The inner workings & long-term impacts of unconventional oil and gas development in the Bakken Shale Formation

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


This dissertation argues that public infrastructure investments are a primary way in which communities subsidize unconventional oil and gas (UOG) development at the local level. Notably, these direct and indirect costs are often ignored in assessments of the UOG industry's distribution of costs and benefits. Natural resource extraction typically requires large capital investments from the public and private sectors, particularly in rural and remote geographies. This creates a risk of resource dependence as communities that over-accommodate industry may struggle with large municipal debts and/or underutilized facilities once industry leaves. While public infrastructure investments are typically assumed to mutually benefit the public and industry, the extent to which infrastructure benefits communities in the long run is unclear. UOG heightens these unknowns due to its volatility. UOG is a particularly infrastructure-dependent resource due to the industry's geographically dispersed nature and subsequent labor intensity. Yet, there is surprisingly limited research on the capacity of local governments to address the burdens of UOG development on public infrastructure and government services. This research addresses these knowledge gaps through a series of case studies on infrastructure investments that communities made during the boom in UOG in the Bakken Shale Formation (eastern Montana and western North Dakota, United States). It uses a mixed-methods approach, drawing on over 90 stakeholder interviews, document analyses, participant observations, and extensive field research. The findings suggest that communities in the Bakken struggled with infrastructure decisions due to the overwhelming pace, scale, and unpredictability of the UOG industry. Nonetheless, community leaders repeatedly demonstrated adaptability and innovation as they addressed the boom's challenges. This research demonstrates that infrastructure investments simultaneously reinforced and disrupted economic dependence on industry, illustrating the unpredictability and unruliness of the long-term impacts of UOG development at the local level. In the conclusion, the dissertation argues that unconventional oil and gas (UOG) development creates distinct geographies of production and distinct geographies of public finance.




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