Monthly Archives: January 2012

Reality and Myth in North Dakota’s Oil Fields

Recently the contemporary Herodotus of the Northern Plains and the contemporary Herodotus of the Eastern Med took to investigating a list of cultural and social grievances that came out of the oil fields of central and western North Dakota. Drawing from this, I couldn’t help but thinking how both North Dakota State University’s Tom Isern and University of North Dakota’s William Caraher carry on a scholarly tradition that seeks to extract a variety of meaning from one particular data set.

In the late-19th century Andrew Lang said “Tales, at first, told of ‘Somebody,’ get new names attached to them, and obtain a new local habitation, wherever they wander.” In “On Fairy-Stories,” John Ronald Reuel Tolkein remarked how truth is reflected in fiction, if not an external reality than most certainly a psychological one. Other writers and scholars come to mind, including Jonathan Swift and his Gulliver’s Travels, or Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein. The former Swift brought the reader into a new world through otherwise fictional accounts (much in the way the Rennaissance Physician François Rabelais did with his Gargantua and Pantagruel), and through this fiction readers could begin to empathize with a number of individuals and scenarios that they normally would not encounter in their day-to-day lives. In the latter case of Shelley, the mid-19th century conflict between the possibilities and real or perceived horrors of science and humanity manifested themselves in the monster created and brought together by Dr. Frankenstein — perhaps the monster is a prologue description of the modern day corporation, a cobbling together of different human parts that is brought to life through the science of electricity and rationality, and a monster/corporation that acts predictably in some ways, but starts doing strange things in many other ways. Or perhaps it’s a story about how local villagers cannot accept change and modernity, mistakenly thinking that things have been one way and one way only, and by golly they are going to stay that way if I have anything to say about it.

The point how all of this relates to circulated e-lists from North Dakota’s oil field is made, though. Fiction, or what is perceived as fiction, is a powerful window into reality. The rumors circulating in North Dakota’s Bakken oil field say just as much about the oil field as they do about the individuals who 1) composed the list(s); 2) of individuals who find components of the list agreeable or disagreeable; and 3) of individuals who circulate and forward the list (and individuals who blog the list on-line). We all carry cultural baggage — aka, value judgments — where ever we go, and this cultural baggage is what makes us human. This is why it is so necessary to have Iserns, Carahers and others of the world examine that evidence. They do so for a variety of reasons, and not necessarily to demonstrate who is Right and who is Wrong. Rather, it is to see just what kind of information can be extracted and squeezed from a particular data set, in this case a purported list that purportedly purports to describe the purported happenings taking place in the North Dakota oil field.

TransCanada’s Keystone Pipeline: Culture on the Great Plains, Then and Now

Federal politicians have lately adhered to the Loyal Opposition maxim when it comes to yelling-matches surrounding the Keystone Pipeline — the phrase “talking past one another” comes to mind. If a person thinks they are going to do some research and get the real and honest truth, they are put up against listening to the republicans, then going and listening to the democrats, and then returning and listening to the republicans, and then listening to ecologists, and then democrats, and then oil tycoons, and then entrepreneurs, and then republicans, and then capitalists who don’t know they are Max Weberists instead of Adam Smithists, and then more of republicans who sound like Marxists rather than — oh, hell, nevermind…

You’ll notice that an understandable concern in proposing this new pipeline is environmental, and the legislation responsible for elevating these environmental concerns are a byproduct of the EPA agency started by Richard Nixon. Lacking from much of the discussion, though, are cultural sites that may be disturbed and may currently be in the pipeline way. And cultural sites means anything current or past that had to do with Homo sapiens, or also what in the business we call “us.”

An Autumn 2009 photo of a section of the Keystone pipeline in eastern South Dakota.

Between 2005 and 2009, I gladly (value-judgment alert!) worked on various survey and reporting components of the TransCanada Pipeline in the eastern Dakotas. The pipeline portion I worked on concerned the segment stretching from north of Walhalla (North Dakota) down to Yankton (South Dakota). While surveying the proposed pipeline route, our on-the-ground crew was often happy to report to the above-ground planners (the engineers in an office somewhere in non-Dakota) that they needed to re-route the pipeline in several areas. In some cases the proposed pipeline ran right through individual homes; in other cases the proposed pipeline ran right through sacred Native and non-Native American sites. The whole idea behind our historical, anthropological, archaeological, and architectural historical work was simply to get on the ground data by physically walking the landscape and the proposed route. Through this we could locate and identify culturally rich and sensitive sites and areas that the proposed pipeline touched. In the sense of the long historical duration, we did this because Theodore Roosevelt originally recognized the importance of it all at the beginning of the 20th century  (see the American Antiquities Act of 1906): in short if we, as Americans, want more than a throw-away culture, then we need to understand and recognize the richness of our cultural past.

