BY LISA BARIL
It’s 5:00 a.m. on a July morning just outside Williston, North Dakota, and the thermometer in Joe Wayne’s trailer already reads 78° F. By noon the temperature will climb to 100°, or more, as the sun rises into the Peace Garden state’s vast Midwestern sky. Wayne wedges one foot then the other into his steel-toed leather boots and heads out the door to meet his crew. The long days of summer mean he will likely put in another 17-hours building retaining walls around oil wells, work he performs in the grueling heat of summer and in winter temperatures as cold as 30° below. Wayne is one of thousands who have flocked to the modern day gold rush in the Bakken oil fields—roughly 200,000 square miles yawning across the prairies of northwestern North Dakota, northeastern Montana, and southern Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
The oil boom has created a fresh-take on the Wild West, where men—and it is mostly men—come from all over the country seeking their fortunes. For the past year, Wayne has joined them, making the six hour drive from Livingston to the Bakken. “I’ll go out for two or three weeks at a time and work every day, all day—it’s worth it,” Wayne told the Pioneer.
Oil in the Bakken was first discovered in 1951 and the area has produced oil since 1953, but difficulties in reaching most of it left this area largely somnolent until about 2000, when advanced horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques (now called fracking) made this oil-rich formation accessible. In this controversial method, drills pierce the earth at a depth of two miles then snake sideways to access the oil-rich middle layer of the Bakken formation. A pressurized brew of water, sand and chemicals is then pumped into the well to break up the oil-bearing rock, creating tiny fractures that allow the liquefied remains of dinosaurs squirreled away by the earth millions of years ago to percolate to the surface.
The modern-day black gold diggers’ temporary housing complexes, dubbed man camps, pepper the landscape, providing some of the only topographical relief in the treeless prairie. Man camps stand as row upon row of temporary housing units similar to college dorms in both their sterile appearance and rules. Rules like, no alcohol allowed on site, no smoking in buildings, no guests, and no drugs—the latter of which has become somewhat of a joke since the area boasts one of the fastest growing methamphetamine trades in America.
Without these man camps, most roughnecks wouldn’t be able to afford the inflated rents the oil boom has created. “A house that rented for $400 or $500 a month before the boom now goes for $2,500,” Wayne told us. “Sometimes… $500 a month just gets you a bunk in someone’s camper.”
Wayne is lucky. He doesn’t have to live in a man camp. His boss lets him and the rest of the crew park their trailers on his property at no charge. “I wouldn’t be able to do it otherwise,” said Wayne.
In spite of the strict rules enforced in the man camps and random drug tests employers give their employees, crime has dramatically escalated in the area. From 2000 to 2012 there was a 6-fold increase in the number of assaults and a doubling of murders, according to citydata.com. Disturbingly, sexual assaults, including homosexual rape, according to Wayne, and crimes against women have also escalated, prompting the United States Department of Justice to allocate $3 million to combat the latter in particular. Once well below the national average, violent crime in the Bakken is now 11 percent greater than the rest of the country, much of it a result of the methamphetamine trade.
“It’s the absolute Wild West,” said Wayne, “especially during the summer because there are more people.”
Wayne recalls an incident a few months ago where a meth deal went bad. “They tazed this guy, threw him in the trunk, and dumped his body in a ditch—that’s usually where you find them.” Only this one didn’t die. He managed to crawl to a nearby farmhouse and do what he intended in the first place—turn his drug partners in. His testimony resulted in seven guilty pleas, 20-year prison sentences, and the collapse of a drug trafficking ring that sold meth for over a year in an area that has seen a major drug problem grow right alongside the oil boom.
Drug trafficking has gotten so bad that the FBI established an office in Sidney, Montana, last year that covers the entire Bakken region, and now Montana finds itself battling North Dakota over a permanent station for the two agents.
