Opening Night at Gallatin Galleries

As I wrote in my last post, The Oil Men team was thrilled to learn that photos and video from our time in North Dakota last summer would be featured in a show called “Another Green World” at NYU’s Gallatin Galleries in NYC, running from now until October 15. Ashley Panzera and Brad DeCecco attended opening night last Friday and snapped some photos of the event. Congrats to the whole team for a spectacular start to the show, and a special thanks to Keith Miller for making it happen.

Opening night gallery1

Opening night at the Gallatin Galleries

Opening night gallery3

Director Ashley Panzera and sound engineer Ben Marshall

Opening night gallery4

Photos by Brad DeCecco


The Oil Men Featured at Gallatin Galleries in NYC

Exciting news! For anyone in the NYC area, photos and video from The Oil Men project will be presented at NYU’s Gallatin Galleries during a special show called “Another Green World,” running from September 12 through October 15, 2014. Check it out! The opening reception is tonight from 5-7pm, and Ashley Panzera and Brad DeCecco will both be there. Below is more info and a sampling of the work you’ll see.


Photo by Brad DeCecco


Photo by Brad DeCecco


The Oil Men is now an upcoming book!

Dog Reading book
There’s been some good news recently about the writing portion of this project. Much of the reporting I did this summer will now be part of an upcoming book from St. Martin’s Press!

The book will be a narrative nonfiction account of how a small town in North Dakota suddenly became the new frontier of U.S. energy independence, told through the experiences of the families that have lived there for generations and the migrant laborers desperate to make a living. The expected publish date will likely be Winter 2016.

I want to thank all of our loyal readers, supporters and anyone who stopped by to check out this blog. You’ve all been instrumental in moving this project forward!

North Dakota in the Winter

Dear lovely readers. I apologize for the hiatus in updates. I’ve been busy working on the book proposal for this project and finally turned it in last week! A bottle of wine was consumed after that.

I’m now back in Williston, following up with subjects and interviewing a few more people for the next chapters of the book. I also wanted to find out what North Dakota was like in the winter. When I told a guy that this summer, his response was: “I’ll tell you what it’s like. Put your head in the freezer and punch yourself in the face.” I took his word for it.

So now I’m here. One lesson I learned very quickly: don’t walk outside without gloves on. Within about 30 seconds you won’t feel your fingers, and in about 60 seconds your entire hand will go numb.

At 8:50am this morning it was -12 degrees outside, about -21 if you include the wind chill. My car was covered in a layer of frost and an apple I left in there overnight was frozen solid.

I’m staying at the “Value Place” along Highway 2. I used to look longingly at this place during the summer when I lived in my trailer just up the road. It’s $699 a week to stay here. I could never afford that on my tiny book writing budget, so I’m staying with Cindy, one of the women I’ve been interviewing. There’s only one bed so I’m sleeping on the floor, and the Internet here (and seemingly everywhere in Williston) sucks, but there’s hot water for showers and a heater, so I’m happy.

Other than a few new restaurants and hotels and a dusting of snow in Williston, things look about the same. It’s good to be back.

Finding a Job in North Dakota

I received an email from a reader yesterday asking for my advice on finding a job in North Dakota’s oil industry – and I’m guessing many others have wondered about this. Below is what I told him:

Hello there. I’m an attorney and a writer and I’m knocking around the idea of chucking my life here in Chicago, moving to North Dakota, and seeing what kind of work I can get related to the oil boom. I thought you might know a thing or two about it, might have a suggestion or two. I recognize that winter is probably not the best time for a move like this, but I am a bit unorthodox. I was wondering how best to go about securing some sort of oil field work with almost no experience.

Thanks for any thoughts you might have!