Some highlights of recognizing that past during the eastern Dakotas segment of the pipeline were:

1) With local tribal liaisons, we were able to identify sacred areas and ensure the pipeline was either re-routed; or ensure that these areas received proper documentation and mitigation. By sacred areas, I mean that we ensured the pipeline was not run through a Native American site that was no more or less religiously important as a proposed pipeline route that went, for example, underneath the Vatican, or your local church, synagogue, mosque or sanctuary.

2) Through oral histories, we ensured the pipeline avoided Euro-American burials. Two specific cases that come to mind: 2a) an old-timer walked out and told us where his still-born brother was buried approximately 80+ years ago, and through this the pipeline was rerouted; and 2b) another interview with a woman who identified a rural, countryside grave. This grave was not in a formal cemetery, but rather on a section line. Had we not chatted with this lady, the rock pile that marked the grave would almost have certainly been mistaken for a standard rock pile that farmers often create to keep the stones out of the fields and away from wrecking their implements.

3) We monitored the pipeline during actual construction, too. If there were cultural remains present, then we would figure out where they came from.

Below are some short clips taken during the September 2009 construction component of the pipeline that now runs north-south through the eastern Dakotas.

One angle of a 450D LC working its way across a creek.

The pipeline needs to be set below ground surface, and in some cases Sioux quartzite needs to be busted through…

The crane lowered a weighted vibrator down on to the metal walls, working it into place to create a trench for the pipeline. In other cases a large jack-hammer was brought in to break up the pink Proterozoic quartzite (aka, the Sioux quartzite, or the stuff numerous National Register of Historic Places buildings are constructed with in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, among others).

There is no doubt that a Keystone Pipeline creates jobs (then again, pistol-whipping someone also creates jobs, but nevermind), and that a future Keystone Pipeline will create more jobs. I am interested in getting a pipeline approved, but doing so is a fairly complex process. When this process invariably gets politicized, there is really nothing anyone can do until the Federal, State and local politicians all calm down, and until the major news sources also calm down as well. Remember: journalists move news when individuals say insane things, and a cynic might say there is reason for news sources to take politicians out of context in order to move and sell said news. It’s a good thing I am not a cynic. I am realistic enough to know the pipeline will eventually get approved, but probably not until the next presidential election is over.

Bakken Oil Issues and Law Enforcement Concerns

A generalized comment that comes from above the Bakken formation (at ground level) often goes something like, “Our entire way of life is changing out here in western North Dakota.” While those of us not above the Bakken are indeed concerned about this, we often do not understand the specifics of what exactly is changing. The following list came from a discussion that took place with the North Dakota Sheriff’s & Deputies Association in Bismarck, and they itemized many of those specifics. It is the good, the bad, the realistic, and the not so good looking. My comments and interpretations are [imbedded in brackets] like these. Props to our civil servants that are the sheriffs and deputies.

1. Currently there are a total of 84 companies involved in the oil industry in western ND.

2. It takes between 2000 and 2200 semi loads of water per well. Currently there are 258 wells in progress with so many scheduled it is hard to determine the exact amount.

3. Traffic accidents, especially fatal traffic accidents are of very high concern. At one location on Highway 85 south of Williston, a traffic count was conducted in October of 2011. In one 24 hour period of time there were 29,000 vehicles through the intersection looked at with 60% of the traffic being semis.

4. Traffic is typically backed up for ½ to ¾ of a mile. One of the guys stated that one day last week he sat at an intersection on Highway 85 for about 30 minutes to get a big enough opening to cross over.

5. They have closed the weigh scale house because it was causing such a traffic jam that it was closing the roadway.

6. Rent in Williston currently is: $ 2000 for a one bedroom to $ 3400 for a three bedroom.

7. They have no more hook ups for campers any where in the area.

8. Williams County allows three campers per farmstead; the farmers almost all have three campers on their property and are charging $ 800 per camper per month for rent.

