Dispatch from Williston, ND: oilfield temporalities


In June, I spent two weeks in North Dakota’s oil patch, interviewing people for a radio documentary on the lives of oil field workers and generally trying to figure out what is going on there. The stories I heard and the things I saw gave me a lot to sort through; I’ve only just begun. These, then, are some provisional thoughts – certainly not a complete (or probably even coherent) analysis.  – Jessi

In Williston, the train is almost always late, and not by only a few minutes. At first I guessed this was a feature of being in the middle of the country, nowhere near the origin of trains going either East or West. Plenty of opportunities for delays, traffic, bad weather. But then I learned that it’s mainly because about 9,000 freight cars go through Williston every day. Some are carrying seemingly outlandish equipment, like spools of thin piping as big as a truck. But most of them are black, uniform, cylindrical. Most of them are carrying oil. Someone I met pointed out to me that you can tell which oil tanks are empty and which are full by watching the tracks give under their weight.

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Oil tank cars in the Williston station

When I first arrived in Williston and didn’t know where to go to talk to people, I started at the train station. I’ve always been interested in people in transit, but the stories I heard at the Williston train station seemed especially significant to what it means to get by in these times.

Many people that I met in Williston were far from their homes. Maybe that’s the case in any train station, yet I doubt you’d find people from so many places getting on and off in such a small, isolated town. But there’s an oil boom on, and as one person put it, people from all over the country treat this area like a bank (or at least like some simplified, pre-Occupy Wall St version of one), a place from which to withdraw money and then get on with life.

For most, the oilfields are a temporary form of employment. The harsh weather, high cost of living, and the few attractions in North Dakota’s small towns keep many people from moving their families here permanently. And there’s not much in the current structure of the industry (and related services) to make it any more permanent. Workers stay in “man camps,” homogeneous rows of beige, trailer-like temporary housing on the outskirts of town, and many work two-week-on, two-week-off shifts. In their off time, they get out of town, heading back to visit their families or on to other adventures. Lots of people who I met explained to me that when they arrived, they gave themselves timelines of a few months to a few years. To find a job, make whatever money they can, get back on their feet, get their families off to a good start, or even make a little extra before retiring.

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“Man camp” housing outside Williston

There are other timelines at play here too, of course, more than I can mention in this space, and certainly others of which I’m not aware. Common to various forms of unconventional resource extraction (which characterizes this oil boom) are two timelines that are not at all inevitable or straightforward. One is the development of technology such as hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and directional drilling that make this kind of extraction profitable. Another timeline is legislative, and often involves the approval of exceptions for oil and gas drilling to existing environmental and social protections, such as the Clean Water Act.  (See here for a list of exemptions granted in the US for oil and gas drilling).

And then of course the timeline of oil itself, the most fundamental temporality of them all, yet one that seems lost, almost unaccounted for, in day-to-day life on the oil patch. Maybe it’s no wonder, I guess, since the life and death and heating and compression of prehistoric microorganisms and their sedimentation over geologic time is a lot to think about, even when one is not working 12 hour days of dangerous and physically demanding labor. (Though when you start to think about it, it can be hard to stop).

On one hand it seems like the timelines I’ve mentioned so far are all about durations, about the question of “how long?” Mostly, how long is it possible to last? How long can one keep doing hard manual labor in soul-sucking conditions (a question for the age(s), obviously)? Can you survive the winter? How long will the infrastructure continue to support this growing population? How long will the boom last? How long will the capitalist system, so reliant on what happens here, keep going like this?

But it’s also clear that to even ask these questions, this other underlying temporality, the temporality of oil itself and its metabolic and geological relations must be sublimated, must be subjected to apparatuses with immense calculatory and mechanical force. From the unfathomable time it’s taken for the oil to form, to the technologically complex and resource-intensive routines of drilling, fracking, pumping, transporting, and refining the oil, a lot has to happen in order to produce time that can be neatly bitten off, made into working hours and barrels per day and train schedules that even on rare days run on time.