The Female Fracker: A Rare Species in North Dakota

A pumpjack lifts crude oil and produced water from a fracture at a location over the Bakken Formation near New Town, N.D., on June 7, 2016. The USGS estimates that the oil rich region contains a mean undiscovered volume of 3.65 billion barrels of oil. (Photo by Alex Milan Tracy)

At Proximity, Blaire Briody brings us an essay adapted from her book, The New Wild West: Black Gold, Fracking, and Life in a North Dakota Boomtown. Briody profiles female fracker Cindy Marchello, who left Utah to work the oil fields of North Dakota after her 28-year marriage collapsed and the bank foreclosed on her house. At age 56, Marchello was the only woman on her crew, working rigs where six-figure salaries and hefty bonuses attract those without college degrees and few job prospects. Marchello worked hours upon hours at a stretch in an environment rampant with misogyny, living in a camp with 200 men where every six weeks, one of their coworkers died a violent and premature death in service of big American companies thirsty for oil.

Most of Marchello’s 12-person crew regularly clocked 120 hours a week—with some logging an occasional 140- or 160-hour week. That meant they worked, ate, and slept while on the well site, though sleep was never a priority. Most workers took catnaps in an 18-wheeler’s sleeper cabin. “When you’re out in the field, there’s not much sleep,” said Marchello. “You get used to it.”

The long hours, sleep deprivation, lack of training, extreme weather, and dangerous work were a particularly lethal mix. In 2011, North Dakota became the most dangerous state to work in, with the fatality rate nearly doubling since 2007. By 2012, the state job fatality rate was 17.7 deaths per 100,000 workers, more than five times the national average and one of the highest rates ever reported for a U.S. state.

Many workers I met said they saw a limit to the number of years they could stay in the oil field. They witnessed what happened to those who stayed too long—divorce, estrangement from their children, health problems, debilitating injuries, or early death. People often said oil field years were like dog years—for every year you worked in oil, you aged about seven years. Marchello estimated that with her oil field years, she was 92. “Mine quadrupled because I was so old when I started,” she said. But pulling herself away from the high paycheck and transitioning to a slower pace of life was easier said than done.

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