Deep beneath the grassy surface of western North Dakota and parts of Montana and Canada is a mammoth sandwich some have likened to an Oreo cookie—two black wafers of shale tightly encasing a layer of pale dolomite. Locked within tiny crannies in the rock is a fluid known as tight oil, billions of barrels of it.
Vertical drilling couldn’t efficiently and economically tap that resource, so producers left it there for more than five decades. Then oil prices rose and a new technology emerged that coupled horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing—making it possible to use high-pressure injections of water to crack the shale and free the trapped tight oil within.
Dr. Alexander James, an economics professor who came to UAA by way of Wyoming and Oxford, and Dr. Brock Smith, an Oxford Fellow, have written a working paper, “There Will Be Blood,” which analyzes how the energy boom has influenced crime rates throughout the United States and takes a closer look at shale-rich boomtowns like Williston and Texas’ Eagle Ford, and the upswells of illegal deeds associated with them.
“I’m always thinking of the externalities—what are the indirect effects the market is not capturing,” James said. “There are lower unemployment rates, it generates income, immigration and emigration, but what are some of those environmental effects?”
James was among the faculty putting their work on display at the recent UAA Faculty Showcase, which included a variety of projects—everything from creative fiction reading, to Honors College Dean John Mouracade’s presentation about Plato and the execution of atheists to Professor Martha Carver’s look at how progressive muscle relaxation decreased anxiety in nursing students.
A hockey-stick effect
Tight oil production in the so-called “Bakken play” increased 440 percent between 2000-2011, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, transforming the landscape and lives of the people living thousands of feet above that ancient resource.
Ten years ago, Williston, N.D., counted 12,109 residents. In 2013, Williston’s population had reached 20,850 and was still growing. Oil wells pock the landscape. It’s easy to find a job above the Bakken, where businesses cater to the influx of oil workers and rake in some of the money they earn. Sprawling “man camps” have proliferated. So have murders, rapes, assaults, vehicle thefts, burglaries, robberies and drug crimes.
The number of assaults rose about 10 percent in the U.S.’s shale-rich counties in 2012. The number of assaults that year in communities above the Bakken, however, was nearly double, according to James.
Violent crime in the Williston Basin region, which cups the town of Williston, increased 121 percent from 2005 to 2011.
North Dakota previously had some agriculture and some energy exploration—“nothing like there is today”—and isn’t accustomed to this dramatic surge in both oil and gas production, James said.
“There was just nothing else going on for the last 50 years,” he said. “It’s not like Texas, where there’s a culture and a history of oil drilling and activity and maybe people moved there a long time ago to work in the oil industry,” James said. “Here, there was just not very much going on. You get this [statistical] hockey-stick effect in the mid 2000s where it just exploded.”
Guiding resource policy
Rapidly growing towns that don’t proportionally increase their police forces, James said, effectively reduce the number of police per capita and thus increase the probability of an offender getting away with a crime.
“According to the theory, there need not be anything peculiar or especially criminal about the migrants that move to a boomtown,” his paper stated. “A sudden increase in population alone is enough to fuel illegal activity.”
The costs of crime for communities are high, James said. The total societal cost for one murder is nearly $9 million, James said, citing figures published in the April 2010 issue of Drug and Alcohol Dependence: An International Journal on Biomedical and Psychosocial Approaches. The societal cost for a rape is $240,776, and each assault that occurs carries a cost of $107,000.
James says there are high degrees of social disorganization when so many people move into and out of boomtown communities.
“It’s like wearing a ski mask,” James said. “When you live in a community where everybody knows each other and commit a crime, somebody’s like, ‘Oh, that was Joey, Sally’s grandson. But in North Dakota, there’s been this tremendous increase in population and also some amount of emigration out of the state as some people don’t like what the communities are becoming. There’s this restructuring in the community, and then when somebody commits a crime, ‘May as well be wearing a mask; nobody knows who I am here.’”
Analyzing all costs, benefits
One speculative interpretation of the results is that a resource boom, “may facilitate a drain of human and physical capital and could propagate a long-term resource curse.”
James says he wrote the paper because he found scant research documenting the relationship between a booming resource sector and criminal activity. He hopes his findings will provide information that will better inform policy makers’ decisions about oil exploration and production.
“Local policy makers should anticipate a surge in crime, especially violent crime, at the beginning of a resource boom,” he wrote. “To the extent that crime may be averted through adaptation and learning, such as locking one’s doors and walking in pairs late at night, an information campaign warning the public of elevated levels of risk may be a fruitful crime-fighting strategy.”
Martha Carver, a registered nurse who recently earned her master’s degree in nursing education, says working in a nursing school simulation lab can stress even the most accomplished student. The simulated “patients” register any misstep made while caring for them. On top of this, students know instructors are scrutinizing their every move.
“Students fear being watched and have a fear of failure,” said Carver, who, for the Faculty Showcase, created a poster depicting her research findings into the way progressive muscle relaxation techniques lessen anxiety among nursing students working in sim labs.
Carver would have students come in 30 minutes prior to their scheduled time in the lab. One group spent 20 minutes sitting quietly in a room. The other group spent 20 minutes going, head to toe, through a set of “tense and relax” exercises. Students in both groups then answered a set of open-ended questions about how they felt.
“It’s supposed to get your mind off what you’re thinking,” Carver said. “The students who used PMR said it was relaxing, helped them think clearly. Students in the control group said sitting quietly helped in no way whatsoever.”
Why is a technique like PMR potentially important for students?
” You can’t be anxious if you’re relaxed,” she said. “Students have lots of anxiety. I noticed at the hospital a couple of years ago that when they’re anxious, students can’t always think clearly or say what they want. Their minds can go blank at a time when they have to respond quickly.”
Carver says moderate anxiety helps learning, but high anxiety levels are detrimental to learning. Anxiety reduction education could be incorporated within classes on complementary and alternative medicines, she said.
“We are people who work long term in a high-stress environment,” she said. “We have to teach students … You need to care for yourselves as well as your patients.”
Written by Tracy Kalytiak, UAA Office of University Advancement