As the U.S. continues consuming 25 percent of the world’s produced oil, while holding less than 3 percent of proven reserves, North Dakota’s Bakken geological formation offers a glimpse of the industry’s Holy Grail: a large domestic source of accessible crude oil. Its extraction is bringing abrupt transformations of the land, massive economic gains (though not for everyone), and a housing shortage so severe that workers bunk in “man camps” that local architects compare (sometimes unfavorably) with post-Katrina FEMA trailers. However long the boom lasts, North Dakota’s natural, built, and social environments are changing irreversibly.
Discovered in 1951, the Bakken formation—a subsurface reservoir 2 miles deep within low-porosity shale—generally resisted conventional drilling methods for decades. Recent advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing make retrieval economically feasible. Oil extractors and auxiliary industries began swarming to North Dakota after a 2008 U.S. Geological Survey report suggested a recoverable amount of 3 billion to 4.3 billion barrels.
Oil plays have raised North Dakotans’ hopes before. After the 1973 OPEC embargo, domestic production picked up in the 1980s. Housing and hotel construction spiked in the North Dakota cities of Minot, Stanley, Tioga, and Williston, the latter of which became “a mini-boomtown,” says Alan Dostert, AIA, president of Grand Forks–based EAPC. “Then the market shut off,” recalls Craig Helenske, AIA, principal of Helenske Design Group in Fargo, N.D. “Some people went bankrupt. A lot of this property went into default. Literally, from the late ’80s until three or five years ago, that same property was just sitting there. No activity, no need, no nothing.”
A once-bitten-twice-shy attitude lingers among developers, bankers, and civic officials. Dostert notes that 30-year mortgages and decade-long booms are an unpromising combination. The state’s Century Code, restricting communities from assuming certain levels of debt even when income is adequate to serve it, impedes construction of facilities needed “now, not two or three years from now when a bond gets paid off,” he says. Helenske describes the conditions as “just an incredible logistics nightmare, [and] it’s almost like a war zone out there.” Industrialization is moving too fast for officials to give zoning, planning, or creative architectural input a moment’s consideration. “What we’re going to end up [with] here,” he fears, “is a countryside that’s going to look like one huge industrial park in the not-too-distant future. Basically, we’re losing control of it. Architecturally, there’s nothing good that’s coming out of this—that will have to come later, when the dust settles.”
Tom Rolfstad, executive director of economic development for his hometown of Williston, studied architecture at North Dakota State University and now works to guide investment in civic improvements. With today’s boom driven by technical progress—not OPEC price manipulations—Rolfstad is among those expecting sustained benefits. His office is seeking $1.5 million in federal Department of Transportation funding to renovate Williston’s Main Street area near its Amtrak station (“a really nice old depot,” he says) and $350 million in state loans for water-supply upgrades. The language of transit-oriented development and smart growth is not prominent in the local vernacular, but Rolfstad believes that fast growth needn’t equal hit-and-run exploitation. “Traditional oil drilling was kind of a boom/bust, because you had limited reserves,” Rolfstad notes. “Now, as we map out just how many wells it’s going to take, we’re [theoretically] talking a minimum of 15 or 20 years.”
The influx of jobs attracts skilled workers nationwide. Improvised housing includes campers connected to every available water/sewer hookup, notes Dostert. In winter, when the mercury can reach –30 degrees Fahrenheit, occupants insulate them with anything from tar paper to hay bales to snow. Apartment rents aren’t advertised; landlords ask for bids. “It’s a really strange demographic, a really strange market,” he says.
Observers credit the oil interests for supplying worker quarters, but “this isn’t housing that you’d want to live in,” says Helenske. “These are basically glorified shipping containers, with maybe a window, a toilet, some ventilation, four bunks—and these guys have to pay over $1,000 a month to live in them.” Locals caution outsiders against drawing inferences about the man camps from frontier history. Conditions are closely controlled, says Dostert.
Wayde Schafer, regional representative of the Bismarck, N.D.–based Dacotah Sierra Club, cites underreported downsides: spills, toxic drilling, mud spreading out of open storage pits during recent floods, the wasteful practice of natural-gas flaring. “Nationally, 1 percent to 2 percent is flared off,” he says, but since foundries can’t keep up with demand for pipelines, and gas isn’t captured for the market, “in North Dakota it’s over 30 percent. You’re getting all of the pollution and none of the energy.”
Schafer also points to incidents eroding community bonds. On July 2, The Bismarck Tribune reported a banker in Beach, N.D., bought apartments, gave longtime tenants a Hobson’s choice between eviction or paying more than double their rent, and replaced them with high-paying oil field workers.
Nearby Native American tribes find the changes particularly troubling, reports Kandi Mossett, an organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), a nonprofit that advocates cultural preservation and environmental stewardship. Inequitably distributed floods of cash, she says, are dividing long-impoverished indigenous communities. Environmental risks disproportionately burden reservation residents. After a blowout near Killdeer, N.D., the IEN warns about further ruptures, she says, noting that pipes for fracking water pass directly beneath Lake Sakakawea, but “all we have is an interim environmental code and a draft emergency management plan that hasn’t even been approved.”
Truck operators are seldom held accountable for damage done on tribal lands; Mossett has seen tribal police pull drivers over for obvious chemical leaks without being able to detain them for inspection. “The oil companies are in charge of their own environmental assessment,” she says. “They’ll write up a two-page report, hand it in, find a FONSI—Finding of No Significant Impact—and then boom! They’re drilling.” A tribal compliance officer taking photos for independent assessment, Mossett notes, was chased away and told to give 30-day notice if he ever wanted to visit the site. “A lot goes unreported here,” she summarizes.
Few philosophical contrasts are as sharp as that between Native Americans’ seven-generation planning and the oil companies’ speed. Helenske, noting that early-stage extraction jobs give way to smaller managerial workforces, recalls that some Bakken-region communities a decade ago benefited from interdisciplinary charrettes with developers, residents, academics, and industry personnel. “I’ve talked to people in Williston about trying to do that,” he says. “The trouble is that they literally don’t even have the time to take a breath.” As industry pursues a bonanza that could alter the national risk/benefit balance in relation to peak-oil predictions and dependence on foreign suppliers, architects could bring some sorely needed skills in complex planning to the table. To date, nobody’s been inviting them.