Home from the oil wars abroad, US service members and military contractors are flocking to North Dakota’s emerging boomtowns.
Thomas Struth, Blowout Preventer, Mountrail County, North Dakota, 2010.
Chromogenic Print, 169.5 x 204.7 cm. © Thomas Struth
It was five o’clock in the morning one day this past spring when Dave, a former Department of Defense contractor, eased his 1996 Isuzu pickup into Williston, North Dakota. Downtown, the remnants of Williston’s former days—the mid-century-modern J.C. Penney Co. building, the family-owned pharmacy—were dark. But the roads of this once-prairie outpost were already bustling. Tankers and eighteen-wheelers were rolling to and from the drilling and frack sites that have transformed North Dakota into America’s second-largest oil-producing state, behind Texas.
Dave, a wiry man with a Carolina twang, was recently returned from the Pakistan desert province of Balochistan, where he was working for the giant military contractor DynCorp International. It was his most recent in a thirty-year string of assignments, first as an Army Special Forces medic and then as a military contractor, that took him from the coca fields of Colombia to the airspace over Afghanistan. He has asked to be identified by only his first name, as the State Department is “a little sensitive about the particulars.” When the Pakistan gig went south, he decided to deploy himself and his expertise closer to home.
“I was looking at the computer. And of course, as you know, the story is out there: the oilfields are booming,” he said. “So here I am.”
That morning, when the job service center in Williston opened at 8 a.m., Dave was the first in line. Inside, his story is a common one. Over the last few years, Williston has experienced what some veterans call a “surge” of ex-military personnel in search of well-paying jobs and a manageable transition to civilian life. The exact percentage of vets is impossible to pin down, said Grant Carns, Veterans Affairs officer for the county, but it is higher than among the general US population. This concentration of former service members owes partly to the fact that military training makes many uniquely suited for work in the domestic oil and gas industry. That, at least, has been Dave’s experience. The job center referred him to a fellow military man who runs a local nonprofit for veterans. When this man learned Dave’s skills, he immediately escorted him to B&G Roustabout Services, a growing oilfield service company, which hired Dave on the spot to work as a pipeline mapper.
Meanwhile, DynCorp International, Dave’s former employer, is also attracted by Williston. The military contractor specialized in providing logistical support to the armed forces during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and may soon join the ranks of defense companies that have found ways to segue their expertise into oil and gas.
Perhaps nowhere is this energy revolution more striking than in the dusty North Dakota boomtowns that have earned the nickname “Kuwait on the Prairie.”
“They and other defense logistics providers are very attracted by this sense that there’s all of this exploration activity and a lot less infrastructure to make it all possible,” said Kathryn Seitz of Avascent, a Washington, DC-based consulting firm that focuses on the aerospace and defense industries. The press office of DynCorp stated that the company is not currently engaged in any oil and gas projects, and that it doesn’t discuss internal strategic plans.
“Their [DynCorp’s] differentiator is working in remote, harsh environments and getting large pieces of equipment and people from point A to point B,” Seitz said, “and that is exactly what oil and gas needs to do here.”
A little over a decade ago, at the onset of the Iraq War, Washington was rife with predictions of global oil shortages and pessimism about the decline in US production, which was almost as low as it had been since World War II. But today the nation is once again an oil empire. Fueled by advancements in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, the United States has surged past Russia and Saudi Arabia to become the number one oil- and gas-producing country in the world. And perhaps nowhere is this energy revolution more striking than in the dusty North Dakota boomtowns that have earned the nickname “Kuwait on the Prairie.”
