Extractive Industries, Climate Change, and Capitalism in the Bakken

Over the last week or so, I’ve been working on my paper for the 2020 ASOR annual meeting. The paper is officially titled “North Dakota and the Middle East: The Bakken Oil Patch in a Global Perspective,” but if I could, I’d change that to “Extractive Industries, Climate Change, and Capitalism in the Bakken.” The paper will appear in a routable called “Archaeology and Climate Change: New Challenges to Fieldwork in the Middle East” convened by Ömür Harmanşah. Since, the roundtable will primarily focus on a conversation among participants, our paper are to be kept short (<10 minutes). Mine is  perhaps slightly long, but I figure I’ll tighten it up a bit before it’s read to go live.

I feel like this paper is the first tentative step toward understanding our work in the Bakken in a new way. If you want to get some broader context on my thinking, I posted a four part series last week that sort of sketched some approaches:

Approach 1: assemblages
Approach 2: flows
Approach 3: fieldwork
Approach 4: history

As always feedback, comments, or complaints are always welcome.

“Extractive Industries, Climate Change, and Capitalism in the Bakken”

The archaeology of contemporary climate change has a necessarily global scope, but as Charles Orser famously quipped, archaeologists are generally inclined to “think globally, dig locally” (1996). Since 2012, I’ve worked with a team of archaeologists to document workforce housing in western North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch. While our work has considered workforce housing through the lens of domesticity, colonialism, migration, and the landscapes of work, this will be our first focused effort to think about our project as the archaeology of contemporary climate change. The goal of my very short introduction to our work to consider the relationship between extractive industries, climate change, and capitalism in the Bakken…

At first blush, the Bakken oil patch in western North Dakota appears to have little connection to the Middle East. In fact, the oil booms of the early 1950s, 1980s, and in the 21st century correlate closely with political situations in Middle East, from the first post-colonial moves to nationalize oil production in Iran (1951) and share profits in Iraq (1952), to the nationalization of ARAMCO in 1980 in the aftermath of the 1970s US oil crisis, and the long messy legacy of the Second Gulf War in the 21st century. It is largely a coincidence that two North Dakotans, Thomas Barger and Frank Jungers led ARAMCO in the 1960 and 1970s, but less coincidental that companies like Haliburton and Schlumberger were active in both the Bakken and Middle East, as was Target Logistics, who at one point accommodated 1% of the state of North Dakota’s population in their various workforce housing sites. Of course, the various Bakken oil booms also align with changes in the post-war American economy and society as well, from the rapid expansion of consumer culture, suburbanization, and automobiles in the 1950s to the rise of the gig economy in the aftermath of the “Great Recession” in the 21st century.

The 21st century Bakken boom describes the massive influx of workers into the predominantly rural counties of western North Dakota. The need for workers both in the oil industry and elsewhere in the overheating regional economy exceeded housing capacity and this led to a range of ad hoc and provisional response from both workers and the overwhelmed municipalities.

The stories of workers camping out in the Williston Walmart parking lot and local parks made national headlines. In response to this situation, Williston, the largest city in the Bakken region, approved “man camps” within their expanded jurisdiction to accommodate the influx of workers. National and global logistics companies constructed and managed these facilities to serve the needs of other large companies who sought lodging for shifts of workers arriving in western North Dakota to drill for oil, to build pipelines, or to improve local infrastructure. Additionally, Williams, Mountrail, and McLean counties provided provisional zoning for outside investors seeking to build RV parks for temporary workers without connections to major companies or who were looking for work. The result was a patchwork of over 100 workforce housing sites across the region that provided shelter for workers in a wide range of conditions.

The most elaborate housing sites, such as those erected by Target Logistics, provided clean housing, decent food, and limited amenities to thousands of workers. The single or sometimes double rooms were standardized and workers who came to the region for four or six week shifts had limited opportunities to personalize their space. The public spaces of these camps were plain, but functional, enlivened only by the occasional print of generic patriotic or natural scenes.