[Name Withheld]

Hi [Name Withheld],
Nice to hear from you. I’m not sure how much I can help as I’ve only talked to people who have found jobs in the oil industry, and not gone through it myself. From what I’ve heard, it’s more difficult now to get hired than it was five years ago when the boom was just starting, but plenty of people, including a 56-year-old grandmother I interviewed, have been in your same position and succeeded in landing a high-paying job there. Based on everything they’ve told me, here are a few common themes:

-Know someone (I realize this is pretty much the same in any industry, but most people I talked to who had zero oil and gas industry experience were hired through a friend.) There are frequent job fairs in the area and plenty of ways to meet people. One friend recommended taking Amtrak to Williston and spending time with the roughnecks who travel back and forth to see their families.

-Figure out a housing plan. I lived in a trailer for two months in Williston that I pulled all the way from CA. You can rent a trailer while you’re there, but expect to pay at least $1000 a month. Apartments will be much more. If you do snag an oil industry job, you’ll likely have your housing paid for, but be prepared to pay your own way for at least two months or so while you search for work.

-Plan to start at the bottom, work insane hours, get little sleep. One roughneck I talked to hadn’t slept in over 24 hours. The last time he had was in the cab of his truck on site. I was blown away by how little sleep oil industry workers seem to survive on.

-If possible, obtain a commercial driver’s license (CDL) before going to ND. I know a lot of oil industry jobs require it and having it will open up a lot more doors for you. Most people I met who were “making it” in North Dakota had theirs.

-Apply online as much as possible before going. Plenty of people I talked to were hired (at least temporarily) from applying online.

-Expand your search to more than just ND. There are lots of booming areas all over the country (here’s a recent piece I wrote about them), and a less-publicized area might be easier to break in. That said, the harsh conditions in North Dakota aren’t for everyone and a lot of people head home after trying it. The turnover rate is high so if you’re at the right place at the right time, you should be able to get your foot in the door.

If you do decide to go, good luck and stay in touch!

All the best,

Questions for Rhea Bewick, an Oil Field Wife Living in a Camper

I’m starting a new feature this week where I’ll periodically interview other bloggers in North Dakota. I believe building an online community with fellow bloggers is so important and there are some fantastic blogs out there covering the oil boom that deserve a shout-out. Today’s feature is with Rhea Bewick, a blogger at, who currently lives in a camper in New Town, North Dakota with her husband. Here’s my Q&A with her:

Name: Rhea Bewick
Age: 22
Occupation: Administrative assistant for a water and oil hauling company
Hometown: Just outside of Fresno, CA

Blaire Briody (BB): What’s your living situation like?

Rhea Bewick (RB): We live in New Town, North Dakota, which is on a Native American reservation.  We live in a camper in a man camp. It is a lot different than anywhere else we’ve lived. Before North Dakota, my husband and I had lived in a tiny guest house, then I moved back in with my parents while he was in Iraq for 15 months, and then we lived in an apartment for a year.

At first I was scared shitless. My husband was gone all of the time at work, and I was home alone, and I only knew one person in the park.  I was trying to get a concealed weapons license and always had a kitchen knife by my side. I had read so many stories online about how unsafe it is for women to be here.  I was probably overreacting, but my motto is that I would rather be safe than sorry. Now I have calmed down a bit, but I have my handy dandy pepper spray on me at all times.

BB: Why did you move to the oil patch?

RB: We moved up here because when my husband came back from Iraq, he had no clue what he wanted to do. He could have gone to school, but he wanted to do five different careers.  I wanted him to find a job, but that was difficult in California. We had a good amount saved up because I had lived with my parents and our only bills where for my car, school, and cell phone. Well, after he had been home for a year, our savings had basically run out and we were getting desperate.  My husband had heard from a friend about the oil boom. His friend knew someone up here driving a semi truck and making a lot of money. The next day my husband told me that this was what he had wanted to do for now. So I said alright. We packed up everything, financed a truck, bought a camper in Las Vegas, and moved here.

BB: What’s been the most challenging thing so far?