9. Wal Mart in Williston no longer stocks shelves. They bring out pallets of merchandise at night, and set it in the isles. People then take what they want off the pallets.

10. On 1-1-12, the Williston Wal Mart had 148 campers overnight in their parking lot.

11. Willams County wrecked a pickup and ended up bringing it to Bismarck for repairs because there no available body shops to do the work. Williams County has purchased a trailer and has started to bring vehicles to the Bismarck area for repairs. Willaims County took a pickup in for ball joints and front brakes — the shop charged them $ 2800 for the repairs.

12. Williston and Williams County now produces more taxable sales than any other area in ND [including Cass County, which is huge].

13. The Williams County jail has increased booking by 150%. With a 100% increase in inmate population. Bonds of $ 5k to $ 10 K are typically paid with cash out of pocket. The Williams County Sheriff stated that a couple of weeks ago he received a $ 63,000 bond in cash carried into the jail in a plastic Wal Mart bag.

14. Williams County Sheriff’s Department has more than doubled in staff over the last two years. They are now buying trailer houses that come up for sale to rent to newly hired deputies.

15. Williams County new starting salary with the academy is $ 46,000 plus 100% of all benefits paid.

16. They are in a continuous hiring cycle and they have no set budget at this time. The Sheriff has been told to manage his office to the best of his abilities and keep the Commission updated, but do not worry about the budget.

17. The Williston McDonalds just announced that they will pay $ 15 an hour, a $ 500 immediate sign on bonus and a single medical plan paid for.

18. The restaurants are full and with limited staff to work in them. They usually just have the drive through open. The restaurants that have inside seating are now an hour wait at all times.

19. Law Enforcement in the Williams County area cannot provide training to staff due to time constraints and no location to hold training.

20. The local Motel 6 in Williston now rents rooms fro $ 129.95 per night.

21. Law Enforcement no longer does any proactive work (school programs, community services, house checks) they do very little traffic related issues as well. They just go from call to call. Bar fights are one of the biggest issues.

22. Other law enforcement issues include the strip clubs. The local clubs have now started what is called “babe buses”. These buses go out to areas and pick up people and bus them back and forth to the strip clubs. The buses have poles on them as well as live entertainment.

23. Drug problems are immense, and they are seeing narcotics that they have never seen in the area before, like black tar heroin [black tar heroin may appear in the historical record].

24. The civil process section of the Sheriff’s Department use to average 1800 papers a year. They are now doing 4500 processes a year.

25. Law Enforcement said that they make as many Driving under the influence arrest at 10 Am as they do at midnight.

26. Illegal aliens have become a huge problem, especially getting the proper authorities to remove them from the Country.

27. The current thought from the oil companies is that the area will continue to grow as it has over the past two years for the next five years and stay for ten years. At the end of the ten years they feel the communities will drop in population somewhat.

28. The current thought is that the oil companies will be drilling wells on every 1280 acres of leased land. This way they have tied up the land and do not have to release the property.

29. The Williston General Motors dealership has now become the number 1 seller of Corvettes in the upper Midwest.

30. The bigger oil companies are doing very well in hiring good people. They run checks and make sure the people they hire are drug free; it is the smaller companies that are having trouble-hiring people that will look the other way on hiring issues [it is difficult for start-up businesses to get a foot-hold in the face of competition of the huge companies].

31. They said they do not know anybody anymore. The Sheriff of Williams County used to be able to go to Wal Mart and not walk very far without knowing somebody. Now he does not know any of the people in there.

32. Many of the local citizens are taking retirement and moving out of the area.

33. They have an extreme amount of alcohol abuse going on. They have more calls than ever of drunk people trying to get into houses, to find out they are at the wrong place.

34. Minot population has grown by a projected 9000 people since the completion of the census. Minot is expecting to reach a population of 75,000 in the nest five years.

35. Trinity Hospital in Minot has just hired 115 nurses from the Philippians to work at the hospital, as they cannot get enough local nurses to apply.

