Monday, August 05, 2019

Great American Outpost: Dreamers, Mavericks, and the Making of an Oil Frontier - Maya Rao

As someone who worked in the energy industry for more than 40 years, I was immediately drawn to Maya Rao's Great American Outpost. I missed out on seeing the Bakkan-Play explosion in North Dakota when it happened, but I heard many tales over the years about what life was like up there during the boom years. Those were the years during which the state was almost overrun by oil company personnel and their subcontractors - plus every shyster, con-man, and ex-con who got wind of what was happening up there. Having witnessed firsthand what it is like when multiple oil companies descend upon an area to get oil leases signed before the competition can beat them to it, my automatic sympathies were with the landowners and longtime residents of that part of North Dakota. And, from what Rao has to say in her Great American Outpost, my sympathies were well-placed.

The energy industry is one of periodic boom or bust, with everything being based on the commodity pricing of crude oil itself. Because the bottom can fall out of crude oil prices overnight, oil companies rush in to make their money while prices support drilling cost plus a decent level of profit. At the same time, oil service companies (plus every non-oil related business in that part of North Dakota) will be doubling and tripling their own prices in order to get the biggest piece of the pie they can grab while the grabbing is good. That usually works out OK for the oil companies, their employees, and the service companies; but it is the worst possible thing that can ever happen to the people whose home turf has been invaded by all the outsiders who show up to make a quick buck. Suddenly, the longtime residents can no longer afford to live in their own community. 

Maya Rao
And then, when the bottom ultimately does drop out of crude oil pricing, the resulting collapse is all too often left for others to clean up . State and Federal tax money often has to be spent on environmental cleanups and the reconstruction of roads and highways, and the businesses that serviced the area before the boom are long gone by the time everyone leaves town. In that sense, it’s akin to having a Super Walmart come to town and force all the mom-and-pop stores out of business only to close its own doors as soon as everything else has been driven out of business.

Anyone wondering what a nineteenth century gold rush was like, needs only to read Great American Outpost. As the book's subtitle says, this is an episodic account of "dreamers, mavericks, and the making of an oil frontier." The book's glaring weakness, in my opinion, is that Rao ends it rather abruptly instead of detailing her return to the "normal" world after having spent so long in such a different world. Having known several people who were in North Dakota at the peak of the craziness there, I know that’s not always an easy thing to do, and I would have enjoyed hearing how Rao and some of her “characters” dealt with the re-entry process. 


  1. Another nonfiction book I'm now interested in reading. :)

    1. I do think you would enjoy this one, especially since it is written by a woman who placed herself smack in the middle of a male-dominated situation to experience it for herself. Her point of view is a unique one.