The situation in RV parks was more varied and attracted more of our attention. In general, residents owned their RVs and at the height of the boom, RV parks showed a remarkable range of efforts to customize these spaces and adapt them to the challenges of the North Dakota winter. The most elaborate RVs featured not only insulated skirting around the sides, but also fenced yards, gardens, raised walkways, cooking, eating and socializing areas, and storage sheds. Elaborate mudrooms are perhaps the quintessential feature of these units. In their simplest form they constituted a lean-to aligned with the door of the RV where residents could extract themselves from their work and winter gear. Not infrequently they also provided space for storage, additional living space, and transformed the rectangular RV into a L-shaped building that also offered more privacy for their outdoor space.

When we first visited the Bakken we couldn’t escape admiring these innovative efforts to expand and adapt RVs into full time, if temporary residential structures. These architectural adaptations almost led us to overlook the fragility of water and sewage infrastructure in many of these camps, the dust and mud that were constant parts of daily life in the spring, fall, and summer, and the desperate attempts to fortify the RV from the biting North Dakota cold wind. Moreover, by 2015, counties had begun to pass new ordinances restricting how residents could adapt their RVs. They banned skirting that rendered the RV immobile and mudrooms, for example. As the intensity of the boom declined owing to lower oil prices and improved technology in drilling, the number of residents in RV camps declined as well and many camps took on a rougher, more forlorn appearance. Abandoned camps have left their scars on the prairie landscape as gravel pads, buried pipes, and discarded polystyrene, treated wood, wiring, metal, and other detritus complicates returning these sites in agricultural production.

Efforts by temporary workers in the Bakken to personalized their living spaces demonstrated an effort to re-create some of the pleasures of an American suburb even as foreclosures displaced many of the same workers from their suburban homes. Hostile municipalities, the risks associated with work in the oil industry, the volatility of global markets, and the challenges associated with substandard housing, reflected the kind of “structural violence” inherent in capitalism that Michael Roller has associated with life in late 19th century coal towns of western Pennsylvania. In North Dakota, it is notable that restrictions on workforce housing did not accompany efforts to improve workers safety or environmental protection. Throughout the second decade of the 21st century, the Bakken maintained one of the worst records of worker safety in the US and has experienced major spills of both oil and waste water. Alongside these problems, writers have long recognized the violence of hydraulic fracturing, the dominant form of technology used to extract oil from the tight shale of the middle Bakken formation.

Over the last decade, the Bakken has been a center for recent efforts to highlight the relationship between extractive industries and climate change. The protests associated with the Dakota Access Pipeline, which links the Bakken to the Pakota Oil Terminal in Illinois, offered an explosive reminder of the strong ties between colonialism, extractive industries, and the state violence in maintaining our uninterrupted access to petroleum. Our work in the Bakken, at the start of the pipeline, sought to make visible a more subtle indication of these same violence in the housing of the temporary workforce who makes our persistent dependence on fossil fuels possible.

Few can deny that the contemporary climate crisis represents a moment of existential violence for many communities around the world.

The Bakken and Climate Change: Assemblages

Next week, I’m participating in a roundtable at the ASOR annual meeting. This roundtable is titled “Archaeology and Climate Change: New Challenges to Fieldwork in the Middle East” and it is convened by Ömür Harmanşah.

I’ve been thinking about ourr paper pretty non-stop this weekend. It’s titled “North Dakota and the Middle East: The Bakken Oil Patch in a Global Perspective.” 

I’ve come to the unsurprising conclusion that the Bakken is not in the Middle East (at least as it is conventionally understood). Fortunately, the current organization of the panel is for us to have only 8-10 minutes to discuss our work and then for the panel to become a more open conversation between the participants and the audience. I like this format, but I’ll have to think a bit carefully about how I frame my paper so that it can contribute to the all-star cast that Ömür has assembled whose work is decidedly more focused on the Middle East and more scientifically rigorous than our work in the Bakken. 