RB: The most challenging thing has been the weather. Coming from Central California, it was a major adjustment to say the least. Below freezing was not in my vocabulary until now, let alone negative. The people up here are sort of rude too. I understand it though. My husband and I came from a small community – our graduating class was probably about 120 people – so we understand why this small town is angry at the people moving in and taking over their town. They are getting a lot of money from this oil boom though – even the crappiest food places are making major mula. This town will never be the same though, and it does make me sad. If that happened to our small hometown, I would probably be devastated.

BB: How has your life changed since coming to North Dakota?

RB: Moving up here has given us so many new life experiences. We’re making new friends, learning about our finances, learning how to live in a camper, etc. If moving up here doesn’t change you then I don’t know what does.

BB: How long do you plan on staying? Could you see yourself building a life here?

RB: We plan on staying probably 2 more years.  It was originally only one year. That year has come and gone though, and we didn’t save up nearly as much as we had hoped.  We have some goals we would like to reach – we plan to save up enough to have kids around the age of 25, save up for a major down payment on a home (if not finance all of one), and enough for retirement. We are only 22, so we think that starting these things now will do wonders in the future.  We do not plan on living here forever.  We will probably move back to California to be close to family.  Plans change all of the time though – I mean, we didn’t plan on moving up here to North Dakota to live in a camper! So we take what life gives us.

BB: Money is one reason a lot of people give for why they came to ND, but in your opinion, how much more makes it worth it?

RB: We need to be making quite a lot for it to be worth our while. The spot where we have our camper parked is $850 a month. That is how much our 2 bedroom 2 bathroom apartment was back in California. The job I have pays for my housing though, so that is such a relief. Food here is ridiculously expensive – a gallon of milk is $6! It is no wonder that I see truck drivers buying cheap, nasty TV dinners all of the time.

BB: Would you recommend North Dakota to others? Why or why not?

RB: Yes, we recommend North Dakota to everyone. If you don’t know what you want to do yet, then come on up here and make some money in the mean time! We have a friend up here who is almost done paying off their house, and others who can go buy RV’s with cash. It’s a life experience that you can tell your grandchildren about for years to come. The Bakken isn’t for everyone though, and we have seen a lot of people who just can’t handle it. If you have kids and don’t want to pull them out of their schools, then you should probably stay at home. This place isn’t really for children. We see it as a sacrifice for now, so we can have a better future.

Rhea and her husband, Zach

Rhea and her husband, Zach

Rhea's husband in front of their camper.

Rhea’s husband in front of their camper.

Undercover as a Day Laborer in North Dakota

As some of you know, I recently quit my job as an editor to become a full-time writer. It’s been a fantastic change from the grind of an office job, but it’s also caused me to fall into an unhealthy schedule lately. I stay up until around 1am for no reason (except to find out what will happen next on Homeland) then I sleep in until around 9:30am, when I roll out of bed and make eggs and browse the morning news while I sip coffee in my pjs. It’s been a challenge to put on pants before noon.

But living in a place like Williston where everybody is working long hours and performing grueling manual labor has made me feel guilty about my schedule. Cindy, a 56-year-old grandmother who regularly logs 12 to 14 hour days on fracking sites, and wakes up every morning at 5am, thought it was hilarious when I told her I’ve been waking up at 9am (and it was only half true, since it’s been closer to 9:30am lately).

What is it like to work outside for 14 hours? The only outdoor job I’ve had was working as a lift operator at a ski park in college. The job involved sitting down in the shade for 6-hour shifts and the most “active” part of the job was when I’d ride around in circles on the back of the lift. Not exactly back-breaking.

To find out, I signed up to be a day laborer at Bakken Staffing, the organization where most new arrivals to Williston find temporary work. Most people that go through Bakken Staffing hope to work in the high-paying oil field, but in the interim, show up at 6am every morning to be sent out to construction jobs or other temp work.

