Blessed Be The Boomtown

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Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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43 Responses

  1. Avatar greginak
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    If there is a significant concern about boomtowns its that they to often, in the west, have been manic scrambles for money, where the already rich, bar owners and pimps made most of the money and leaving a giant environmental mess behind. Of course that is more old west or alaska gold rush story but there have been shades of that in the 20th century.

    We need energy but the lure of bucks is likely to mean enviro concerns get pushed aside for people in the future to clean up the mess. That long standing towns might not develop from people moving there doesn’t really bother me. I think people have felt cheated by booms in the past because the towns that built up around them didn’t last. However people love to forget that the west is a harsh place and not every town is destined to last for centuries. Some places are too remote and hard to support much of town. However lots of people feel that if a boom doesn’t leave a nice town behind it failed.

    Finding booms in ND or oil in other places only leads to many people wanting to ignore renewables. Waiting until we hear the sound of the straw gargling up nothing from the bottom of the well is too late. We should have been pushing on renewables since the 70’s when energy became an issue. We should be driving hard to build up renewables since that is the obvious future and will make the oil we have last longer. The strategic silliness of using our oil as fast as we can and NOW is just stunning. We are going to use all our oil, it is to useful and hard to replace to not use it all. But we should be working at making it last for as long as we can.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to greginak
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      says:

      Significant contamination of the Ohio coming out of the fracking up here.
      And we ought to know better.

      Isn’t it hilarious that we get the Department of the Navy to help out renewables? They’ve got money to fucking burn!

      Any chemist will tell you that burning oil is the stupidest thing since someone invented a toilet seat without a hole.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman in reply to greginak
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      says:

      We’re still where we are. Many of environmentalists’ preferred policies, such as the carbon tax and the like, could well have the effect of keeping the oil in the ground by virtue of making it unprofitable. Supply and demand curves and all that, with positive environmental results (though I have my concerns there, too, to be posted next week probably). I’m more sympathetic to that than I am to simply blocking drilling with hopes of starving the beast. Not that you advocated that, but it seems to be the endpoint of a lot of (but far from all) criticism of drilling.

      Anyhow, I was focusing primarily on the jobs aspect. Like I said towards the end, if we can turn Nevada into a solar power supply for the rest of the country and people go out there by the busload to get it built, then all the better.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to Will Truman
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        says:

        I think it is the mostly the fringe enviros who want to stop using oil yesterday and start riding eco-horses to work. We are going to use all our oil, the question is how long we make it last and do we prepare for not having it. There is certainly a visceral distaste for drilling in some of the enviro side. However, as often gets tossed up in AGW debates, even enviro’s still drive and fly. The obvious take from that is driving and flying are still good things and are oil based so we are still going to use them. Very few people are really for ending all that now.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Will Truman
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        says:

        I wasn’t referring to “stop using oil yesterday” so much as the “Keep finding reasons to get more.” I think that’s more common*, though still nowhere near the drivers’ seat policy-wise.

        * – This came up a while back around here. I ended up perusing the Sierra Club’s website. They want to replace much of fossil fuels with renewables, which is to be expected. But seemed to oppose everything that would close that gap (including nuclear). While I don’t think it’s their position that “We’ll just have to use 33% less total energy” it sure came across to me as that would be the result of their suite of preferences.Report

      • Avatar Dan Miller in reply to Will Truman
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        says:

        I don’t know about “yesterday”, but ultimately we will have to leave a lot of oil in the ground if we want to avoid the really terrifying global warming scenarios. The exact mechanisms by which we avoid extracting it are, to my mind, less important than ensuring that it actually stays out of the atmosphere.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Will Truman
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        says:

        Dan,
        use it for antibiotics. use it for fertilizer.
        We have TONS of uses for oil, nearly every single one better than burning it.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Will Truman
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        says:

        For people on the fence about how aggressively our government should try to tackle the issue and to what extent the towel is thrown, the details are where the devil resides.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Will Truman
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        says:

        Will,
        Krugman had a nice article in the NYT citing Chamber of Commerce data on how much global warming mitigation might cost.

        He’s right. it’s actually pretty cheap.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Will Truman
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        says:

        At some point, I’ll dig up some of the other economic analyses that I’ve seen.Report

  2. Avatar Barry
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    says:

    “If all else failed, though, it is of enormous relief to me that there is a North Dakota. Some place that could very likely use me if I have nowhere else to go. We might be living in a repurposed FEMA trailer, but there is a place to go. I would worry about crime and specifically my daughter, but there is a place to go. Life is accepting that not everything can happen on your terms, and if North Dakota’s terms are what there are, I’m glad that they are there, to the extent that they are, for however long they are.”

    Read Krugman. The boom is tiny, in absolute numbers. It shows up in ND stats because the labor force is small.

    And seconding greginak – in gold rushes, don’t expect the miners to make money.Report

  3. Avatar Saul Degraw
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    says:

    I am going to sign on with what greginak states.

    Boomtowns are great for very brief moments in times but tend to become ghost towns sooner rather than later. There are cities that spring up and remain because of gold rushes and other boom towns like San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle though. It would be interesting to see if any towns can become permanently bigger because of the oil boom in North Dakota or diversify their economies enough to survive.

    My guy feeling is that once this boom ends (and it might take a while), the towns will dry up.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Saul Degraw
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      says:

      My guy feeling is that once this boom ends (and it might take a while), the towns will dry up.

      “As time passes, it too will eventually pass.”

      So?

      Having it for now is better than not having it, even if it isn’t replaced by something else where I hope it is.Report

    • Avatar switters in reply to Saul Degraw
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      says:

      I wouldn’t, and I don’t think Will would, argue with that.

