Beginning Our Descent 

Three tales of the Bakken

A month ago I was in North Dakota or Montana. I can’t be more specific than that. It was almost night, and I was five miles in the air. The only bright lights down there were the burning flares of oil wells.
The flames looked like stars in deep space. For a hallucinatory moment, I thought the Boeing 737 I had boarded in Chicago had delivered me to a point light-years from Earth. I would arrive in Boise with a lifetime supply of frequent flyer miles.

Sagebrush deserts became drifting clouds of dark matter. Mountains became shadowy nebulae. Small towns became dim and distant galaxies, their streetlights red-shifted to near invisibility.

None of my fellow passengers seemed to notice. Most of them were sleeping, but here and there a reading light flashed on, a newspaper rustled or someone stood in the aisle, stretching. Flight attendants eased by, collecting trash and adjusting blankets. I fell asleep inside the cocooning, comforting hum of the jets, and woke only when the pilot announced we were beginning our descent.

The slap of the 737’s tires against the tarmac put an end to interstellar travel for the night. A short time later I was at the carousel, waiting for my bag, thinking that humans have a genetic compulsion to obliterate time and space. I had begun the day on the other side of a continent that people used to take months and even years to cross.

Show a 737 to an Oregon Trail immigrant who has taken a long month to cross Wyoming, and he’d think starship. Arthur C. Clarke, the great science fiction writer, said that any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic. Even though I have some idea of how a big silver bird can fly, it still seems like magic to climb into one, sit and read for less than a day and find that 5,000 miles have disappeared while I wasn’t paying attention.

An oilfield lit by methane torches evokes unfamiliar metaphorical destinations. You instinctively want a guide. Dante recruited Virgil, a virtuous pagan, for his tour of the Christian Inferno. If you were really bad, according to Dante, you spent eternity sunken in torch-lit pits of ice. Dante took pains to place recognizable portraits of his political enemies in the ninth and deepest circle of Hell, proof that if you want a reputation that will last through the ages, just piss off a poet.

Reading Dante is enough to convince me I never want to work in the oilfields of the Bakken Formation, especially not in winter.

Those jobs are going away, anyway. Fracked oil doesn’t pencil out unless you can sell it for $100-plus a barrel, and if you sell it for that much, modern industrial economies don’t pencil out. If the price of oil takes a dive, the fracking economy gets depressed. If oil sells for enough to make fracking profitable, everybody else gets depressed. These days the price of oil is so low that every tank car of crude heading from the Bakken to an ocean port is losing money for somebody.

I succumb to my usual impulse to make helpful suggestions. Why not capture the methane they’re burning off and sell it? Why not use it to light cities, or make electricity, or lift hot-air balloons, or melt tar sands?
Turns out that it’s cheaper to burn it than to collect it and compress it and transport it. Hence the photos taken from windows of the International Space Station, the ones that show the flaming outlines of the Bakken against a shadowed Earth.

The Bakken Formation is a synecdoche. That’s not a geological term, or even a polite term for fracking. It’s a specialized form of metaphor, occurring when a small hard piece of something begins to stand for the giant whole of it. The Bakken—drilled, fractured, drained, its farmland become trailer parks, its groundwater poisoned, its ranching and farming culture reduced to murals on restaurant walls—serves as a synecdoche for the planet these days.

The Bakken is also a small hard distillation of our civilization’s economy. Enormous resources have gone into holes in the ground, and a great deal of capital has gone with them. Fracked wells typically don’t produce much after a year and often don’t recover exploration and drilling costs. Fracked oil is gassy, explosive stuff, and for that reason the tank cars that carry it are described as rolling bombs.

One explanation for Saudi Arabia’s increased oil production these days: The Saudis are trying to economically destroy the North American oil shale, tar sands and fracking industries before they—however improbably—become profitable. Another more conspiratorial explanation: The U.S. government has prevailed upon the Saudis to destroy the price of fracked oil before fracked oil destroys the U.S.
When future accountants—if accountants still exist in a barter economy—tally up the costs and profits of Bakken oil production, the bottom line will be red. Once-solid bank assets are going to disappear into bankruptcy court and quantitative easing will be required to keep banks afloat. Sound familiar?

We’ll hang on as long as we can. An expanse of torches among the pumpjacks suggests a peasant uprising, but it’s not. It’s just us Baby Boomers, working against time to use up all the world’s recoverable resources before we die. I think we’re going to make it.
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