Ask A Researcher

June 2016

Bakken Oil: What Have We Learned and What Will We Do Differently Next Time?

Carol Cwiak, J.D., Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the department of Emergency Management at North Dakota State University. She is the undergraduate coordinator and teaches preparedness, response, business continuity and crisis management, and professional development. She also coordinates emergency management student internships for the department. Carol is passionate about risk ownership and responsible risk management and views it as an obligation of both individual citizens and the structures that serve them (e.g., government, business, non-profit, social organizations, etc.). In this article, she highlights a research study that she conducted as a part of her Advanced Business Continuity course with students: Noah Avon, Cole Kellen, Katherine Mortenson, Paul Mott, Olivia Niday, James Sink, and Thomas Webb. The study report has been distributed to North Dakota Governor Dalrymple, North Dakota legislators, and study participants and remains available online at



The dramatic drop in oil prices over the past year has caused a substantial slowdown in oil drilling and production in western North Dakota.  This has resulted in worker layoffs, a leveling out of housing inflation and shortages, and a sense that boomtown areas are moving back to a more manageable state of being. Not that the area is, or ever will be, the same as it was prior to the most recent boom.  Indeed, even in its current state of being - post-boomtown - one thing is clear, North Dakota’s boomtown days are far from over. The Bakken Formation remains rich with potential and is ready to be harvested when oil prices rise again. As such, North Dakota now gets a “do-over” in regard to strategic planning and the development of appropriate infrastructure for the next boom. 

This “do-over” is a welcome respite for the emergency management function and its partner agencies and organizations. The impacts of oil drilling and production on the emergency management function in North Dakota were, at their height, decimating the responsive ability and eroding basic support systems necessary to a safe and secure community. These impacts were addressed in a North Dakota State University (NDSU) research study published in 2015.

Emergency management is “the managerial function charged with creating the framework within which communities reduce vulnerability to hazards and cope with disasters” (Principles of Emergency Management, 2007). At its core, the emergency management function has the responsibility for keeping communities safe and secure. It does so by partnering with other agencies and organizations and ensuring that communities are adequately planning for, mitigating against, capable of responding to, and able to recover from, emergencies, disasters, and catastrophes. Unfortunately, emergency management agencies and their partner agencies (e.g., fire, police, emergency medical services, public health, etc.) too often operate with limited staff and resources. This can be the result of a lackluster budget or a lack of understanding regarding the importance of a strong emergency management framework to address community vulnerabilities.

The NDSU study used a two-pronged approach to examine the impacts of oil drilling and production on the emergency management function. The first prong involved “objective assessment of existing articles, reports, data, and industry projections from distinct topical areas (i.e., oil, socioeconomic, transportation, public health, fire, emergency medical services, and law enforcement) to help better understand and frame the impacts from an emergency management perspective.” The second prong “sought to engage the thoughts, observations, and opinions of emergency management and partner agency personnel in order to tell the story of impacts and potential solutions from their perspective.” The study report captured the current state of oil drilling and production, transportation impacts, and socioeconomic realities as they defined and redefined communities and affected the ability of the surveyed audiences to perform at the level required to keep communities safe and secure. The participants’ narrative comments were used to illustrate the extent to which the emergency management function was in peril of partial or complete failure.

A small selection of the study participants’ comments are included herein to illustrate the troubling state of affairs that was reported in regard to oil drilling and production impacts in North Dakota.

“We continue to be drowning over here while other people keep handing us umbrellas to fix the situation. We are overwhelmed, tired, and just a bit fed up.”

“House values have gone up 4 times from what they are really worth, rentals, apartments cost $1800-$2400 a month. So how can a teacher or city worker or hospital staff afford to even live here? All these transient employees are running our hospitals and ambulances broke. They expect service then when it's time to pay they disappear. The majority of local businesses have a revolving door of employees. If they can find any at all. Our schools have to add on because of non-taxpaying students that are living in campers. So who pays the taxes for that, the locals? The state needs to give back to the oil communities that are making them rich.”

“Since the beginning of the "oil boom" our county has experienced an increase in crime, incarceration, and traffic, an influx of people that have either not made it to the oil fields or were turned away due to various reasons. Trust of citizens that our responders are unfamiliar with has been an issue, law enforcement is called upon more often to travel with EMS due to this. Retaining staff for information technology has become an issue with businesses in the area due to the high wages paid just a few counties away.  Communications issues have arisen due to interference on radio channels likely from increased use.”

“The biggest impact has been the number of calls we have been asked to respond to, our vehicle accident calls have gone up 600% in the last 5 years.  Our total number of fire calls have risen 2 to 3 times, we have went from an average of 48 to an average of 110 in the last 3 years.   Another impact has been the time required to respond to these, we need to send more units for our own safety since if we are on a major highway, the short staffed law enforcement agencies have limited resources and are spread thin so we need to provide traffic control as well as extrication of the victims. Also the size and types of vehicles involved has changed from mostly passenger cars to semis and multi-passenger vehicles. So we not only need firefighters to extricate, but to perform traffic control….Our town's population has grown many times, but the people coming are not volunteering for emergency services, so the burden is placed upon the people that are already doing so much for the community.”

