Cautionary tales from the oil rush

 

What goes up...well, you know

What goes up…well, you know

Forgotten somewhere behind the picket lines in rural New Brunswick, amid the gloomy certitudes about the oil and gas industry’s power to corrupt the environment, lies a more visceral byproduct of resource extraction: crimes not against nature, but humanity.

Canada’s violent offence rate is so low these days, few people associate lawlessness with mining and drilling operations anymore. History, of course, is replete with tales of banditry, thuggery and worse from the front lines and frontiers of assorted gold rushes and oil booms in North America.

There are, as Robert Service (the Arctic’s unofficial poet laureate) once wrote famously, “strange things done in the midnight sun, by the men who moil for gold.” Indeed, “the Arctic trails have their secret tales that would make your blood run cold.” Over the past year, however, such literary apocrypha has become reality in the border territories between western and Canada and the United States.

A New York Times piece, published on Sunday, describes recent disappearances and murders in the high plains of Montana and North Dakota. “Stories like these, once rare, have become as common as drilling rigs in rural towns at the heart of one of the nation’s richest oil booms,” the article reported. “Crime has soared as thousands of workers and rivers of cash have flowed into towns, straining police departments and shattering residents’ sense of safety.”

That observation echoed an earlier Times story in which “Christina Knapp and a friend were drinking shots at a bar in a nearby town several weeks ago when a table of about five men called them over and made an offer. They would pay the women $3,000 to strip naked and serve them beer at their house while they watched mixed martial arts fights on television. Ms. Knapp, 22, declined, but the men kept raising the offer, reaching $7,000. . .Prosecutors and the police note an increase in crimes against women, including domestic and sexual assaults.”

Regarding Canada, a piece in the Regina Leader-Post last April explained, “As the oil belt in southern Saskatchewan, North Dakota and Montana expands, police are grappling to deal with a resulting increase in crime. In our province, that means more traffic crime – specifically, more aggressive and impaired driving charges, as well as more fatal accidents. To address crime trends that have come about as a result of a population increase in the oilfield area, members of the Saskatchewan RCMP from the enforcement, intelligence and border security sections are in the midst of a two-day summit with their U.S. counterparts in Glasgow, Montana.”

Meanwhile, a story published on theatlanticcities.com last month observes that “in 2005, the Williston Police Department in Williston, North Dakota, received 3,796 calls for service. By 2009, the number of yearly calls had almost doubled, to 6,089. In 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, the Williston P.D. received 15,954 calls for service. . .The police department in nearby Watford City received 41 service calls in 2006. In 2011 they received 3,938. That’s life in an energy boomtown.”

Ask a dozen sociologists about the reasons for the phenomenon, and you’re likely to get a dozen different answers. But it seems clear that the word “boomtown” says it all: the uncontrolled explosion of opportunity generates unpredictable consequences – including roving bands of assorted misfits and bad guys – catching institutions, infrastructure and law enforcement off guard.

Here, in New Brunswick, of course, we don’t know much about any of this. The safety and serenity of our bucolic environs has as much to do with the fact that we export our criminals, as well as our law-abiding sons and daughters, out west.

But should the glint in Premier Alward’s eye – and that in those of at least 100 other political and business leaders in this province – ever manifest itself as a pipeline from Alberta into Saint John and/or a commercially viable, environmentally benign, shale gas industry proffering jobs and income, galore, we may want to remind ourselves about the social costs of overnight success.

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