'Boomtown': Planet Green Looks at Oil’s Impact on Tiny Parshall, NDWhen Parshall, N.D., Mayor and grocery store operator Richard Bolkan heard that a TV crew had come to his small town to film a piece on the oil boom in western North Dakota, he didn’t think much about it.
By: John Lamb, INFORUM
* What: The documentary series “Boomtown”
* When: 9 p.m. Saturday on Planet Green
* Where: Check local listings
When Parshall, N.D., Mayor and grocery store operator Richard Bolkan heard that a TV crew had come to his small town to film a piece on the oil boom in western North Dakota, he didn’t think much about it.
“Right away you’re kind of thinking, ‘Well, who would want to know about us out here?’ You’re thinking, ‘Well, this will probably never go anywhere; nothing will ever happen with it,’ ” Bolkan says.
But it did.
The five-part documentary TV series “Boomtown” will debut Saturday night on Planet Green, a channel that’s part of the Discovery TV network. And the executives at Planet Green are anticipating that a lot of people across the country are interested in the drama and dynamics created in a small North Dakota town experiencing an oil boom.
Now Bolkan is nervous and excited to see his small town on the big screen.
The project started after documentary director Rachel Libert read an Associated Press story in early November 2008 about how drilling into the Bakken shale formation was starting to affect Parshall, a town of 1,073 people, located 60 miles southwest of Minot. She was grabbed by what she calls the story of “a small town with a sudden reversal of fortune,” a story that also allowed a view into the oil industry. “The issue of energy and oil is a particularly timely issue,” Libert says from Los Angeles.
She visited Parshall that December with a cameraman and liked what she saw, “a town in the midst of a transformation.”
From October 2009 to July 2010, she returned monthly to film for up to two weeks with a crew of four or five.
Libert says she didn’t know exactly what to expect, but the project made an immediate mark.
“I think I was surprised by how few people there were,” the New York-based director/executive producer says.
When filming started in Parshall, the town’s one diner was still closed, which created a logistical issue for the crew. Another was that the city’s only motel, the Parshall Motor Inn, was booked solid with oil workers. Libert and her crew often had to stay 20 miles away in New Town.
What she filmed was a town coming to grips with its economic development.
Libert quickly learned about the importance of mineral rights and how somebody else can own the rights to what’s beneath the surface, like oil, when another person owns the land.
She also saw how booming business to one person, like Tom, the Texas landman criss-crossing the terrain to secure drilling rights, was questioned by others, like Donny the rancher, who also questions the ecological impact of drilling.
“When you hear the story on the surface, you think it’s just all good fortune and very easy, and I think it was much more complicated than just that,” Libert says of her discovery.
Life in an oil town
Getting to know the locals wasn’t always easy.
“I drove them for a half-hour before I let them put my mic on,” says Jeannette Cecil, proprietor of the Parshall Motor Inn, of the film crew.
Jeannette – the show only refers to people by their first names – is one of five people Libert’s crew followed over the nine months of filming. She bought the Motor Inn after leaving a 28-year marriage. Three months into her new job and with only intermittent visitors, Jeannette second-guessed her new life.
Three months after that, her ship came in – in the form of trucks packed with oil workers. The motel’s rooms have been packed ever since.
“Now wasn’t that God’s blessing, I’ll tell you,” Jeannette says.
She’s had few problems with her guests, adding that most stay for months at a time, including one worker who’s “lived” there for close to three years.
So Jeannette was excited that a TV show could paint a picture of life in an oil community as she saw it.
“I thought it was great,” Jeannette says. “Get every aspect of it, every angle of it. There’s so much misperception out there about oilfields and what they do and that type of thing. To show it honestly what really happens, what really goes on, I thought was a wonderful idea.”
A touchy topic
But different people have different ideas about what really goes on in the oilfields.
The website ecorazzi.com – billing itself as “the latest in green gossip” – claims “Boomtown” as a kind of TV eco-crusader, writing on its site: “According to the eco-friendly channel the show will expose the seedy underbelly of the oil industry, highlighting the lengths that oil barons and landholders will go to in order to cash in on this black gold. … and in the wake of the BP Gulf Oil Spill and the fact that the top searched phrases in 2010 all involved terms related to oil spill, this seems like a timely and much needed addition to the TV lineup.”
In its promotional material, Planet Green says it and its websites, planetgreen.com and TreeHugger.com, “offer unique, insightful and inspiring content related to how we can evolve to live a better, brighter future.”
“Boomtown” never mentions the BP disaster or takes any side of the issue, describing itself as “an unconventional case study of how the domestic oil and gas industries are exploring every option here on U.S. soil – but at what cost?”
In some ways, the most sensational claim the promo materials make is calling the five-part series “equal parts ‘Fargo’ and ‘There Will Be Blood.’ ”
For her part, Libert says she had no expectations going into the project.
“I wanted to make sure we represented all sides of it,” she says. “Overall, I would say there is optimism and gratitude that the oil is there. However, in the time we were filming until the end, people started to recognize some of the downsides.”
She points to the toll the increased traffic is taking on roads as an example.
Mayor Bolkan says the cost to patch Parshall streets jumped to $180,000 in 2010 from $20,000 a few years ago.
He thinks the exposure will help promote his “thriving city.”
“I think that will clear up a lot of misconceptions about a little town in North Dakota,” Bolkan says.
There’s just one problem. Parshall’s cable provider, RTC, doesn’t carry Planet Green, meaning locals won’t see its premiere.
Libert says she plans to send DVDs of the episodes out to those involved, some of whom, like Jeannette, she’s become friendly with.
“I would love to go back,” Libert says. “Having spent nearly a year there, I really feel like we got to know the people really well … I’m very curious to see how this all continues to unfold.”
To see a preview for “Boomtown,” click here.