      But like Will, I’m glad that opportunity exists. Not because I expect any town to become “permanently bigger”, but because its nice to have options, to know other people do. Because as bad as that option may be, in this world we live in, its necessarily better than the next-best.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to switters
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        says:

        This. It’s also worth noting that the “brief moments” here can and do last years and decades. My sense, if I were to end up in North Dakota, is that I would try to get out well before the tap has run dry. But opportunities don’t have to be thirty-years-and-a-pension to be opportunities.Report

    • Avatar greginak in reply to Saul Degraw
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      says:

      While there is a sad element to seeing a town dry up and blow away I don’t think it is a terrible thing. It may speak to poor development, maybe, or that the hopes of the settlers were misplaced but the West can’t actually support all the people that might want to live there. Throughout our history settling and building a town was the pinnacle of civilizations, a show of character and proof the was the US was a dream world of hope for the down trodden. But lots of those towns were always going to be ephemeral. Hell there is ruins of town, Rhyolite i think, in Death Valley. DV is beautiful and fun to visit but a hellish place to try to settle. That the town failed is just life.

      I think it is the expectations of people that get in the way a bit. If people can build their life by moving to ND then that is good. However it may not last in building up ND and the people who live there long term may suffer some long term consequences from riding the bust side of the cycle and they may have to clean up or cough up the enviro problems. Quick bucks may cost some people a lot in the long term. That doesn’t mean the quick bucks don’t help some people get out of debt or buy a house and build a life.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Saul Degraw
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      says:

      There are reasons to believe that it’s a very fragile boom as well. We have a pretty good handle on the production expenses now — if oil prices were to approach $80 per barrel, the drilling stops. If ND were to adopt gas-flaring rules like those used in Texas, drilling slows drastically and production costs go up. ND’s state forecasts for production incorporate, in my analysis, a “then a miracle occurs” change in well behavior 20 years out. No one is even considering building a pipeline into the region — Keystone XL is all about moving synthetic crude from the Canadian oil sands to the US Gulf Coast where it can be exported.

      I agree with your gut. Western ND is one of the fossil-fuel-driven anomalies in the overall Great Plains pattern of population collapse. When the boom ends, they’ll return to the 80-year trend, quickly.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw
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      says:

      I don’t see San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle as true boomtowns even though all three of them grew very fast from village to city. The reason why they aren’t boomtowns is that all three developed as service areas for natural resource extraction businesses by providing financial, legal, transportation, and other services. This gave them tremendous advantages in diversifying their economies during and after the boom. All three quickly became industrial and port cities to. True boomtowns are basically places where you keep, feed, and entertainment the workers while they aren’t in the mine, forest, or oilfield.Report

  4. Avatar Wardsmith
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    says:

    Good article Will. I think context is important so let’s look at numbers here: http://m.thefiscaltimes.com/fiscaltimes/#!/entry/10-highestpaying-jobs-in-north-dakotas-oil-boom,52794afa025312186c7a3302

    That article was last year but the range starts about a quarter million per year down to over $100K for relatively entry level work. Therefore I’d say the “miners” ain’t doing too badly. I worked my own way through college being a roughneck on drilling rigs. Back then (late 70’s) I was making serious bank, enough that I paid all my college and living expenses for the year from a few months work.

    As to boom town, who cares? Inhospitable places don’t attract long term tenants, and it doesn’t get more inhospitable than ND, especially in winter. Been there lived that.Report

    • Avatar Michelle in reply to Wardsmith
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      says:

      I’ve heard from anecdotal sources that even burger slingers at McDonald’s are making upwards of $20 an hour because labor is in such short supply in the ND boom towns.Report

      • Avatar Wardsmith in reply to Michelle
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        says:

        Not just anecdotal Cnbc backs you up Michelle. My friend is one of those drilling consultants, except he makes well north of $350k per year ($235k was only the average). He told me of going into fast food restaurants and hiring guys serving them on the spot – after their meal of course.Report

      • Avatar Barry in reply to Michelle
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        says:

        I wouldn’t be surprised, but I’ve also seen horror stories about how much it costs to time-share a bed in a miserable trailer. $20/hr might be subsistence wages.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Michelle
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        says:

        It’s expensive, but if it were that expensive the NYT wouldn’t be so worried about kids skipping college to go out there. As critical as the NYT etc are of the whole thing, even they concede that the pay is good.Report

  5. Avatar Michelle
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    says:

    My only experience with North Dakota was driving through it on Route 94 on our way from Seattle to Philly. That is one huge, desolate state with a whole lot of nothin’ between road stops. We spent the night at a Motel 6 in Bismarck with our two cats, pug, and cockatiel; ate breakfast at the local Denny’s; and then headed out for Minnesota at breakneck speed. At which point, we got pulled over by the North Dakota highway patrol for clocking somewhere north of 90.

    The guy who pulled us over took one look at the backseat of our car, filled with crates holding various beasts, and had mercy, despite the fact that our insurance card had expired and The Russian’s Washington state driver’s license didn’t come up on the computer, which showed him still having a California license. He let us off with a $20 ticket. G-d bless.

    I can see where the economic opportunity would be appealing, but I don’t imagine a lot of people will hang around once the boom goes bust. It’s a lonely place.Report

  6. Avatar Barry
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    says:

    Will Truman:

    “With any luck for them, this will ultimately turn into growth for Fargo and the eastern rim as people explore their options.”

    ‘Rain follows the plow’.Report

  7. Avatar Roger
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    says:

    Great article, Will. I really enjoy this and agree completely with your commentary. In the broader perspective, Boomtowns like this are an essential part of a healthy and dynamic economy.Report

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