Last week, I mentioned a growing buzz about the Bakken in academic works. Perhaps this is the lag between the Bakken boom and scholarly output.
This weekend, I read Nestor L. Silva’s very recent Stanford dissertation, “Bakken Ecology: The Culture and Space of Fracked Farmland in North Dakota” (2022). It’s good and thought provoking as any dissertation should be.
He argues that settler colonialism created and relies upon the belief that the uncertainty of living in the Bakken (or western North Dakota more broadly) is manageable by controlling human and material variables. Thus Silva located “dominion” associated with settler conquests as the by-product of efforts to manage the uncertain landscape by controlling independent population, adapting to new ecologies, and ultimately balancing between local knowledge (and control) and non-local sources of authority and power. Silva’s dissertation draws on interviews and his personal experiences in Bakken and offers deep perspectives on how companies, local residents, and visiting researchers encountered the boom-time landscape.
There are five things that caught my attention.
1. Soil. One of the most interesting chapters of the dissertation deals with the Pedersen family whose farm near Tioga was the site of one of the largest terrestrial oil spills in US history when a Tesoro pipeline dumped millions of gallons of oil on the land. Tesoro funded a massive clean up that involved literally cleaning the topsoil of the farm and redepositing it. The Pedersen family recognized that it would be difficult to discern the outcome of this process until long after the cleanup was complete. That said, they have confidence that the productivity of their fields would be restored either through technology or through some kind of financial settlement.
Silva does a great job of locating dominion not in some kind of abstract conceptual space of territories or law, but in the actual soil itself.
2. Pipelines. Silva’s discussion of the role of soil as the location for settler dominion in the Bakken extends beyond spill sites. He was particularly sensitive to the role that pipelines play in creating networks of dominion through the Bakken. He notes the tension between the claims that oil companies make the use of pipelines is a “greener” alternative to using trucks and even rail to transport Bakken crude. Silva didn’t overstate and lovely irony of this claim, nor did he overstate the role that pipelines play in making the vagaries of rail traffic more certain for oil producers.
He does note that the construction of pipelines requires the careful removal and replacement of soil. In the semi-arid climate of western North Dakota where soil chemistry is a fragile and inexact science. Even the removal and return of the same soil can cause dramatic decreases in productivity for these areas. This uncertainty requires constant attention on the part of the pipeline builders and farmers. It is not, however, seen as a liability of pipeline building, but as a technical problem that can be solved to ensure that movement of oil and the continued productivity of the soil.
3. Management and Safety. The third chapter of Silva’s dissertation dealt with the way in which companies operating in the Bakken sought to manage the risk and uncertainty present on job sites. He examines his own experiences with OSHA training and his visit to an “active” (although paused for their visit) fracking site with students and faculty from UND.
He examines how OSHA training transferred the responsibility for on-site safety from OSHA or even the company, to the individual who was responsible for not only keeping themself safe but also making sure that the work site remained in compliance with safety standards. Silva might have even gone a step further in understanding that unlike earlier forms of extractive industries, such as mining, where organized labor sought to manage uncertainty for workers (and potentially companies alike), oil companies shunned unions and instead managed the uncertainty associated with potential litigation or even legal penalties associated with accidents by creating an almost impossibly obscure network of subcontractors which isolated the oil companies themselves from the workplace.
At the same time, Silva notes that by making the individual responsible for their own safety, they recognize that individuals introduce unmanageable levels of uncertainty into the system. The response of oil companies to this uncertainty is to isolate responsibility within the worker and then insulating the worker within complex layers of bureaucratized authority.
4. Uncertainty and Bakktimism. When Bret Weber and I were talking to folks in the Bakken, we coined a phrase called Bakktimism which represents the unwavering optimism that we encountered across the Bakken even when the boom itself started to falter. We never, as far as I remember, connected this to settler colonialism. Silva’s dissertation proposed that a belief in the ability of settler society to manage uncertainty was at the heart of this Bakktimism. In other words, Bakktimism isn’t the confidence that things would improve, but rather that economic, demographic, and social paroxysm that characterized a boom-time environment would somehow be normalized.
If we ever get to thinking more about Bakktimism, it would be great to look at our interviews through the lens that Silva established. My feeling is that we’ll find plenty of material to support Silva’s view of settler dominion.
5. Ecologies, Environments, and Ontologies. As an archaeologist, I tend to get preoccupied with the so-called “ontological turn” and efforts to obviate the historical boundaries between human and the material, the social and the natural, and the environmental and political (among many others). Silva’s dissertation dispensed with this academic parlor game by simply assuming that humans, the soil, territory, oil, and institutions exist within the same space. More than that, settler colonialism relied and relies on the continuous negotiation and hybridization of these blurry concepts in the name of managing uncertainty.
One last thing about this dissertation, it has a CC-By-NC license which hopefully means that it finds its ways into the hands of scholars and communities who appreciate it critique with as little friction as possible!