The Midnight Noise Orchestra

On January 14, 2012 (a Saturday) the Bismarck-based band The Midnight Noise Orchestra (TMNO can be heard here) rolled over on the I-94 to Fargo to oblige a recording with Prairie Public studios. I couldn’t help but thinking of a lot of the recording freedoms technology affords us nowadays through devices that are sensibly priced and that pretty much ensure anyone in any basement or professional studio can capture quality audio and video. It also reminded me of one of my many favorite R.G. Collingwood passages, this one coming from his 1930s work, The Principles of Art (1938). My remarks [are embedded within brackets] like these. Collingwood:

A January 14, 2012 photo of The Midnight Noise Orchestra. The photo was orchestrated about four hours and forty five minutes before midnight in downtown Fargo, North Dakota.

…The printing-press [stay with me here] separates the writer from his audience and fosters cross-purposes between them. The organization of the literary profession and the ‘technique’ of good writing, as that is understood among ourselves, consist to a great extent of methods for mitigating this evil; but the evil is only mitigated and not removed. It is intensified by every new mechanization of art. [italics are mine] The reason why gramophone music [a cutting edge technology in the 1930s much as Web 2.0 and 3.0 is cutting edge in 2012] is so unsatisfactory to any one accustomed to real music is not because the mechanical reproduction of the sounds is bad — that could be easily compensated by the hearer’s imagination — but because the performers and the audience are out of [direct] touch. The audience is not collaborating, it is only overhearing. The same thing happens in the cinema, where collaboration as between author and producer is intense, but as between this unit and the audience non-existent. Performances on the wireless have the same defect. The consequence is that the gramaphone, the cinema, and the wireless are perfectly serviceable as vehicles of amusement or of propaganda, for here the audience’s function is merely receptive and not concreative; but as vehicles of art they are subject to all the defects of the printing-press in an aggravated form. ‘Why’, one hears it asked, ‘should not the modern popular entertainment of cinema, like the Renaissance popular entertainment of the theatre, produce a new form of great art?’ The answer is simple. In the Renaissance theatre collaboration between author and actors on the one hand, and the audience on the other, was a lively reality. In the cinema it is impossible. (Collingwood, 1938:323)

So essentially what Collingwood is saying is that it’s okay to watch TMNO on television, but it’s way better to see them live and in-person because stage actor and audience watchers actively participate in this artistic process and expression. In other words, nothing can replace live music. This as opposed to watching TMNO on television which, as television watching goes, often induces a trance-like coma in the viewer. In this vein Clay Shirky has written and talked and lectured at length on how much energy humanity expended on television watching, also noting the dangers of a society and civilization that knows Hollywood television characters better than they know the next door neighbor (I suppose there is also a danger or sadness in blogging instead of having conversations with the person in the next room). Anyhow, go see TMNO, or ask the person in the next room or text that friend just down the way to see if they want to go get a cup of coffee, real time.

Update: As YouTube continues providing the world with democratized conduit, this an ability to upload localized events and stream them to anyone with an internet connection (Totalitarian Governments are working on ways to curb this), below are some embedded videos that may or may not make or reflect or counter the Collingwood and Shirky point(s) above.

This was filmed at the Belle Mehus in downtown Bismarck, North Dakota.

This video was captured in one of TMNO’s top secret basement recording studios in Burleigh County, North Dakota. The opening remarks have a kind of Motörhead feel to them.

Craft Brewing DIY in Bismarck, North Dakota

In an intentional or inadvertent EduPunk vein, on December 31, 2011 Mike Frohlich gave a personal tour of his refined craft beer brewing operation to Nick Steffens and myself. Without going into too many details (stuff about barley or hops from New Zealand, words like sparging and IBUs and EBUs, and so on), embedded is a short audio-video description Frohlich gave of his craft brewing operation.  In addition to this are a couple still photos. One photo is sure to include some great craft brew and a skull ring (note: Christopher Bjorke formerly of the Bismarck Tribune but now with Mike Jacobs and Company — or formerly Mike Jacobs and Company — in Grand Forks wrote a great piece when with said Bismarck Tribune on Frohlich’s operation here).

A nice glass of Frohlich's craft brew, skull ring and all.

Another photo shows one of Frohlich’s several home brewing systems, this one indoors.

Craft Brewing Indoors

And a final shot of his large vat that will eventually contribute to the rise of a brewery somewhere in Bismarck, North Dakota. One of the great things about getting a personal tour of Frohlich’s craft brewing operation is that our glasses of beer were never allowed to get half-empty without Mike asking if we were doing all right.