Over the next four days, I’m going to propose four different possible approaches to how we present our work in the Bakken in a global context. This not only reflects my own uncertainty about how to make our work relevant to this panel, but also reveals a bit about how academic knowledge is made. 

(Digression: I find myself increasingly unsatisfied with certain trends in our public discourse and among academics committed to public scholarship. First, there is this consistent view of science as a kind of solution to problems. This is particularly visible in the response to the COVID pandemic where people state more and more shrilly that we need to follow “the science.” While I don’t disagree with this at all, this rhetorical position assumes that there is a single “science” that explains exactly what we should do to avoid The COVIDs, but also that science can and will provide clear solutions to complex problems. 

This kind of rhetoric seems to parallel a certain approach favored by academic who write for a public audience. While their work is generally estimable, they often present their expertise through a series of clear answers to complicated social problems or through a journalistic fetishization of facts and factoids. To be clear, this isn’t bad, but I find it a very unsatisfying reflection of how scholars produce academic knowledge and the fuzziness, insecurities, and ambiguities that accompany that process. 

One of things that I try to do on this blog is to reveal the fuzziness of academic knowledge making and the fragility of claims to expertise. The main way that I try to do this is by making public my own process and revealing my insecurities. This is my modest effort to push back against some of the solutionist rhetoric, our fetishization of “settled facts,” and ways that we’ve tried to heroize experts.)

Four Approaches to The Bakken, Climate Change, and the Middle East:

Approach 1: assemblages
Approach 2: flows
Approach 3: fieldwork
Approach 4: history

Climate change is a global phenomenon with roots in deep time. As the participants in this workshop know, understanding climate change through time involves integrating proxies that provide insight into past conditions on a variety of scales: from Arctic ice cores to lake sediments and tree ring data and even more local evidence from texts and archaeology. This multiscalar approach to understanding climate change parallels approaches to climate justice that function at different scales – from global climate treaties to calls to “think global and act local” that have long been part of the American environmentalist rhetoric.

Our work in the Bakken was from the start multiscalar even if we learned the significance of our project for understanding both climate change and larger issues of environmental justice along the way. From the Late Devonian to Early Mississippian date of the Bakken formation itself to the rapid expansion of settlement during the 21st century oil boom, the counties of western North Dakota represent a diverse assemblage of chronological time. This assemblage speaks not only to the connection of the contemporary climate regime in the deep time of the Bakken formation which dates to roughly 350,000 million year ago, but in the shorter term cycles of boom and bust that have defined settler colonial exploitation of this region. The arrival of railroads in the last decades of the 19th century triggered the founding of the county seats of Williston (named after Daniel Willis James who was a friend of James J. Hill), Stanley, and Watford City as well as settlements and homesteads strung along the Great Northern Railway’s High Line. The arrival of the railroad opened western North Dakota to large scale agricultural exploitation which fed the mills of Minneapolis (and after 1922 the State Mill and Elevator in Grand Forks) and provided a precarious existence for farmers in this semi-arid region. In the 1930s, efforts to recover oil from under the gentle ridge of the Nesson Anticline suggested that it was possible, but perhaps not particularly profitable. Technological advances and more ambitious prospecting led to the first commercially viable wells in the 1950s and initiated the first of three Bakken oil boom in the late 20th and early 21st century. The Bakken oil fields are also essentially contemporary with the negotiation of post-colonial agreements involving the oil reserves in Iraq and Iran and the large scale exploitation of oil in Saudi Arabia and effectively contemporary with our ability to measure fluctuations and increases in atmospheric temperatures on the global temperature (first via weather balloon and then satellite). It goes without saying that efforts to exploit Bakken oil reserves coincided with the post-war economic boom in the US and the growth of suburbs, automobile ownership, and late-20th century consumer culture. 

The North Dakota Man Camp project which continues at a very low simmer even today, looked to document the rise in temporary workforce housing in the Bakken counties of western North Dakota. These sites which we studied while still active or only recently abandoned are the some of the most ephemeral cogs in the global petroleum infrastructure, American consumer culture, and practices that have contributed to recent trends that indicate a rapid, anthropogenic, increase in global temperatures.