 “The populations we have now do not tune in to local media outlets so how in an emergency do you get emergency messaging out to these individuals? What languages does the messaging need to be in? These are all unanswered questions that with our current funding levels we can't even scratch the surface of. Then you have the housing situations where people are living 6 to more people in a house or lodging built for maybe 4  - things like that that make the likelihood of an outbreak and far reaching spread even greater. Vaccination status of the people moving here both children with parents that don't believe in vaccines and those coming from other countries that are under immunized. We are an outbreak waiting to happen. Everyone quickly goes to spills etc. with the oil but these are the situations that could have even further reaching consequences that we don't have the staffing to address.”

 “Except for mobile homes, housing is no longer affordable to those making minimum wage up to approximately $14.00 per hour.  Excerpt from NDDES's Winter Storm Annex.  As a consequence of the oil boom and the shortage of suitable housing in oil producing counties, a significant number of transient workers are forced to live in tents, vehicles, and other shelters not suitable for winter conditions making them vulnerable. Determining how many persons are possibly threatened in each area remains a challenge. It is also difficult to account for persons residing in ad-hoc camps, such as abandoned farmsteads.  The welfare of man camp residents is not an immediate concern due to available support systems such as auxiliary power and winterization applications. Most transient residents are not active within their communities, have limited to no local support structure, and are for the most part unaccounted for. Thus, most transient living conditions are unverifiable. Local emergency managers in oil producing counties are prepared to activate shelter plans which address short-term sheltering needs, but due to the transient nature of the oil patch’s population, no reliable method exists for accurately estimating pre-event numbers. If significant numbers of persons present at local shelters, resources may quickly overwhelm local capabilities. Long-term sheltering would also present similar challenges.”

“We are a volunteer department, with all members having full time jobs. We have been so busy with additional runs that we are getting burnt out. Nobody wants to train on our training nights. We are not new to the oil field, we have been dealing with that aspect since the 50's. We have highly trained personnel.  It's all the vehicle accidents that we have had to deal with. This boom has brought in trucks and workers from every state, who seem to think that they need to drive as fast as they can, at all times. Nobody feels safe here anymore. The media doesn't know half the stuff that is going on up here. Or maybe that's political too, so the state can keep raking in all the money.”

 “Every part of the system is overtaxed above what is a sustainable level.  The uncertainty of the boom/bust cycle has made it difficult for governing bodies to direct enough resources to handle the growth.”

Study participants’ comments illustrated their frustration and evidenced recognition of the potential for failure. The impacts brought on by the oil boom,  namely “unprecedented growth, strained infrastructure, runaway wage and cost-of-living inflation, lack of housing and services, and a new community composition in western North Dakota and surrounding counties” created the foundation for compounded vulnerability. Additionally, the transport of volatile Bakken crude via truck, rail, and pipeline; saltwater and oil spills; improper disposal of hazardous materials; and a laissez faire posture by North Dakota regulators created new and exacerbated challenges for the emergency management function.  

Ten important themes arose in the study data – six in regard to direct impacts and four in regard to indirect impacts of oil drilling and production.

Direct Impacts:
1) The need for additional equipment, personnel, and funding to address the increased workload and changing responsibilities (e.g., the inability to focus on other necessary function activities based on the time and workload associated in dealing with oil issues).
2) The need for additional planning, training, and exercising in regard to oil transport, drilling, and production issues that could require an emergency response (i.e., rail transport, truck hazardous material transport, spill response, rig fires, hazard event at oil site, etc.).
3) The shortage and burnout of first responders, particularly within volunteer departments.
4) The increased likelihood of not only more events, but also more severe events based on increased population and traffic.
5) Concerns regarding community compositions that are not versed in local hazards and are difficult to access and warn.
6) The delays caused in emergency response due to rail and transportation corridor blockage or congestion.

Indirect Impacts:
1) The growing population is pressing the limits of schools, housing, healthcare, social services, daycare, and existing retail and service industries.
2) Recruiting and retaining workers for non-oil jobs and volunteer responder services is difficult because of wage inflation, lack of affordable housing, crime, and quality of life concerns.
3) The social safety net is being taxed and the needs are exceeding the available resources.
4) The road conditions – to include the quality, safety, and amount of traffic – have become an area of critical concern.

Based on the themes that arose, 21 recommendations were offered that focused on solutions grounded in:

  • additional personnel, equipment, resources, planning, training, and exercise needs for emergency management and partner agency organizations;
  • an examination of existing volunteer response structures, staffing, and the potential need for incentives and subsidization; 
  • traffic, accident, and life span studies that inform the usage and responsibility for roads, highways, thoroughfares, and rail; 
  • a study of criminal activity that informs the law enforcement agenda and identifies needs for additional personnel and equipment;
  • outreach to vulnerable populations via industry partners and educational campaigns;
  • support of community-based solutions to address rapid growth challenges;
  • tax reductions, credits, and incentives to encourage the growth and development of businesses and institutions in communities;
  • wage and cost-of-living studies that inform wage increases that help mitigate inflation and better inform low income baselines;
  • examination of essential personnel housing options; and
  • a statewide strategy for addressing homelessness.

Now that the oil boom has hit a lull, there is a unique opportunity to focus on and improve upon the failings that plagued North Dakota during the initial boom. While the price per barrel has dropped dramatically over the past year and a half, there is little doubt that oil drilling and production activities in the Bakken will increase when the price per barrel rises again. The questions that North Dakota should focus on in the interim are: “What have we learned?” and “What will we do differently next time?” For the sake of safety and security in North Dakota, let’s hope this “do-over” is done right.

Excerpted from: The New Normal: The Direct and Indirect Impacts of Oil Drilling and Production on the Emergency Management Function in North Dakota, 2015 (full report is available at

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