The True Costs and Benefits of Fracking

New York is getting more out of the domestic oil boom than North Dakota ever will.

photo of oil rig crewmember working in North Dakota
An oil-rig crewmember at work in 2012, during the Bakken Formation oil boom in North Dakota (Alec Soth / Magnum)

This article was published online on April 16, 2021.

In January, President Joe Biden canceled the Keystone XL pipeline and ordered a drilling moratorium on federal land. The following month, a historic cold snap and a failed power grid turned Texas into a disaster zone. Even as policy debates about events like these unfold, each one serves as a wake-up call. Our reliance on the fossil-fuel industry is by now so old and deep that overdue regulations, while crucial, will not stop consequences already set in motion. The man-made, carbon-wrought transformation of our climate is here.

As we grapple with this reality, rather than fixating on abstract concepts and quantitative measures—energy prices, geopolitics, emissions rates, climate-science projections—we would do well to zoom in, way in, on those doing and allowing the drilling. Their stories contain a common promise: You’ll make a lot of money. Yet many lose, as do we all, in other ways before the bargain is closed. We can learn a lot from their ground-level wisdom about the human motives and exploitative economies that got us into this mess, as well as about the dangerous and toxic business of siphoning oil and gas from the earth below.

Two new books take us there. In The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown, Michael Patrick F. Smith finds his checking account and personal demons intertwined with the oil industry. At the height of the Bakken Formation oil boom, in 2013, Smith left Brooklyn seeking what he imagined would be challenging but lucrative work in the oil fields. A playwright and musician raised amid poverty and domestic abuse in rural Maryland, he never quite felt at home in gentrified Brooklyn or at his Midtown Manhattan office job that paid the bills. This identity crisis, combined with a penchant for self-punishment previously pursued through drugs and sex, sent him west to see whether he might finally make a man of himself at 36.

What he found in the now-infamous boomtown of Williston, North Dakota, was a cast of characters with even rougher pasts than his own. Smith’s memoir is about these men, who showed up from across the country and beyond to risk their lives on a windswept plain where the temperature might be 38 degrees below zero and the pay might be $20 an hour.

During his tenure in the oil patch, Smith worked as a truck driver’s assistant, or swamper, for a rig-moving company. His face grew chapped and his body toughened as he threw chains beneath the immense North Dakota sky, but the question that looms over the narrative is whether his sense of self would be transformed. He was smaller and older than most of the men doing his low-ranking job; could he earn the respect of his supervisors—grizzled bastards who pegged him for a wuss and tried to run him off? Would he, in the parlance of those workers, make a good hand?

Smith stayed on for nine months, a fair bit longer than the proverbial journalistic parachute jump, and his pre-Trump-era mission was more personal than anthropological. Still, his most important contributions are not musings about what the experience meant to him but vivid descriptions of the experience itself. The Good Hand ’s scenes in “the patch” are beautiful, funny, and harrowing, constructed with metal hooks, workplace lingo, poetic profanity, and the author’s palpable fear. (From 2008 through 2017, more than 1,500 oil-and-gas workers died from injuries sustained on the job, according to a report by the Center for Public Integrity. That amounts to, roughly, a death every other day.) As someone whose immediate family bears the scars of physical labor in another Great Plains state, and who rarely sees her native class convincingly portrayed, I relished these anecdotes and the validation they provide.

Smith’s dangerous toil on the job mirrored a dangerous life outside work among the same hard men, some of whom were attracted to the area by the possibility of good pay with no background checks. (When Smith arrived at a flophouse, his highly common name—Mike Smith—alarmed the slumlord, who worried that he was another fugitive with an alias looking for a room.) Smith weaves in heartbreaking stories from his upbringing, and from the pasts of the men he came to know, implicitly making a compelling argument that busted men are tasked with busting the earth.