In the 21st century, the Bakken oil boom depended not only on horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technology to exploit the “tight oil” associated with the dolomitic middle Bakken, but also an American labor market made more fluid and mobile by the financial crisis of 2008 as well as the displacements triggered by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Deep Water Horizon spill of 2010.  

This expansive introduction isn’t to meant to directly relate all of these events to the episodic efforts to exploit the Bakken oil patch but to locate our research sites within an assemblage of chronologies that requires us to understand climate change across a range of scales. 

Upton Sinclair’s Oil and John Sayles’s Yellow Earth

It took me a while to figure it out, but now that I’ve (finally) finished reading Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, my understanding of John Sayles’s novel Yellow Earth is much better. 

For folks who lack the Wikipedias, Oil! was published in 1926-1927 and today is perhaps more famous for controversy surrounding a rather chaste sex scene which got the book banned in some cities than its plot or its message. The book loosely follows the life of Bunny Arnold who is the son of an increasingly wealthy oilman in California. It is set against the backdrop of the early-20th century oil boom in Southern California and the  corruption, exploitation, radicalism, and glamour of early 20th century America.  Over the course of the book Bunny grows up and become more and more “woke” through his interaction with workers in the California oil fields, his university education, and his friendship with Paul Watkins, a labor organizer and eventual communist. Despite Bunny’s wealth, he becomes a radical social justice warrior who by the end of the book dedicates his life and what’s left of his father’s fortune to the founding of a socialist labor college.  

The charm of the book largely comes from the characters that conform to the rigid stereotypes. The corrupt businessmen are rabidly corrupt; the beautiful actresses are extraordinarily beautiful; the pious and idealistic communists, socialists, and labor union organizers are delightfully rigorous. Even when Sinclair draws on real characters he manages to preserve a sense of satire which is nowhere more visible as in his thinly veiled depiction of “Sister Amee” in the character of hypocritical evangelist Eli Watkins. A gently fictionalized reference to the Teapot Dome scandal offers another historical anchor for the novel.

Sinclair’s satirical novel leans upon these stereotypes as a way to critique both capitalists and radicals alike. Yellow Earth is its sequel. Like Oil!Yellow Earth similarly relies on a cast of stereotypical characters whose interactions are anchored loosing in a muder-for-hire scandal surrounding Tex Hall, one time chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota’s Bakken Oil patch who encouraged oil development on reservation lands. In fact, on my first read, I was not a little offended by Sayles’s cartoonish depictions of Native Americans, Bakken oil workers, opportunistic grifters and the like.

A series of oblique references to Sinclair’s Oil! however makes Sayles intent clear. Bunny Skiles, for example, is the scheming con-man Brent Skiles’s wife. At the end of the novel she boards a train headed for Southern California to meet with a lawyer not only to arrange for a divorce from the steroid-raging Skiles, but also to secure her share of his is assets. Undoubtedly this lawyer is the same individual who represented the Arnold family after the death of the patriarch at the end of Oil! Other references abound. Brent Skiles, for example, is clearly a reference to the shadowy Ben Skutt who in Oil! who helped the oil companies break strikes by infiltrating unions, inciting violence, and, at one point, pretending to be a communist in order to have the unions declared illegal. Similarly the real estate agent J.C. Hardacre in Oil! Reappears as the petroleum geologist Randy Hardacre in Yellow Earth. In one of the more painful efforts to connect the two books, the exotic dancer with a good heart Jewelle alludes to the Jewish radical Rachel Menzies who Bunny marries toward the end of Oil! The characters do not map neatly onto one another, of course, but enough cross references exist to make clear that two books are in dialogue with one another.

