May 6, 2015 / 12:27 PM / 3 years ago

'Boomtowners' looks to the human side of North Dakota's oil fields

WILLISTON, N.D. (Reuters) - Aiming to show the human side of North Dakota’s oil industry, the Smithsonian Channel’s “Boomtowners” chronicles the highs and lows of transplants to one of the nation’s fastest-growing economies.

An oil well is pictured at sunrise in the Bakken oil fields near Sidney, Montana in this November 2014 handout photo. REUTERS/Smithsonian Channel/Handout via Reuters

Producers of the show, which airs the third of six episodes this Sunday night, deliberately sidestepped any focus on the environmental concerns of hydraulic fracturing, the controversial technique that uses high-pressure water laced with sand and chemicals to coax oil and natural gas out of the ground.

Instead, “Boomtowners” tells the stories of some of the thousands of people who relocate to rural North Dakota for a fresh start in the oil boom, where roughly 1.2 million barrels of crude are extracted each day.

“This is a character-driven series,” said David Royle, head of programing and production at the Smithsonian Channel, a joint venture between the museum and CBS Corp. “Coming through this whole thing is a sense of the pioneer spirit, which is a truly American phenomenon.”

The show, which uses drone-mounted cameras for unique shots of the North Dakota landscape, tracks eight groups of people, including an itinerant evangelist working as a safety inspector and a lesbian couple running a trucking company.

Rather than gawk or patronize, “Boomtowners” often is at pains to accurately depict life in a region many consider forlorn.

“I think people have begun to realize that what we’re doing here is not reality programing of the kind that takes place in Swampland, Louisiana,” said Royle, in a reference to A&E Network’s “Duck Dynasty.”

“Being the Smithsonian Channel has its advantages,” he added.

It was the Smithsonian’s involvement that first attracted Ben Moorhead and his wife Phoebe, who moved from Arizona in 2010.

“I thought it would be a fun experience to show folks what life is like here,” Ben Moorhead, who drives an oil delivery truck and is one of the show’s main subjects, said in an interview. “I do like the social values out here because there’s a lot of hard-working folks.”

CHEAP OIL

The show was filmed last summer, when oil prices – and salaries - were higher.

Indeed, the narrator bluntly declares in the pilot episode that “a steep drop in the price of oil would affect the entire region.”

That statement proved to be prophetic, as a more than 40 percent drop in oil prices since last August has fueled job cuts.

The show has effectively become a kind of time capsule, evoking the not-so-recent past when North Dakota actually had the nation’s largest unemployment rate - now held by Nebraska - and the gold-rush mentality reigned supreme.

Royle defended the disconnect, pointing out that “Boomtowners” tries to capture a slice of time in the vein of a documentary, rather than offering an up-to-the-second glimpse of oilfield life.

None of the show’s characters have been laid off yet, Royle added.

“I‘m still making a very handsome living doing what I‘m doing,” said Ben Moorhead, the truck driver. “The boom hasn’t died, but it’s slowed down to the point beyond just needing warm bodies.”

Reporting by Ernest Scheyder; Editing by Terry Wade

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