My alarm goes off at 5:30am and I pull myself out of my comfy hotel bed and head out into the dark Williston morning. I arrive at the staffing agency, and join the 20 other men who are waiting to be sent out to jobs for the day. They take my photo, which looks like a prison mug shot, and print out a card for me. The woman at the front desk asks if I have any cleaning experience (because apparently that’s the only manual labor job women can do?). I debate making a joke about cleaning my room, but just stutter “not professionally,” and sit down.

My mug

My mug

A traffic construction “flagging” job comes up, and 10 other people raise their hand. I’m standing near the front desk and she picks me. “Yes! I’m in!” I think. Then she asks everyone to show their flagging certificate. “Flagging certificate?” I ask.

“You don’t have one?” she says.

“I didn’t know I needed one.”

She then announces there’s a “concrete job” that she needs two people for. I remember helping my dad as a kid mix concrete and it wasn’t too difficult, so I raise my hand. The job pays $14 an hour, about average for low-skilled jobs in Williston. One other guy stands up to take the job, but he doesn’t have a car and it’s a 15 minute drive. “Can you take him?” she asks. “Sure,” I say.

His name is Kwame Anokye and he’s from Ghana. On the way to the job, he tells me more about himself: He came to the U.S. eight years ago and after living in the Bronx, NY for a year, he moved to Alaska to break into the oil field. He worked as a cook at a man camp and made an okay living, but his dad became sick in Ghana and he went home to take care of him. After his dad passed away, he came back to the U.S., but the man camp wouldn’t give him his old job back. So Kwame thought he’d try Williston, North Dakota. He wouldn’t tell me how old he is, but I’m guessing around 50. He’s been sleeping on the floor at Concordia Church (more about the homeless situation in my article here), and working day labor jobs for six weeks, hoping one of them will turn into a permanent position with housing.

Kwame in front of the construction site

Kwame in front of the construction site

We arrive to the construction site for the job, and the boss pauses when he looks at me and Kwame. I’m guessing we look like an odd pair — an older African guy with a potbelly and a scrawny white girl. But he tells us what we’re supposed to do: He points to a pile of cement slabs, each about the size of a small door, and a 10-foot muddy ditch that’s the formation for a 3-bedroom house. “Move these into the ditch,” he says.

Each slab weighed about 60 pounds, and I was able to lift the first one without too much difficulty. I thought, ‘you know, this isn’t so bad, I’m stronger than I thought,’ but then by the 4th or 5th one, my back started to hurt, and I realized I had been twisting while I was carrying them, and I remembered the safety video we watched that showed people with life-long, crippling back injuries from twisting while carrying heavy objects. I tried walking with perfect posture while carrying the slab, but it would bump into my legs as I waddled. I could see Kwame giving me a strange look. So I continued to twist my back.

By the 10th one, my arms felt weaker, and each one was taking me longer, and I was already hungry for lunch. ‘How many more can there possibly be?’ I thought.

After three hours, we had moved 200 concrete slabs. Near the end of it, I was using every ounce of energy I had to drag the concrete slabs to the ditch, huffing and grunting and banging against them as I struggled (I now have too many bruises on my body to count).

Then the manager gave us paintbrushes and told us to put a coating of an oily substance called Debond Gold on the 200 slabs. At first, I was ecstatic to do something as easy as painting, but my excitement was short-lived. We had to bend over to paint the slabs, and the sun was directly above us now. A few times I had to stop because I was feeling lightheaded and dizzy.

Finally it was lunch. There were no bathrooms nearby, and the manager had no rags, so I wiped my oily hands on my shirt. The sandwiches Kwame and I had bought in the morning had been sitting in the sun, so my turkey and cheese sandwiches looked soggy and wilted. Under normal circumstances, I might’ve just tossed it, but I was so happy to sit down and eat something.

After lunch, we were asked to sweep and pick up small pieces of wood, discarded cups, and cigarette buttes from the construction site. This wasn’t so bad (maybe cleaning is the way to go after all…), except there were about 15 other men working and I kept having to bend down in front of them. At 5:30, we were dismissed, and I nearly collapsed. We only logged eight hours. Not even close to the 14 Cindy regularly works.

