'Blood & Oil', North Dakota, and dreams not exactly fulfilled

Originally posted on resourceinsights.blogspot.com

Written by Community Solutions Fellow, Kurt Cobb

Last week a new television series set amidst the North Dakota oil boom debuted. Blood & Oil tells the story of locals and newcomers striking it rich in The Bakken, an oil formation that has been heralded as containing more oil than Saudi Arabia--a wildly misleading* but understandably alluring slogan.

Based on the first episode we can conclude that this program is not actually a contemporary drama, but rather a period piece--specifically the period when North Dakota was booming from about, say, 2009 to sometime in mid-2014. And, therein lies the story. For Blood & Oil, above all, must be a tragedy of broken dreams if it is to live up to its realism credentials.

We must look beyond the fact that the show is shot in Utah to the substance of the series. When we do, we see the ever-present gambler's mentality that dominates the American mind. It did not go unnoticed that America was a land of plenty from the very beginning of European settlement. One of the first European explorers and founder of the first permanent English settlement, Capt. John Smith, observed:

And in diverse places that abundance, of fish lying so thick with their heads above the water [that] as for want of nets (our barge driving among them) we attempted to catch them with a frying pan, but we found it a bad instrument to catch fish with. Neither better fish, more plenty, nor more variety for small fish had any of us ever seen in any place so swimming in the water...

Even though Smith's gamble of starting over in the New World got off to a rough start for him and his fellow settlers at Jamestown, those who came after did find the promised riches of land, forests, minerals and animals unimagined in the Europe of that day.

So, the gamble paid off often enough to convince many others on the European side of the Atlantic and ultimately the Asian side of the Pacific to make the journey.

With the coming of the Bakken oil boom we modern Americans have recreated that journey. Those needing work and with only minimal skills or possessed of a restless spirit found a new life in North Dakota, a booming oil province, that--when it came to oil--seemed like the limitless wilderness first encountered by Europeans landing on the American continent.

In Blood & Oil Hap Briggs is a poor farmer's son who has built up large holdings of ranch land which, of course, have oil under them. He gets into the oil business himself and can't get enough of it.

Newcomer Billy LeFever breezes into town with his wife, Cody, who overhears the cellphone call of a landman discussing the leasing of drilling rights for a ranch, the name of which he repeats back to his boss. Cody tells Billy who then looks up the ranch in the county land records and realizes that the key to exploiting the oil there is a small piece of land that allows access.

Through machinations which appear to be illegal, Billy, who is broke, raises the necessary money to buy an option on that key piece of land. He then makes his first million offering the option to none other than Hap Briggs.

It is shrewdness (and willingness to skirt the law) which brings Billy riches. He's intelligent, but not overly so. His big idea for making money in North Dakota was to open laundromats--an idea that gets dashed in the first episode when a traffic accident sends him, his wife and his washing machines into a ravine. The machines are ruined, but Billy and Cody escape essentially unharmed.

What we are really watching, however, is two stories. The second story is one of a human culture that has never abandoned hunting and gathering--though we moderns imagine that we would never stoop to anything so prehistoric. And yet, hunting and gathering is essentially what we do to get all the minerals we use including oil. And by the way, oil isn't "produced" as we so reflexively say, it is merely extracted. Nature does all the work over millions of years, so humans don't have to--or at least don't have to do very much.

This is a lottery designed by nature and exploited by humans lucky enough to have oil on their land or enough capital at their disposal to lease the right parcels. But it's a lottery with a special twist. If you are Hap Briggs, you can invest all your new fortune in getting even more oil out of the ground to make your fortune bigger.

But when the bust comes, you can end up broke. Well, the bust has come to real-life North Dakota. In less that one year oil prices went from around $100 a barrel to under $50. As a result, we are seeing bankruptcies among the oil independents who were kings just a year ago. And, of course, all the other new businesses designed to serve the burgeoning North Dakota population will have their ranks thinned considerably--as the exodus begins among those now without work in the wake of a drastic reduction in drilling activity.

And with severely reduced drilling, North Dakota oil production is bound to go down since we already know that the rate of production decline for existing wells averages 40 percent in the first year.

So the question is: When Blood & Oil's storyline bumps up against the realities of 2015, what will become of Hap and Billy? And, what will become of the bustling fictitious city of Rock Springs? I think a city in decline with its heroes penniless or nearly so will be of little interest to American audiences. Such a turn of events in fictional North Dakota will likely mark the beginning of the end for the series.

Until that day viewers can follow actor Don Johnson of Miami Vice fame who has swapped the cool elegance of pastel summer wear for a cowboy outfit that seems to hang attractively on his character, Hap Briggs. When the time comes, Johnson will simply change clothes again and go on to a new role--just as many new North Dakotans are now doing to seek work elsewhere in the face of a bust that according to the oil industry wasn't supposed to happen for decades.