They all looked the same to Smith when he arrived, and trading stories of violent fathers was a standard icebreaker. “The conversation,” Smith writes, “can be boiled down to two short sentences: ‘What kind of work you do? Man, my dad whipped my ass!’ I come to think of it as The Williston Hello.” But soon he found the workers he met there to be as distinct as his artsy friends back in Williamsburg. One stood in a “perpetual wrestling stance,” feet planted wide and muscles on alert. Another recalled being struck by a heavy object with such force that his intestines were forced out of his anus. These workers—mostly white men, like Smith, but some Indigenous men and men of color as well—were at once deeply exhausted and wired on chewing tobacco and energy drinks. They had a brother in prison, or a brother who’d died in Iraq. They went by handles like “Smash” and “Big Country.”

photo of a pumpjack in snow
A pumpjack near Williston, North Dakota (Alec Soth / Magnum)

In such an environment, bravado is a survival tool, and Smith played the part while quietly detecting fellow sensitives, including a big 21-year-old named Huck with whom he formed a bond. Such glimpses of male intimacy flowering in harsh conditions are moving. Not every tough guy has a soft side, though, and Williston was rife with bad actors. Smith was troubled by the long rap sheets of some of his new friends—but not troubled enough to skip bar and strip-club outings with them.

Women flit in and out of the story mostly as objects of fantasy or passing references—the young bartender at a local dive, his landlord’s girlfriend in another state, sex workers, strangers at the coffee shop where Smith wrote his experiences in real time. He admits that he knew little about these women, and their flatness in a book about a male world perhaps should not be faulted. A lack of context is sometimes problematic, though. The crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women—an old problem receiving new attention, thanks to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and others—has been linked to “man camps” populated by transient workers in the fossil-fuel industry. Reports of rape around Williston multiplied during the boom, Smith learned later, yet his few mentions of the term mostly concern fear of man-on-man rape. The Good Hand, as the subtitle suggests, is not just about labor but about masculinity—and it is often the toxic sort.

In one instance, Smith’s former landlord described a line of men on the stairs of his house “running a train on” a severely intoxicated woman within. In another, an erstwhile co-worker told Smith, over whiskey and Cokes, about trying to persuade a sexual partner to let him prostitute her; she was, he said before offering Smith a cellphone recording of her giving him fellatio, “this close to letting me sell her ass.” Smith laughed that his friend was “always saying some funny crazy shit,” and declined to watch the video. With the age and consent of the female in this anecdote unknown, and in a book about a place brimming with sex traffickers, I did not laugh with him.

Apparently knowing that the exchange was foul, Smith got a sick feeling, but soon he and the friend were goofing around taking pictures in the bar parking lot with Huck. By contrast, on the occasions when Smith witnessed racism, he named it, agonized over his closeness to it, phoned his brother to talk about how to handle it. Calling out damaging male behavior toward women was clearly a source of greater discomfort. Smith is in rare company, though, for daring to describe the behavior at all. One wishes for similar testimonies from other socioeconomic strata. The soft-handed men, say, who acquire the oil-drilling leases and decide in boardrooms that the pipeline will be laid alongside the reservation—where are their memoirs describing the sins of their sex, their race? The worker at the bottom is the most honest because he has the least to lose.

The landowners who happen to live atop fossil-fuel deposits occupy a world quite apart from that of transient laborers. It is, however, similarly fraught. To get to know that world, Colin Jerolmack, a professor of sociology and environmental studies at NYU, spent eight months in 2013 living in the fracking epicenter of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, population about 28,000. In Up to Heaven and Down to Hell: Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town, which also reflects six years of follow-up research, he investigates individual and community values among those who have seen the United States’ quest for energy independence play out in their own backyard. Jerolmack wanted to understand how people weigh personal decisions—in this case, whether to permit drilling by gas companies—that ultimately affect neighbors, ecosystems, and even future generations.

In the U.S., real-estate ownership historically includes not just the surface of the land but its subsurface, as well as the air above it. (The book’s title refers to the medieval Roman dictum said to mark the idea’s legal origins.) Governments elsewhere around the world wield much greater sway over mineral rights and other matters of public consequence on private land. Jerolmack’s many kitchen-table conversations with inhabitants of the formerly idyllic area of greater Williamsport—or “Billtown,” as it is called, best known as the host of the Little League World Series—reveal the tensions and trade-offs that follow from America’s liberty-loving ways.

In deciding whether to lease their land to natural-gas companies, Jerolmack learned, area residents heard front-door sales pitches from landmen brokering mineral rights, attended contentious local-government meetings, and organized collective-bargaining efforts with their neighbors. Ultimately, most of them leaned on a conservative worldview: The two acres, or 200 acres, belonged to them, and they’d do as they damn well pleased. But for a true understanding of their hearts and minds, political frameworks prove inadequate.

