White Absolution in the Bakken Oil Fields
Grace Phillips traces her roots back to a pioneer homestead in Williston, North Dakota – point of origin for the Dakota Access pipeline, and just a few hours away from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Going back and forth between the two, she asks: how do we move forward from here?
When oil was discovered in the Bakken Formation of North Dakota in 2006, I was only 16 years old, but I have distinct memories of the dark images that circulated in my hometown during the six year oil boom. By 2012, Montana media painted a grim picture of this new Wild West. Sex trafficking in the “Man Camps,” Meth-addled truck drivers making $100,000 a year, and women getting kidnapped in Walmart parking lots. The Bakken was danger or opportunity, calibrated to individual desperation. And like the old extractive industries of the American frontier, the threat of a bust lurked just around the corner. The long geopolitical stand-off in energy production caused a steep drop in the price of oil in 2014, making Bakken production unprofitable for many companies. The rig count in the Bakken was 218 at its peak in May 2012; at time of writing it is 49. By the time I moved in to my trailer in near Williston in October of last year, the “Boomtown, USA” residents were reminiscing about old paychecks like former high school quarterbacks recalling glory days.
Williston sits above the center of a geologic feature called the Williston Basin – sedimentary rock layers formed over millions of years by dead organisms that sank to the bottom of ancient shallow seas. Pressure, heat and movement of Earth’s crust caused some bodies to become oil, fallen wood around these seas became coal. I moved here to research the story of my great-grandmother who ran away from a Williston homestead as a teenager, but as an environmental writer based in the point of origin and raison d’être for the Dakota Access pipeline, I began to focus on the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) standoff as tension grew at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. I soon discovered my two lines of inquiry overlapped and I was much closer to the protest camps than the 4.5 hour drive southeast would suggest.
All the camps – Oceti Sakowin, Rosebud, Sacred Stone – are now closed. February 22 marked eviction day for the last hundred Water Protectors at the largest camp, Oceti Sakowin. Six days later the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) cleared Sacred Stone camp. When I first went to Standing Rock in October, I wasn’t clear on the number of separate camps, even within Oceti Sakowin, or how to get to any of them. I found myself driving in a slow circle through the small town in the northeast corner of the reservation thinking, I probably should have looked this up. I finally made it to the flag-lined entrance to Oceti Sakowin (with some assistance) as the sun was setting. Every single person I spoke to during multiple stays in camp articulated what I felt as security waved me through the gate that first day – a blank moment, followed by a sharp tightening of my senses, this hyper-awareness trying to take in the flood of impressions. A mental scramble for comparable experiences came up empty-handed – no one had seen anything like this before. Throughout the occupation, livestreams from countless activists provided a window into these experiences and enabled a global audience to witness the power of racism and state-sanctioned violence summoned in defence of the oil industry in North Dakota.