HEADLEE: That's Anita Hayden. She's a roustabout pusher. She and her crew help fix and maintain drilling sites. She joined us from McGregor, North Dakota. And Todd Melby is the reporter and lead producer for Black Gold Boom. He joined us from Williston, North Dakota.
Thanks to both of you.
HAYDEN: Thank you.
MELBY: Yeah, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.