Witnessing my generation’s gold rush

October 23, 2012

By  Jim Urquhart

He stood there with a shotgun over his shoulder and asked me in no uncertain terms, “What do you think about oil drilling?” And in that moment, the seasoned oil man I had come across pheasant hunting with five of his friends in a field west of the oil boom town of Williston, North Dakota, had me stunned like a deer in headlights.

GALLERY: North Dakota’s oil boom

There was never a threat of danger, but there was definitely a bit of suspicion as to what my motives were. Being obviously out of place, having asked these guys where an oil drilling rig was and after telling them I was a member of the media, I had to pause for a moment.

Part of me was thinking, “Whatever you think of oil is what I think too.” But I just explained to him I had no dog in this fight and was there to document the oil boom. It was the truth and it was all I had.

As it turned out, we were able to have a really good conversation and he pointed me in the right direction. As I drove away I looked back in the mirror. They walked to the west to hunt and paid no attention to me.

But the road to this moment began nearly 4,000 miles and three weeks earlier. I had been assigned to cover the Presidential debate in Denver where the issue of oil drilling and domestic energy came up.

From there I hit the road to travel the midwest, documenting wind farms as part of the side project I had been commissioned to do. It was amazing to log well over 500 miles on dirt and four-wheel-drive roads.

I got away from the hustle and bustle of the cities. I got electrocuted while crossing under an electrified barbed wire fence meant to control livestock and thrown onto my knees into a fresh pile of cow dung. I was out on my own to make pictures. When it became apparent I was going to end up within striking distance of a major news story, it was decided that I should travel to western North Dakota for a couple days. The events taking place in this isolated part of the United States will be debated long into the future.

After spending a couple weeks almost all by myself on the road chasing wind turbines, I threw myself into the exact opposite of the solitude I had been immersed in.

One hundred miles from Williston, lonely roads gave way to a constant flow of high-speed heavy truck traffic. With every mile closer to town, it became apparent that all my ideas of North Dakota were being shattered.

Within 50 miles there was still farmland but you couldn’t travel a mile without seeing a new housing project going up, or new road being cut to an oil rig out in the middle of the corn or wheat fields.

I was witnessing the gold rush of my generation.

The Bakken Formation that sits under the once sleepy town is yielding so much oil that it may become the most productive site in the country’s history. This comes at a time when energy consumption, efficiency and dependency are in the news almost everyday.

With the exploitation of the formation, tens of thousands of people have converged on the windswept plains to take their shot – attempting a fortune in oil and its support industries. I heard figures like $30-40 per hour to work in the oil fields. I even heard that some fast food restaurants were paying $18/hour to start.

Every few miles “man camps” that provide housing to thousands of workers line the highway. Some of them appear to be on par with a luxury getaway, while others are more similar to military barracks. Another option was the scores of camps dedicated to those who brought their own camping trailer to call home. But even these places can cost upwards of $800/month just to park your trailer.

I was able to secure a place to stay at a roadside motel and paid about double what one would expect for similar accommodations in any other city. However, if you included the value of late night drunken parking lot fights (courtesy of the bar next door) then it is a steal of a deal.

But that’s just it. This is today’s frontier; today’s rush to stake a claim of the pie. The promise of high paying wages attracts men and women from all over the country. Well, many more men. During my two days in the area I saw thousands of men and maybe five women. The male to female ratio may make this place uglier than Alaska.

But one thing about being out on the frontier was the lack of red tape to jump through. I was granted unrestricted access to an active oil drill rig.

Once out of the plains southwest of town among the bluffs there were only a couple rules I had to follow – always wear my protective gear (fire retardant clothing, glasses, hardhat, gloves and steel-toed boots) and don’t get hurt. I was jokingly told by one of the crew that if I got killed they had shovels and they would take a break to bury me. I was allowed to be there – I just couldn’t expect anything special and shouldn’t get in the way.

The “roughnecks,” as they are called, work long hours on rigs that don’t stop no matter day or night or weather. The quest for oil pits man against steel and the pressures of the planet.

It’s a carefully scripted dance that takes place as the rig is ready to plunge another length of pipe into the ground. The men know their roles almost as if it’s by muscle memory. Cables were pulled, equipment swung and with little spoken they came together every few minutes to wage war as a team. They all watched out for each other and in turn trusted each other to watch for themselves.

While they earn the title of roughneck they are also “salt of the earth” type of people. They could care less about the words you say. They measure you by the work you do. They welcomed me, the outsider, into their pack – one that works months and months together, weeks at a time. They offered me food when it was time to eat and joked when it was time to laugh. My temporary admission was dependent on not getting in the way and to not expect any special allowances.

None of them were from North Dakota and all had sacrificed, in some respect, to be there. Almost all of them had families and loved ones to support. Being away from home was made worth it by the paychecks that went to their partners.

As I drove away in the afternoon, light dodging around the steady stream of diesel trucks, I thought I finally understood what I was witnessing.

It was almost as if home was the wide open spaces, although they were away from the ones they loved. By being there, they were providing for their loved ones.

I think back to the moment in the field when I first arrived. If I could go back I would tell the hunters, “I am not interested in the oil. I am interested in documenting the men doing the work.”

Twenty-four hours removed and two showers later, I can still smell the mix of oil, diesel fuel and mud on my hands. It makes me want to go back for more. I feel I barely grazed the surface of what is really taking place on the wild, windswept plains. However, I am extremely fortunate to have been able to witness a bit of history unfold right in front of me.


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Im so glad that the midwest is having this. This is pulling people out of poverty and providing the kids and families across the midwest a life that people in DC or Cali is living at the moment.

Posted by deweyblue191 | Report as abusive

Loved this article and the pictures. I’m a geology student, and I’m just rearing to get up there and find some oil!

Posted by jwab | Report as abusive

Superb article. Fantastic photos and a great description of the Bakken field and life there. Please go back! Would be great to see more of your photos and hear more stories.

Posted by JamesUlvog | Report as abusive

Yes, this is good. But what will the midwest do when the oil is gone?

Posted by goodtoberight | Report as abusive

Interesting take on our part of the world and it’s nice to have it played for a change from the human “worker in the field” element. Some of the reflective pictures of the men are stunning as they somehow capture the loneliness that truly does come with these jobs and this area. It’s a crazy place we of the prairie find ourselves in these days with the influx of people and equipment and traffic. Many of us either left all that behind years ago or had never experienced it in the first place. You did a nice job and it sounds like you were here just long enough to figure out why so many of us stay in this desolate part of the US to begin with…

Posted by montanamd | Report as abusive

Hello Jim,
I love your work and photos, they are spot on! I am currently working on a project regarding exactly this in Williston and would love to talk to you ASAP! If you email me when you get this I would really appreciate it! My email is kasiaradka@gmail.com.
Thanks so much and great job again with all your work!! :)

Posted by kasiar | Report as abusive