I made $96.38 for my eight hours, and it was gone in less than 24 hours after I took Kwame out for a beer and a burger, and had the oil changed in my car. $14 an hour is not enough for people living in a town with such high living costs. Giving motivated workers the support they need should be a priority in this country. If Kwame could simply get the support he needs to go through a technical training program, or obtain a commercial driver’s license, he could double his earnings and leave day labor for good.

Hard-earned dollars

Hard-earned dollars

The church where Kwame was staying recently shut down by the city of Williston for not having a sprinkler system and showers for the people sleeping there, and the pastor had to kick everyone out last week, including Kwame. I helped find Kwame a place to stay on Saturday night, but he could only stay one night. He slept in a storage container for the next two nights. I recently talked to him and he has found a temporary place to stay on the outskirts of town in a woman’s old home, but he has no car and he’s not sure how he’s going to travel to a job every day.

After just one day experiencing it for myself, I have so much respect for Kwame and Cindy and others who work as hard as they do, and the thought of doing it without a stable place to live is unimaginable to me. I think it’s time we gave day laborers, construction workers and blue collar employees the respect and support they deserve.

Here's me - feeling overjoyed it's lunchtime.

Here’s me feeling overjoyed it’s lunchtime.

Fracking, Chemical Spills, and Environmental Concerns

Farmer Dan Kalil

Dan Kalil, a third generation farmer with oil wells on his land / Photo by Brad DeCecco

This week and next, I’m putting on my investigative journalist hat and talking to locals about the environmental effects and health concerns caused by the oil boom.

Fracking is a controversial topic, and I want to make it clear that I’m not taking an official position on it, and nor will the book. I will take a critical look at the process, however, and report both sides to the issue. The side I’m currently looking at is the environmental effects, but I’ll get into more details about the positives of fracking at a later date (it could be less bad than other mining or drilling processes, for example, and many people I’ve talked to are adamant about doing everything they can to limit the environmental damage).

Nevertheless, environmental damage is happening. One big concern is the illegal dumping and accidental spills of the chemical-infused saltwater used in the fracking process. There were over 1,000 documented spills in 2011 alone, and the liquid completely sterilizes the land, killing everything it touches. In 2006, when the oil boom was in its infancy, a pipeline leak caused one million gallons of it to spill into a creek in Alexander, ND, killing hundreds of fish, turtles and plants. Despite cleanup efforts, ranchers in the area are still finding tainted areas. I’ll be going to look at some more spill sites on Monday.

I’ll also be spending a few nights on a farm next week to understand the deep connection many local North Dakotans have to the land. Farmer Donny Nelson, who has spent nearly every day of his life on his farm, and can tell if rain is coming by the smell of the air, finds it difficult to watch thousands of people descend on his home land, knowing they’ll probably leave just as quickly if the price of oil drops. “I think it’s sad what’s happening,” he says. “My grandparents homesteaded here and we’ve seen how hard it was for them. The winters are brutal. They suffered so we could have it better, and this land is what did it for them. In the end we don’t own the land, it owns us.”

CORRECTION 1/25/14: A previous version of this post referred to Donny Nelson as Donny Wilson. His name has been corrected.

Donny Nelson, a third-generation North Dakota farmer / Photo still is from the doc Ashley Panzera is working on

Donny Nelson, another third-generation North Dakota farmer. Some 25 wells surrounded his farmhouse, and he’s documented many saltwater spills on his land / Photo still is from the doc Ashley Panzera is working on

Gender Relations in a Nearly All-Male Town

Betsy Wilkinson, a bartender in Williston, ND / Photo by Brad DeCecco

Betsy Wilkinson, a bartender in Williston, ND / Photo by Brad DeCecco

The oil boom has brought thousands of male workers to this part of North Dakota, which creates all sorts of interesting gender dynamics. I’m fascinated by the effects of mono-sex cultures, both male and female-driven, and being a woman in Williston has certainly been an interesting experience. On friend swears the ratio of single men to women is 79 to 1. I’d put it more at 10 to 1, but either way, it’s noticeably off-balance.