In 2008, the United States Geological Survey announced that North Dakota and Montana held a combined three to four billion barrels of recoverable oil, an amount twenty-five times greater than the agency had estimated in 1995. Thousands of companies and entrepreneurs—from giant oilfield service corporations to adventure-seeking strip-club owners—flooded the state’s blood-red badlands and lush, cattail-filled marshes. The prize: the light, explosive oil locked in an underground shelf of layered rock known as the Bakken Formation. Over the next five years, oil companies drilled thousands of new wells, blasting the shale with TNT and immense amounts of water mixed with sand and chemicals to extract the oil, which was quickly loaded onto railroad cars and shipped to refineries nationwide. The pace of expansion was dizzying. Tens of thousands of workers poured in from across the country, many camping out in their cars and in parking lots for lack of available housing. Companies burnt off billions of dollars’ worth of usable natural gas because they couldn’t build pipelines fast enough to capture the output. North Dakota’s GDP ballooned at a rate of 10 percent in 2013. Finally, in the spring of 2014, the state announced that it was producing more than one million barrels of oil a day—and predicted that companies would drill as many as forty thousand more wells before the boom was over.
Viewed from one angle, this domestic boom signals a pivot away from the foreign dependency—and resulting oil wars—that have shaped US foreign policy for decades. But viewed from another, the new wealth of the Bakken has brought the US defense and energy industries even closer together. Of course, the US military has frequently intervened in world and domestic affairs to ensure that oil flows freely on the global market—and into the tanks of the armed forces’ own Humvees and F-16s. The US Department of Defense is, after all, the largest institutional consumer of oil in the world. But what’s unique today is how the rise of massive military contracting alongside the withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan has created an oil boom that’s built, powered, and protected to an unprecedented degree by former service members and current defense companies—all on US soil.
Explosives are only one of the hazards that have catapulted North Dakota’s workplace fatality rate to five times that of the national average.
Williston is not a war zone—at least not according to the federal government. But nor is it a corner of the United States that feels fully civilian. A few days before I arrived in Williston, a factory that produces chemicals used in fracking exploded in the middle of downtown, sending fireballs hundreds of feet into the air and raining a thin layer of soot onto the nearby tributaries of the Missouri River. The state’s National Guard rushed to evacuate a half-mile radius around the site. But by the time I pulled into town, the event had largely faded from local interest. After all, something is always exploding in the oilfields. Lightning strikes the superconductive fiberglass tanks that store wastewater waiting to be re-injected into underground aquifers. Volatile oil leaks out of the holding sites and sends the whole unit up in flames. The amount of TNT detonated to fracture the shale below each well would be capable of leveling everything above ground within a five-mile radius. In satellite images, the thousands of gas flares dotting the landscape like toxic tiki torches light up the Bakken as brightly as Chicago.
Explosives are only one of the hazards that have catapulted North Dakota’s workplace fatality rate to five times that of the national average. In the winter, frostbite clutches at fingers and noses, as rig hands battle forty-below temperatures and snow that falls like wet concrete. Icy conditions send tankers rolling off the road or barreling headlong into other vehicles; one owner of a small trucking company who worked for years as a driver in Alaska’s oilfields said he’s never seen this many crashes in his life. Sand-processing machines amputate upper arms. Falling steel cables whip through the air fast enough to slice through femurs. Fatal, sour-smelling hydrogen sulfide can surge out of the bowels of the earth at any moment.
Brualio de Jesus, a former Marine who now works as a rig hand, has witnessed the dangers of the oilfields up close. “If you have your hand positioned in the wrong place, you’re losing your finger, you’re losing some skin, you’re breaking something,” said de Jesus. Recently, he sustained internal bleeding when a bolt he was tightening came loose and the momentum threw him back onto a pile of valves. “Every second is an opportunity to get hurt.”
And then there are less visible challenges: the isolation from family and friends; cramped living quarters in steel shipping containers called “man camps”; the profound loneliness and lack of intimacy in a company town dominated by men. The latter, in turn, has spilled over into violence against women. Nearby reservations have witnessed a sharp rise in sexual assaults, rapes, and human trafficking, overwhelmingly perpetrated by non-native oilfield workers—one of the reasons that many indigenous people and climate-justice activists view the extraction frenzy as a form of warfare.