Frohlich's Contribution to Craft Brewing in Bismarck, North Dakota

Acquiring Geological Purity through Impure and Unnatural Means

For any nation or empire to have a gold standard invariably means the nation or empire has a monetary system based off the widespread multi-cultural perception that gold has, in fact, intrinsic value. In The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado, Elliot West notes how the two long-standing majority religions of Buddhism and Christianity revered gold, since it was “heavenly light and an earthly reminder of a call to spiritual perfection.” (West, 1998: 97) In the Americas, the Aztecs also appropriated gold for religious ceremony, religious leaders and therefore authors calling it teocuitatl, or “excrement of the sun.” (West, 1998: 97). A multicultural groundwork that rallied around the common obsession with a non-utilitarian metal had been laid, and too many people fighting for the same resources eventually entered into protracted odds with one another. What continued as a post-1492 Western European search for and acquisition of gold in the New World is why the nineteenth-century proved so formidable for the shaping of the Great Plains. In this regard West redirects historiography to examine the area that individuals passed over in order to acquire the resource that cultures, religions, nations and empires compelled their subjects to seek.

Impure and unnatural behavior ensured that the pure and natural metal of gold would be acquired. In the dialectic that West establishes, he says “Two peoples cannot pull on the same limited energy for contrary uses, just as the same dollar cannot be legally spent at the same time for both bread and cheese.” (West, 1998: xxiv) By the mid nineteenth-century, the young American nation attempted to battle its way onto a scene of international prominence.

Cheyenne Migration to the Great Plains from 1680 to 1830s

Domestically the Civil War threatened to divide the Union, and any peoples not on board with the dominant cultural standard would be sacrificed on its alter — never-mind that the dominant cultural standard depended on who ascended to political office and exerted the most tactful, audible and protracted verbiage. In West’s book, the Cheyenne Indians among others were sacrificed on that alter.

With gun and horse, and open grasslands, cultures living on this area were transformed the deepest, whether in Spain, the Mongolian steppe, or the Great Plains of North America. By 1848, the American military established the outpost of Fort Kearny on the Platte near Grand Island. Fort Atkinson also rose out of the plains (built of sod and nicknamed Fort Sodom), and by 1853 Fort Riley was established. These forts remained meaningless until the confluence of long-term geology and short-term cultural inertia crossed paths. Since the Great Plains are the eastern watershed of the Rockies, it is natural that traces of gold within the mountains would eventually be washed down through the rivers and catch the human eye. On August 26, 1858, the Kansas City Journal of Commerce (West, 1998:107) reported the following:





Routes Gold-seekers/-Fanatics Took to Denver in the 19th Century

A dominant technology of the time — printing presses — helped make this information viral, thus democratizing the idea that anyone and everyone could strike it rich on the Great Plains. This cultural desire for gold eventually required a military presence, and a more standardized ideological program that brought “white” against “red”. Colonial John M. Chivington secured the title as one of the most effective Total Warriors in the history of the American West, discriminately ensuring that no Indian child, woman or man was beyond the sights and slaughter of his Colorado volunteer’s sabre blade or rifle. Chivington was so effective that he even offended Washington, D.C. politicians, enough so that he had to quickly resign from his military command to evade a proper military tribunal — perhaps this is a historical anecdote that CEOs of Blackwater Academy may want to study (West, 1998:306).

This study by West easily demonstrates how the American nation attempted to shape the Great Plains in its image from the 1830s to the 1860s. This played out for ideological, individual, national, religious and cultural reasons. As West says, when “energy is captured and set to a purpose, it becomes power.” (West, 1998:xxi). Taking this to another logical extension, setting that power to a purpose is the substance of politics. The extension of this politic is reflected in the realities of military campaigns that, in the case of the Great Plains, contributed to the eradication and displacement of indigenous populations. As is the case with history, though, the conquerors “who celebrated the final crushing of a rival vision were already suffering from the hubris of their own.” (West, 1998:337). This is summarized in the phrase of, “You break it, you buy it.” Ownership is difficult that way, often an inconvenient fact when swooning romance compels a culture to fallaciously pursue the idea of spiritual perfection and material benefit at any human cost, especially in mineral form.