As local law enforcement and the FBI struggle with the influx of crime the boom has created, the Bakken just yielded its millionth barrel of crude oil back in April, and there is plenty more where that came from. According to conservative U.S. Geological Survey estimates, the Bakken and surrounding oil fields hold 7.4 billion barrels of extractable oil (other estimates indicate 20 billion).
This means plenty more work for Wayne. Not your typical roughneck, he is a plein air and studio oil painter, and a bronze sculptor who has called Livingston home for the last 17 years. For much of that time he made his living as a full-time artist, but, as he said, “It’s really hard to make it as an artist full-time.” So a friend who worked in the Bakken outside of Williston—it seems everyone knows someone in the Bakken—helped him get the job building retaining walls around oil wells.
“I feel like I live in two different worlds,” said Wayne. “When I’m in Livingston I’m an artist, but out there I’m a roughneck.”
Wayne’s art fills his home, studio and garage—impressionistic oil paintings of a fly fisherman casting a line into the Yellowstone River, a stormy day in Paradise Valley, or the Yellowstone River spilling over its banks in spring. Right now he’s working on a commissioned piece for a wealthy doctor. He shows me the painting full of color and light sitting on an easel in his studio at the back of his house. “I like to mix my edges so that it bleeds from one element to the next, so it doesn’t feel so sharp,” Wayne said.
Wayne tried softening the edges of his two worlds by bringing some of his artwork to the Bakken. “For a while I’d bring a painting or a sculpture that I’d just finished to show people and just to have it out there to try and remember my goals, but no one knew what to say and they weren’t interested in it either,” said Wayne. “People don’t get me out there. There is no culture there, and that is the culture.”
The irony between his nature-inspired art and working in the oil fields is not lost on Wayne. “On the one hand, I’m an artist painting nature, but on the flip side, I’m out there destroying it.”
It’s hard to reconcile his sensitive artistic nature with the things he’s seen and heard out in the Bakken. There was an incident at a local bar called the Double Barrel. “I go there because it’s one of the few places that serve food,” said Wayne.
“But this one night,” as Wayne described it, “a guy came in and pulled a shotgun on someone. He was tackled to the floor and the gun was taken away, but he had a pistol hidden under his clothes so he grabbed for that and pointed it at a waitress. Luckily, he never got off a shot. Next day, the waitress quit.”
People from all over the country come and work there, Wayne told us. “They could come in, commit a murder, leave, and never be caught. That’s just what it’s like out there.”
Although Wayne avoids that kind of trouble in the Bakken, that doesn’t mean it’s safe.
With so many vehicles traveling the recently built roads, used to transport men, equipment, and oil, “the ruts get so deep,” Wayne explained, “that there’s a real danger of going off the road, especially while sharing it with the numerous 40-foot long oil-bearing trailers. Wayne said he’s been run off the road several times. A friend he worked with was just 20 years old and got into a head-on collision, along with four other people. “You just get to know somebody, and they are dead,” said Wayne.
Wayne has worked in the Bakken for a little over a year now and the rawness of the work and landscape are beginning to influence his thinking about art. Eventually, he plans to create bronze sculptures that capture his experiences in the oil fields.
Back in his home studio, Wayne shows me a life-size bronze sculpture of a red-tailed hawk clutching a gray partridge with its talons (above), but it’s so secondary that I don’t catch it right away. It isn’t until I walk around it that it begins to take shape. “With sculptures,” said Wayne “you have to look at it from all sides to appreciate it.”
While Wayne is grateful for his job in the Bakken, he hopes to get back to his art full time. “No matter what happens in my life, my art is always waiting for me like a jealous lover,” he said.
But, if Wayne wants it, there will be work for decades and even generations of oil workers to come as the once quiet prairies continue to be transformed by an ever increasing number of oil wells, big trucks, roughnecks, and crime that has escalated out of control, as drug dealers work unfettered by law enforcement. The Bakken is the new Wild West, and it’s not nearly as romantic as old movies would have us believe.