Newspaper journalist Rao travels to remote western North Dakota to immerse herself in the boom-and-bust cycle of shale oil extraction.
For more than a decade, the dangers of fracking—drilling deep into the Earth to extract shale oil using massive amounts of water and chemicals—have been widely reported: environmental degradation, earthquakes, outsized profits for the oil industry, lost savings for individuals scammed by get-rich-quick schemes, negatively transformed local economies, and deaths of itinerant oil field workers as well as local residents. Portions of Oklahoma, Texas, and Pennsylvania have received huge amounts of attention during the debates about fracking, but North Dakota, one of the most remote, frigid, and least populous of the 50 states, has been affected more heavily than any other. To understand the real situation among competing claims, Rao arrived from out of state, established a working relationship with a truck driver trying to earn a better living than he could in North Carolina, developed numerous other sources, lived in costly but substandard housing, existed on low-quality food, and placed herself in physical danger almost every day, emerging with an eye-opening, occasionally scattershot, “on-the-ground account of capitalism, industrialization, and rugged individualism” as well as “the power and failings of free enterprise.” At some level, almost everybody involved in the business understood that the boom economy would collapse eventually, but the author found few who predicted that the bust would arrive in less than a decade. As a result, local businesses went broke, temporary environmental scarring became permanent, and western North Dakota became less desirable than ever as a place to settle, especially given the harsh weather and downturn in agriculture. Rao occasionally injects herself into the story, but the truck driver who freely shared his adventures rightly dominates the book.
A superbly reported book marred only by an occasionally wandering narrative.