Meet Another Area 'Blessed' by Fracking
Want to know some of the blessings fracking could bring to North Carolina and northern Moore County? Look at another place with "north" in its name: North Dakota.
Specifically, consider New Town, N.D., whose population is (or was until recently) 1,500 - a few hundred more souls than now inhabit our own Robbins. And clearly, those souls are growing increasingly traumatized now that big-time, get-rich-quick fracking has descended with a vengeance upon their once laid-back community and on the entire western part of their state.
I've never been to North Dakota, way up there in the upper Great Plains. But I happened to find out what has been happening lately in New Town thanks to NPR, which is in the midst of taking a detailed, pro-and-con look at fracking and the oil-and-gas boom all this week. Daily segments from many locales are airing both on "Morning Edition" and on evening "All Things Considered" broadcasts.
This should be must listening for us back here. You can hear replays or read transcripts by going to npr.org and clicking on "Programs." I'll focus here on Monday morning's session, which compelled me to stop in mid-toothbrushing and listen for five or six minutes.
First the good news. North Dakota, which had formerly fallen on hard times, now has a 3.5 percent unemployment rate. The state government enjoys a million-dollar budget surplus. And it's all because of a major petroleum rush that promises to make North Dakota the third-largest oil state, after Alaska and Texas.
The bad news is that those two billion barrels of recently discovered oil - and accompanying natural gas - can't be extracted in the "easy," old-fashioned way by simply drilling holes into high-pressure underground pools and watching the gushers spew and your bank account grow.
Now you have to create the pressure artificially by pumping untold millions of gallons of water and chemicals deep underground and then setting off charges to blast open shale deposits, forcing them to release trapped gas and oil. This is the complicated, costly and controversial process (I hope I got it halfway right) known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Proponents say fracking will create jobs - or at least temporary ones filled by roughnecks and wildcatters from elsewhere. And that seems to be the case in overwhelmed western North Dakota.
"Imagine you live in a small farming town, worried for years about depopulation," NPR correspondent John McChesney reported from New Town. "And suddenly, overnight, the population doubles, and the newcomers are thousands of young men without families. Imagine you live in a tiny town with one main street that doubles as a state highway. ...
"Today, it's anybody's guess how many people live here. No one knows how many 18-wheelers roll through here every day. They just know it never stops. It seems nearly every big tanker truck in America is on the road here, making tens of thousands of trips a day, hauling water, fracking fluid, wastewater, crude oil - and tearing up the roads."
Residents caught up in the boom complain of constant noise, pollution and $7 gallons of milk. The number of rigs drilling into the Bakken oil field is expected to reach 225 by year's end. Each one brings an estimated 120 jobs with it. Once those wells have been exhausted, the crews move on to others. Within 20 years, incredibly, experts predict that western North Dakota could have as many as 48,000 wells.
The area around New Town, where buffalo once roamed, has always depended heavily on tourism. (Sound familiar?) Now, water systems, sewer systems and employee bases are all being bled dry. Roads are crumbling. Harassed local officials spend their days worrying about nothing else. You get a sense of out-of-control chaos.
Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry stages parades and events in an effort to make the community feel good - or at least to get it to hold still until the rape is completed.
One of the last people NPR interviewed was a rancher named Donnie Nelson.
"Just about anybody I've talked to that's a neighbor - and some of them are getting wealthy - are sick of it," he said. "And it's never going to be the same in this country. They're starting to realize that we had it kind of good. Even though we weren't number one in oil and we weren't number one economically and everything, we had a good life up here."
Notice that word "had," as in past tense. Pray that we never find ourselves uttering those same poignantly regretful words down here.
Steve Bouser is opinion editor of The Pilot. Contact him at (910) 693-2470 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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