Sayles replaces the loping, leisurely pace of Oil! with the frantic, compressed time of the Bakken oil boom. Yellow Earth takes place over just one year marked the pregnancy of Fawn over her senior year in high school. Sayles swaps out the painfully earnest radicalism of Paul Watkins for the Ayn Rand and steroid-fueled hyper capitalism of Brent Skiles. Some of the power of Yellow Earth comes not through the story and characters but as a commentary on how far the Bakken oil boom and our 21st century attitudes toward capital, profits, wealth, extractive industries, and speed have come from from the days of Sinclair’s Oil! Unlike Sinclair’s novel, where the lines between the radicals and the oil industry are drawn in blood and violence, Sayles blurs morality throughout Yellow Earth.  There are characters who appear to be good and characters who are undoubtedly evil, but they don’t align. There is no confrontation here and, as a result, no real resolution. As oil prices decline at the end of the boom, the profiteers get increasingly desperate and the characters who have come to make their money slowly disperse in search of the next opportunity.

It may be that by foregrounding this indeterminacy, driven as much by the complexities of the global oil market as the doings of any individual or the corruption of their business, Sayles’s work responds most clearly to Sinclair’s novel. Sinclair located his characters at the center of the oil industry and largely in control of their own fates. For Sayles, the characters in his novel wrestle as much with the oil itself and the vagaries of a global market as they did one another. There is a constant sense of the Bakken as periphery and no matter how much Ayn Rand Brent Skiles read and despite Harleigh Killdeer’s claims of “sovereignty by the barrel” the oil itself controlled the outcome of events. 

Leia Nilsson is a wildlife biologist in Yellow Earth, who has come to study a prairie dog coterie. She gives the critters classical names: Odysseus, Ajax, Niobe, Hera. A drilling platform ultimately displaces this little community of prairie dogs and Leia contracts Jett to suck the rodents from their burrows so she can relocate them across the road. Despite this displacement, the prairie dogs continue to play out their daily lives, struggle with one another for dominance, and mate. Even the most superficial reader will catch that the story of the prairie dogs is the story of Yellow Earth. The prairie dogs might, at best, be the Watkins family in Oil! Unlike Sinclair’s Watkins family, who find their own way and ultimately negotiate their own fate against the backdrop of capitalism, oil, and world events, Sayles’s prairie dogs and characters are simply actors on a stage for whom choice only appears to matter. 

Covering The Beast and the LA Review of Books

I dedicated most of this weekend to production stuff for the next two books from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota: The Beast and Protesting on Bended Knee: Dissent, and Patriotism in 21st Century AmericaWhile my work on Protesting involved adjusting margins and adding (and then revising) about 300 hyperlinks, my work on The Beast nudged us from a bunch of disassociated files to something that looks to all the world like a book!

For those of you who don’t know what The Beast is about, it’s a book length comic from Ad Astra Comix that tells the story of a couple who work to “make a living on a dying planet” against the backdrop of the Ft. McMurray tar sands, the various industries that present the oil industry to the general public, and the looming threat of “The Beast,” the massive wildfire that devastated the region on 2016. Without spoiling the story, the comic traces the lives of two media professionals as they intersect with each other and with the oil industry. Their stories – and the backdrop of overpriced hotels, bars, precarity, and the oil industry – will resonate with readers familiar with work in the Bakken or extractive industries around the world. The connection with oil, however, makes it part of The Digital Press’s Bakken Bookshelf.

Get the comic today from Ad Astra Comix

Then, download the Expanded Digital Edition next month from The Digital Press

Working on this book has been a tremendous privilege not only because of its content, but also because of the artists and writers who have helped make the Expanded Digital Version possible. Hugh Goldring, from Ad Astra has been exceptionally open to our collaboration. The designer and illustrator of The Beast, Nicole Burton, produced an tastefully updated cover for the Expanded Digital Version (presented below in draft).  

BeastCoverDraft

And, finally, Patrick McCurdy has worked closely with me to bring together an exceptional group of contributions for the expanded edition. These not only locate The Beast in current debates in petroculture, media studies, and the history of serious comics, but also make clear that The Beast is meant to start a wider conversation about the impact of oil on society more broadly.