Military training helps many thrive, or at least survive, in this environment—a reality that both employers and the armed forces recognize. ShaleNET, a Department of Labor-funded platform that helps place people in oilfield jobs, provides military occupational classifications alongside all of its career listings. “The skills developed during their time in the military frequently translates into these hands-on careers,” the 2013 ShaleNET career guide explains. Advisors for the Army Career and Alumni Program (ACAP), which is meant to help soldiers transition back to civilian life, also recommend that ex-military people head to Bakken. Arkansas native Joshua Lumbley, who now works as a roustabout outside Williston, recalled discharging from the Army in 2013: “You have to do your ACAP, it’s like green to civilian, they call it,” he said. “And every teacher that came in for that said, ‘If you want a job, go to North Dakota.’”
One of the thousands of veterans who opted for this route is former Marine Sergeant Dan Barton. Twenty-nine years old, he carries his family’s strong German features, with sharp cheekbones and sand-blond hair. His childhood was shaped by his father’s alcoholism and the lack of opportunities in his small hometown in Tennessee. Enlisting was the best option out. He signed up in 2002, right out of high school. The next year, he was monitoring thermal cameras at Guantánamo Bay. By 2005, he was serving his second tour in Iraq as a squad leader attached to a sniper unit in Haditha, near one of the country’s largest hydroelectric dams.
While there, Barton dodged bullets and rocket-propelled grenades. He watched a friend burn to death while trapped inside a Humvee. He rose to the rank of sergeant, only to return home to find that the skills he’d learned—namely, combat—didn’t generally apply to the civilian world. But his military training has proven valuable in the oilfields, where he now works as a pipeline operator earning more than $200,000 a year.
His role as a sergeant helps him manage his team, while his combat days render the hazards of the oilfields unimpressive. When an oil holding tank caught fire at his worksite earlier this year, Barton was unfazed by the blaze that burned for more than twenty-four hours. “Having been shot at and [seen] IEDs, it’s less dangerous to me,” he said. “I’m not scared to die, if you will.”
As for the six-figure salary, Barton, whose mother has health problems, said, “When I got this job, I cried like a baby.”
He also sees the underlying—or in this case, underground—motive linking his former employer, the US military, and his current one. “The same reason I wanted to go to Iraq to make good money,” he said, “is the same reason I’m here making money working for the same cause: oil. And it’s the same thing. But what are you going to do?”
Barton’s not the only one who sees the connection. On the southeast side of Williston, just beyond the banks of the Muddy River, sit the Halliburton Hills—the local nickname for the corporation’s massive base of operations. Stretching for nearly a mile down Route 1804 and another half-mile along Route 9, the complex boasts a 158-bed living facility made from shipping containers, a handful of temporary office buildings, and a sprawling, key-card-access-only yard filled with hundreds of Halliburton-red semis, oilfield cement trucks, water tankers, buses, company-issued Ford Super Duty pick-ups, and chemical storage vats. Many of the tankers sport the obligatory diamond-shaped label with the numbers 1268 to warn other drivers that the vehicle is hauling flammable oil. Nearly all the equipment is emblazoned with the trademark Halliburton logo.
As the Iraq War wound down in the second half of the decade, the defense industry began to search for “adjacent markets.”
In 2011, Halliburton announced that it was hiring eleven thousand new workers in North America—and that the majority would be based in the Bakken. Since then, the oilfield service giant has ramped up its North Dakota operations, far surpassing any competitor in the region. As one current rig worker, who previously served eight years in the Army, explained, “They come in with fourteen or fifteen trucks and all the gear we need…. They’re like the National Guard, they’re so huge.”
Halliburton is currently the second-largest oilfield service company in the world, but over the last decade it has become more famous for its battlefield activities. During the 2000s, Halliburton and its former subsidiary KBR ballooned into the largest Iraq War contractor, receiving just shy of $40 billion in funds from Washington. Outsourcing elements of war had been on the rise since the early 1990s, but the privatization of the Iraq conflict—and the resulting upturn in the defense industry—was unprecedented. As author and policy expert P. W. Singer explained in Foreign Affairs, the number of private contractors employed in the Iraq conflict in 2005 roughly equaled the total number of troops provided by all of the United States’s coalition partners. Singer wrote, “President George W. Bush’s ‘coalition of the willing’ might thus be more aptly described as the ‘coalition of the billing.’”