The phenomenon of thousands of men working long hours in a remote place, with many making six figures, has led to a growth of prostitution and a busy strip club scene. Once a small town cop, Watford City’s 28-year-old Police Chief Jesse Wellen has led multiple prostitution stings, and it’s not difficult to spot sex workers in the night clubs or by some of the local hotels. Domestic violence has also risen dramatically. “It’s a call we receive a lot,” says Wellen. “If you’re living in a camper, things tend to escalate because of the small environment and you have the whole family living there.”

Amber Kehoe, a 19-year-old who works at a nearby gas station, carries a knife on her hip at all times.

Dating can be a challenge for both genders. Betsy Wilkinson, a local bartender in Williston, refuses to date herself, but hears story after story about what it’s like for her friends. “Nobody is really themselves in Williston,” she says. “They could be the worst person in the world back home or they could be married with five kids. You can be whoever you want to be here.”

She also told me about the growing occurrence of the man camp “walk of shame.”  “Girls are like unicorns at a man camp,” she explains. “They get up and of course they’re, like, a hot mess, and it’s five or six in the morning and the dude’s going ‘Hey, you need to get out of here before anybody gets up.’ Well, everybody’s already up and having breakfast and they’re walking out carrying their bra, and as soon as one person sees them, the guys just all do that deer in the headlights.”

Of course, there’s also the pickup lines she hears. One guy offered to buy her a Harley if she went to dinner with him. “Most of the pickup lines are, ‘I’ll buy you anything you want, let’s go.’ I’m like, ‘sorry, I’m not a Williston girl, that does nothing for me, I earn my own money.’ It kind of throws guys off. They panic, because they don’t know what else to offer you. They usually just get deflated and walk away.”

The local strip club / Photo by Brad DeCecco

The local strip club / Photo by Brad DeCecco

What It’s Really Like to Work on an Oil Rig

Documentary filmmaker Ashley Panzera just arrived today, and Brad DeCecco leaves tomorrow, so for one night, the Oil Men team is on the town in Williston. The evening will likely involve strippers. More on that soon…

Brad DeCecco and I also spent five hours on an oil drilling rig yesterday. The rig was just across the border in Montana, and we donned hard hats, steel-toed boots and coveralls for our tour. The crew just had a major spill the day before – they had been using a high-pressure hose to pump toxic drilling mud into the ground when it suddenly exploded 40 feet up into the air, covering all the equipment, and almost taking out a few workers. One ducked for cover just in time. “Fifty pounds of pressure will kill you,” says Eric Olsen, a rig supervisor who gave us the tour, “and we had 3,000 pounds of pressure in the hose when it blew. If anybody had been close, it could’ve taken their head off.”

Olsen also said he’s heard about gruesome accidents when there’s a small leak in one of the high-pressure hoses. “It’s like a razor knife. You can walk across it and it’ll cut your leg off. And you won’t even know it’s leaking because it’s just a pinhole spray.”

Luckily no one had their leg or head taken off, but Brad and his camera were sprayed by bio diesel fuel at one point during the tour. We think him and his camera are fine, but we still can’t get the diesel smell off his camera.

Brothers Joe and Jonnie Boyles, and Jefferey Waldner / Photo by Brad DeCecco

Brothers Joe and Jonnie Boyles, and Jefferey Waldner / Photo by Brad DeCecco

Climbing onto the rig / Photo by Brad DeCecco

Climbing onto the rig / Photo by Brad DeCecco

The crew cleaning drilling mud off the rig / Photo by Brad DeCecco

The crew cleaning drilling mud off the rig / Photo by Brad DeCecco