Saturday, 2 March 2013

A Summary of Bakken Business, by Richard Manning

Harper's magazine is a little to the left of the conservative business press.  Maybe more than a little.  But investors, or anyone else interested in shale drilling, ought to read Richard Manning's fine article, "Bakken Business," appearing in the March, 2013 issue.  The piece is a thorough and rich work of investigative reporting.  It includes material that investors ordinarily drool at, expressed in the familiar language of dollars, percentages, proportions.  Readers learn, for example, that the local house prices have already surged by five-fold, yet the Bakken is expected to eventually support 35-40 000 wells, around seven times the current number.  Unemployment is just 3%, despite huge influxes of work-starved employees, compared to a national rate approaching 8%, and wages are growing at nearly 10% per year.
Manning briskly covers the longer-than-you’d-think history of fracking, explains what's different about this latest incarnation, and offers a nuts-and-bolts description of the current drilling process.  The social consequences are addressed, too, including the strains on infrastructure in wildly growing cities and towns, and he includes off-beat details, like the image of local roads littered with "trucker bombs," urine-filled bottles that are regularly ejected from moving vehicles.  The images are not just word-based, either: the article features striking photos of rigs, flares, camps, flatlands and more.  While some locals have left due to the changes, many who would have been forced to leave for want of a job have stayed, and large numbers of people that once left have since returned.
Manning also devotes space to the environmental controversy surrounding fracking, including questions about the chemicals in fracking fluid, the methods of disposing waste and pressures on local wildlife and habitats.  On the Keystone pipeline, he argues that it'll be built eventually, as pipelines are safer, cleaner and cheaper than shipping by truck or rail.
Investing isn't just about economics; it includes a broad political, social and cultural milieu.  Manning offers the whole, larger picture.  While he may not have written his piece for investors, anybody interested in the business of fracking must read it.
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