But as the Iraq War wound down in the second half of the decade, the defense industry began to search for “adjacent markets” where it could transfer the skills and technology of the battlefield into profit in the civilian world. And at the top of these growth opportunities are the oilfields. In 2008, defense contractor Raytheon—which has 63,000 employees worldwide and made $23.7 billion in revenue last year—announced an “important milestone” in its quest to “unlock new potential in adjacent markets.” It had sold new technology for extracting oil from shale like the Bakken to Schlumberger, the world’s leading oilfield service company. The technology, which is still in development, entails heating the underground shale rock with radio frequency waves to ease extraction. (Besides its military work, Raytheon’s accidental claim to fame is inventing the microwave in the 1940s, after an engineer discovered that waves from an active magnetron had melted his candy bar.) The value of Raytheon’s sale was not disclosed, but Schlumberger’s vice president told the East Valley Tribune that, in addition to the initial purchasing price, the royalties could last for “multiple decades.”
This sale was one of the first in a flurry of acquisitions, deals, and technological investments by defense contractors. In 2012, military contractor SAIC opened a new office in Dickinson “dedicated solely to supporting oil and gas companies”; in 2013, military contractor Harris CapRock began providing satellite and communication services for drilling companies working in North Dakota; and in 2014, Lockheed Martin bought Industrial Defender, which provides cybersecurity to oil companies. Booz Allen Hamilton—which was most recently in the spotlight as the former employer of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden—partnered with lobby group the American Petroleum Institute to develop the Oil and Natural Gas Information Sharing and Analysis Center. Among the services it provides is guaranteed secure communication between industry members that is protected against Freedom of Information Act requests.
“This is an enormous market,” said Seitz of Avascent. “The government is big, but oil and gas takes it to a whole new level.”
On the eastern edge of North Dakota, retired Air Force General Al Palmer is focused on transferring one particularly powerful battlefield technology to the home front: unmanned aircraft systems, better known as drones. Palmer is the director of the University of North Dakota Center for UAS Research, Education, and Training—the leading non-military drone research facility in the world. In describing the center’s preeminence, Palmer explained that there are only twenty-nine Predator Mission Aircrew Training Systems—the most sophisticated simulation available—in the world. The US Air Force has twenty-eight. His center in Grand Forks, North Dakota, has number twenty-nine.
To Palmer, drones have broad civilian applications—including aiding the state’s oil and gas boom. “We’re limited only by our imagination,” he said. In fact, just that morning, he explained, he’d been on a conference call about an unmanned helicopter that was deployed in Afghanistan and may now be used to move heavy equipment in the energy industry.
Both military contractors and the Department of Defense agree with Palmer’s sky’s-the-limit assessment. Raytheon, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and other military contractors have all established partnerships with the University of North Dakota’s research center. So has the Defense Department, which has provided the “lion’s share” of the facility’s funding, according to Palmer. Meanwhile, the state’s new drone test site, one of the first in the nation, has already received applications from oil companies to launch joint programs. UND is also in talks with the start-up company Energy Intelligence, which is developing sensors-carrying drones designed to monitor the twenty thousand miles of pipelines that crisscross the state. “We’re hoping to revolutionize the way pipelines are flown,” said company president Zach Lamppa.
The most literal meaning of revolution, however, is not forward motion, but a full cycle, another turn of the proverbial screw. And to some, the increasingly cozy relationship between the military world and the oil and gas industry appears to be just that: the next phase of a global campaign to drill and fight for oil—in order to, in no small part, power the effort to drill and fight for more oil.
“What they sell to the American public is: ‘We don’t want dependency on foreign oil,’” said former Marine Sergeant Barton. “It’s like: ‘We don’t need to be dependent on foreign oil, look what happened in Iraq. So let’s drill here.’ But they’re not [saying] that it’s the same companies, or it’s the same pockets, or the same politicians, or lobbyists. That’s the conversation no one’s having.”
Laura Gottesdiener is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Mother Jones, Playboy, Al Jazeera, Tom Dispatch, RollingStone.com, and other outlets. She is the author of A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home. Follow her @Gottesdiener.
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