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6 Questions About North Dakota's Oil Boom

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Oil Drilling Rig on Badlands; © Lowell Georgia/Corbis

Millions of Americans would do almost anything for a job right now. Our bloated deficit has become the central issue in our political discourse. Yet in a far-flung prairie town less than a hundred miles from the Canadian border, a revolution is happening. Unemployment is less than 2%. The state budget has a surplus of $1 billion. Job openings can’t be filled quickly enough, and for many the pay is above $50,000. Welcome to Williston, North Dakota. It’s the scene of a modern American oil boom.

1. Wait, an Oil Boom? How?

It all starts with the Bakken formation, a 25,000 square-mile hunk of rock under the surface of Montana, North Dakota, and Saskatchewan. Oil was discovered here in the early 1950s, but recovering it proved impractical for two reasons: First, the area within the rock formation that contains oil is long and flat. It’s rarely more than 150 feet thick (in some places less than fifty). This makes it distinctly unattractive for traditional vertical drilling. And second, the oil is trapped inside layers of rock called shale.

When this field was discovered, oil was cheap, easy, and in everyone’s backyard. Chasing a thin sliver of petroleum trapped inside rock layers two miles below the earth’s surface made little economic sense. But fast forward half a century. Oil is hovering around $100 a barrel and there are no new elephant fields (an industry term for giants like Saudi Arabia’s Ghawar). Tapping North Dakota's oil reservoir is now economically viable.

Two technologies helped make North Dakota’s black gold rush a reality. The first is a technique called horizontal drilling, which is exactly what it sounds like. In the past, drilling in any direction other than straight down wasn’t very practical. Within the past ten years, new monitoring equipment has been introduced that allows horizontal wells to be drilled in perfect arcs up to two miles. Instead of punching right through a reservoir like the Bakken, engineers can now travel through it.

The second is called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking for short. Those of you who saw the documentary Gasland are familiar with the controversial technique, which was pioneered by oil and gas giant Halliburton. It involves shooting water, sand, and chemicals at the rock structures that contain oil, then breaking them open like a treasure chest. Think of it as a really powerful water gun.

With these new technologies, an area that ten years ago had negligible production is now pumping out almost half a million barrels a day. And that growth should continue. In 2008 the U.S. Geological Survey estimated the amount of recoverable oil within the Bakken Formation was 3.0 to 4.3 billion barrels. That was before the discovery of a second, similar field nearby, called Three Forks. Harold Hamm, the billionaire founder of a company that holds more rights than anyone in the area, claims it will ultimately yield up to 24 billion barrels.

2. Is That a Lot?

How much oil is 24 billion barrels? Well, if Hamm is correct, this would easily qualify as one of the largest fields in the world. It could support the entirety of U.S. demand for almost four years by itself.

To make matters even more mind-boggling, this is all part of a larger movement towards the embrace of fracking and horizontal drilling in America. If oil in these harder-to-reach places is accounted for all across the nation, there may be as many as two trillion barrels of oil in the ground—twice the total of Middle East reserves, and enough to power U.S. demand get the idea.

3. Where Do All These Oil Workers Live?

An employee at one of the oil firms talked with NPR about the complete transformation of Williston since the boom. In the last four years, the city has almost doubled in size. They used to build five new homes a year in Williston. This year they've built 2,000. Next year they’re planning to build twice as many. Homes can’t be built quickly enough to accommodate the invasion of oil workers.

In the meantime, where do they live? Many purchase RVs and make do while waiting for more permanent arrangements. Here's the rub: they pay upwards of $1,000 a month for parking spaces. Their other option is to live in “man camps” — prefabricated dorms that house up to 20,000 workers in the area. (The average wait time in line at Wal-Mart is half an hour.) Ultimately, the boom could bring 45,000 long-term jobs to the area, and that’s in a state with fewer than a million people.

4. How Does U.S. Oil Production Compare to the Rest of the World?

After seventeen years of consecutive decreases, American oil production has increased for three straight years. In 2008 we imported almost two-thirds of our oil — now, it’s less than half. The U.S. could be producing almost as much oil as Saudi Arabia within ten years. Within five, we’ll likely pass Russia as the world’s leading energy supplier. The power center of world oil production is slowly shifting from the eastern hemisphere to the west. This will have enormous and uncertain geopolitical implications.

5. What's the Downside?

No one will be surprised to hear there are significant environmental concerns. The list of possible consequences of fracking reads almost like the blurb of potential side-effects at the end of a pharmaceutical commercial. Fracking has a reputation for ruining the groundwater in nearby areas. When it’s used to recover natural gas, methane sometimes leaks into the air, which in some instances can cause explosions. It may also trigger earthquakes. Residents in places where gas leaks have been detected complain of various physical ailments, including headaches, diarrhea, nosebleeds, dizziness, and muscle spasms. This is all outside of general concerns about our continued dependence on fossil fuels and their effects on the environment.

6. What Other Industries Are Booming in Williston?

Strippers seem to be raking it in. According to a recent CNN Money article, exotic dancers at the town's two strip clubs are earning $2,000 a night. One club — Whispers — has received applications from Hawaii, Alaska, Germany and the Czech Republic.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.


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