Economic considerations were paramount, of course. For financially strapped homeowners, monthly royalty checks enabled a modest nest egg, a nice pickup, a new roof, their first dishwasher. Leasing allowed some to hold on to the family farm. One man poignantly described his wish to fund a college education for his granddaughter.

Those dreams came with a price, though, often concurrent with the royalty checks. Even adamant supporters of drilling admitted that it had wreaked havoc on their lives. The very things that had attracted them to the area—natural beauty, peace and quiet, dark skies full of stars—were stripped away once fracking moved in. For some, their immediate shelter suffered, too. Big rigs and earthmovers rattled one house until the chimney collapsed. In others, tap water turned cloudy. “Fracking is intimate,” Jerolmack writes. Some of the transgressed ended up silenced by nondisclosure agreements after reaching settlement deals. “They have us by the balls,” one such resident told Jerolmack.

Yet the judgmental “fractivism” of outsiders—Yoko Ono is among the many who have traveled from New York City to advocate for fracking bans in rural Pennsylvania—provoked understandable resentment. Natural gas, Jerolmack notes, powers more New York homes than any other energy source, and much of it comes from places like Billtown.

Jerolmack met just one person, he writes with admiration, “who regularly traversed the political, economic, and cultural divides” of Williamsport: Ralph Kisberg, who co-founded a local organization called the Responsible Drilling Alliance. He was the quintessential centrist, critical of fracking but more interested in efforts to mitigate its ill effects than in the far-off goal of ending it. Kisberg went to nearly every permit meeting, drove back roads to chat up landowners, compiled his findings in the group’s newsletter. This approach, an information blitz devoid of judgment, was the opposite of a bumper sticker and fostered constructive discussion where many an argument along national party lines breaks down.

Those party lines did not always predict gas-drilling decisions in Billtown. One area resident, Cindy Bower—a former schoolteacher who belonged to Kisberg’s anti-fracking advocacy group, held signs on the first Earth Day, in 1970; drove a Prius; and was married to a wealthy hotelier—shook Jerolmack’s assumptions. She and her husband, who lived on 150 acres of hilly woods and fields with a big pond, had refused leasing pitches for three years. But as everyone around them leased, often for financial reasons that Bower did not begrudge, industry moved in and their quality of life deteriorated. In the end, Bower and her husband leased their land. She told Jerolmack with some sorrow that holding out had accomplished nothing, and the money was at least some compensation for what they had lost.

photo of an oil worker facing away from camera
An oil worker (Alec Soth / Magnum)

Jerolmack warns eco-conscious readers against feeling superior to either liberal Bower or her conservative neighbors. “To the extent that most of us continue to uncritically organize our lives around carbon-intensive energy sources,” he writes, “we are coconspirators.” To be spared the dire environmental impacts of our species is a privilege.

Environmental hazards of extractive industry impose a disproportionate burden on Indigenous people, people of color, and the poor: the radiation of a uranium mine, the smells of a refinery, the sometimes predatory men whom oil-drilling companies hire because a felon with no other job prospects is a loyal employee. Jerolmack’s own excrement, as he points out, might have moved from New York City on “poop trains” that traveled to Alabama landfills, fouling the air for small towns along its route.

One of the most memorable passages of The Good Hand offers a related insight. On a visit to New York, carousing with friends and “holding court, dazzling them with my oil field talk,” Smith suddenly saw anew the cabs, the streetlights, the petroleum-derived subway seats, the laminated menus:

New York benefits from the oil boom far more than Williston ever will. No one here realizes that. Nobody even considers it. Here in this West Village gastropub. Look at them. Everything they enjoy. Every. Single. Thing. They get it from me. They get it from me and a group of the toughest, meanest motherfuckers I have met in my life. Men they wouldn’t like, men they look down on, invisible men they will never see in a state they dismiss as flyover. They owe it all to the hands. All of it.

This is the age-old problem of hierarchy: Most people with the power to address social troubles—in this case, the destructive and unsustainable fossil-fuel industry—know very little about the toll they take at ground level.

This article appears in the May 2021 print edition with the headline “The Human Side of Fracking.”

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