Thursday, 11 August 2011

Big, Bigger, Biggest

The dictionary gives the definition of big as being of great size or number, of great power or volume, or significantly important. It seems to be the right word then to apply to the oil fields we have travelled through, the trains that have sped past or the skies of Montana, but big doesn't seem, well, big enough a word.

If there's one thing America does well, and boasts about, it's doing things big. Be that trucks, RVs, burgers, buildings, trains or landscapes, being bigger or having the biggest is perceived as better.

Certainly no one would deny the significant importance of oil, or the power its immense volume of reserves gives the companies that own the mineral rights, but the chaos connected with the oil boom, that is currently consuming the city of Williston and the hundreds of square miles surrounding it, would suggest all is not quite right. I was fortunate to speak to one man, who I will not name, who is a principal engineer on the front line. He told me that although the oil industry tries to portray an image of safety and environmental care, it is far from the truth. The formula of the material pumped into the ground in western North Dakota in order to extract the oil, is a type of sand and "other" chemicals, the constituents of which are a closely guarded industry secret. Given the number of companies drilling and the vast numbers of people involved, I cannot help but feel that this is flannel and an attempt to cover up the pollution being created. I posed this question and the reply confirmed my suspicions, with the added note that a blind eye is turned because of the demand and urgent need and that the oil industry deserves all the bad press it gets.

Watching this smash and grab approach in the desperation to extract as much black gold as fast as possible, in an effort to make as much money as fast as possible, is in direct contrast to just 100 miles to the east, in the town of Minot. Here was a town on it's knees desperate on financial support. The contrast and irony of the situation in such a small geographic area did not escape me.

The face of western North Dakota is changing forever. 5,000 oil rigs today will become 25,000 in a few years. Should the oil price fall then everyone will down tools and walk away, leaving a graveyard of ugly drilling rigs and nodding pumps across a vast area. North Dakota has seen more than its fair share of face lifts in tis history, with the Native American being squeezed out and lands stolen, its empty landscape then being riddled with hundreds of nuclear missile silos, to finally being stripped of its valuable mineral deposits. The oil will run dry one day and what will remain will be a toxic wasteland.

The vast plains of Montana certainly deserve the famous tagline of Big Skies, but again big just doesn't seem the right word. For the first time in crossing North America I witnessed vast areas of land not being used across this, the 4th largest state in the US. Not that long ago this land would have been populated with Native Americans and millions of migrating bison, described by one Native American as "the supermarket of the Indians", due to the fact everything they needed came from this big beast. The demise of the bison, thanks mostly to the indiscriminate slaughter by the encroaching white man, was therefore bound to lead to the destruction of life as they knew it for the Native American. In terms of passage of time it still surprises me to remember that it has only been 120 years since they were conquered and pushed into ever decreasing reservations.

The final nail in the coffin of the Native American's way of life, and the start of colonisation of these great plains by the white man, was of course, the railroad. First the Union Pacific then later the Pacific Northern, connecting Chicago with Seattle, completed in 1883. Through Montana we follow the original line of this significantly important railroad and it is not difficult to imagine a time when the gigantic diesel trains of today were steam locomotives bringing new settlers from Europe to start a new life on land once dominated and cared for by a nation that had lived here for thousands of years in perfect balance with nature.

But thanks to the big changes that have taken place over the past 150 years, we will never see it's like again.

Bigger is not always better.

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