On a road trip through North Dakota in 2018, investigating the impacts of the recent oil boom and the subsequent expansion of oil infrastructure in the US Midwest, one of the things that caught my attention when stopping at petrol stations was the incredible selection of energy drinks available in the cooler section. I found myself repeatedly confronted by refrigerators full of artificial-looking beverages, bearing names like »Monster,« »Bang,« »Diesel,« »Full Throttle,« and »V8 Energy.«
The bottles formed an intimidating wall of glowing neon colors, their label designs evoking heavy metal or Harley Davidson aesthetics, featuring lightning bolts, flames, bald eagles, ominous looking slashes, and in the case of the »Bang« brand, a target. Words and phrases like »extreme,« »unleash the beast,« »fuel your destiny,« »relentless,« and »no limits« promised virile, performance-enhancing, energy; aggressive and uncontrollable.
The target audience for these products arrived at these gas stations in oversized, jacked-up pickup trucks with thundering exhaust pipes, sporting bumper stickers reading things like »don’t tread on me« or depicting images of dramatically waving American flags. For the most part they fit the profile of the white male between the ages of puberty and retirement.
As I drove through the stunning landscape of the western North Dakota Badlands, I was surrounded on all sides by these trucks. Some of their license plates bore the names of other oil and gas producing states, like Texas, Oklahoma, or Montana. These trucks belonged to the massive, imported, and mostly well-paid workforce needed to install and maintain the impossibly vast network of industrial infrastructure that has inundated the western North Dakota landscape.
You know you’ve arrived in the geological zone known as the Bakken when you start to see fire on the horizon. The Bakken formation is a layer of limestone saturated with oil and gas, sandwiched between layers of shale rock two miles underground. It stretches at an angle from western North Dakota into Montana and the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. Thanks to the technical innovations in hydraulic fracturing – otherwise known as fracking – extracting the oil underneath western North Dakota became profitable enough to set off an oil boom starting in 2006. The fires are from the methane being burned off from oil wells. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of gas flares burning at one time in the Bakken, releasing endless amounts of carbon dioxide and other volatile compounds into the atmosphere. As a result, a thick layer of black smog hangs halfway between the ground and the sky over these fires. The residents of the Fort Berthold Reservation of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara nations, which sits entirely on top of the Bakken’s oil and gas reserves, are disproportionately affected by this flaring due to the high concentration of wells on the reservation.
Traveling through the Bakken, I couldn’t help but register the sinister convergence of combustion engines, roaring natural gas flares, neon bottles of artificial liquid promising superhuman powers, and the pervasive rhetoric of »energy« that dominates political discourse in North Dakota. The state’s government, located in the capital of Bismarck just south of the Bakken formation, is controlled by white Republican men, and is predictably pro-industry. The unwritten formula for acceptable political discourse in North Dakota looks something like: goodness = industry = Christianity = heteropatriarchy = whiteness. »Energy« is the euphemism for the financialized synergy of these discursive elements.
The historical uprising on the Standing Rock Reservation in 2016 for the protection of the water and Indigenous sovereignty, and against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which now carries Bakken oil under the Missouri River just north of Standing Rock, materialized an already present settler colonial entitlement to stolen land in the form of a massive, highly militarized police and private security operation, hell-bent on protecting the pipeline corporation and the oil companies it serves.
In her lucid text »Petro-masculinity: Fossil Fuels and Authoritarian Desire,« Cara Daggett writes that »analyzing petro-masculinity alerts us to those perilous moments when challenges to fossil-fueled systems, and more broadly to fossil-soaked lifestyles, become interpreted as challenges to white patriarchal rule.«