In fact, it’s beyond exciting to see that this conversation has already begun with this long interview by Daniel Worden in the Los Angeles Review of Books with Nicole, Hugh, and Patrick. Check out the interview, buy a copy of The Beast, and stay tuned for the Expanded Digital Edition later this month!

Final Draft: The Bakken Gaze

Last week, I posted a serialized (actually in process) version of my paper, “The Bakken Gaze: Tourism, Petroculture, and Modern Views of an Industrial Landscape,” for the Northern Great Plains History Conference. On Friday, I tightened it up some and cut some words (although it’s probably still too long). 

The paper explains my interest in using tourism as lens to understand the Bakken oil patch and is written to support the release of a book that Bret Weber and I co-authored titled, The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape and published by NDSU Press this month (!). You can preorder the book now.

Or, better still, you can read, download, or comment on the paper via the Hypothes.is plug in here. Or you can join us at the Northern Great Plains History conference on Thursday from 2-4 at the Ramada Inn in beautiful Grand Forks, North Dakota!

BakkenCover

The Bakken Gaze: Tourism, Petroculture, and Modern Views of the Industrial Landscape (Part 3)

Here’s the final installment of my paper for the Northern Great Plains History Conference next week here in Grand Forks. 

As I wrote about on Monday, I had hoped to make this paper paper more accessible and more breezy and personable, but by about word 1500, it had turned into the typical academic trudge. (I did manage to avoid using the word Foucauldian until 1600 words in!). Here are links to part 1 and part 2

That being said, I think it is probably the best thing I’ve managed to articulate on book, The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape (2017). You can preorder the book now.  

I’ll post a more complete and ideally more polished version of the paper in a few days!

“The Bakken Gaze: Tourism, Petroculture, and Modern Views of the Industrial Landscape” (part 3)

To return to the Bakken. It is simple – and superficial – enough to note that the Bakken and tourism relied on the same fossil fuel revolution that powered westward expansion in the United States, the growth of the middle class (and a persistent cycle of capital deepening) and the rise of tourism as mode to recognize the totalizing discourse of industrial modernity. More importantly, I think, is that tourism embodies this tension between the convenient familiarity of the modern world and the quest for authenticity. The rutted routes of the oil patch are literally inscribed with the movements central to a historic Bakken taskscape that has all but eliminated the possibility of being local. The stunning night vistas offered by flaring natural gas from a hotel parking lot in Watford City are in some ways indistinguishable from the well-known satellite photo that shows the Bakken aglow with light from flares and electrical lights. 

The term “the Bakken” further demonstrates how modernity has coopted the very authenticity that its absence was though to produce. While I have used the Bakken as shorthand for a part of the 200,000 sq. mile oil patch in western North Dakota, eastern Montana and southern Saskatchewan, the name derives from the North Dakota farmer Henry Bakken and, in fact, refers to a relatively thin layer of oil bearing rock some 3 miles below the surface of the ground. As another well-known image demonstrated, Bakken wells if extended above ground would produce a skyline that would put Manhattan to shame. Last year’s controversy over the Dakota Access Pipeline further reveals how even the physically occluded Bakken taskscape stands prominent in our modern awareness of that place, perhaps, leaving only the Native American landscapes as a window into an authentic North Dakota past. 

In a sense, then, a tourist guide is not some kind of cypher that reveals hidden meaning to the educated visitor to the Bakken, but an effort to understand the complexities of the modern world. In this way, I think that the tourist guide offers “an archaeology” in a Foucauldian sense of describing the physical discourse of petroculture in the Bakken taskscape. The man camps, convenience stores, small-town mainstreets, rail yards, tank farms, drill and workover rigs, roadside memorials, boot cleaners, pallets fences, frank tanks, bobbing sucker rod pumps, and salt water wells are not foreign to our modern world, but part of its fabric. Oil production and the habits formed by its consumption is the modern world, and ss my editor noted when our book was still in draft, there are no locals in the modern world, only tourists.