Even at Its Peak Violent Crime in the Bakken Oil Patch Was About the Same as the Surrounding Region


Recently my colleague April Baumgarten produced a very thorough report on crime in the region of the Bakken oil fields during the oil boom years.

A lot has been written about that topic. North Dakotans are pretty familiar with the “dark side of the boom” genre of journalism which were endemic to reporters covering the rise of oil production in western North Dakota and eastern Montana. Some of it was fair. Some of it was fueled by animus toward the oil industry.

Baumgarten’s story, headlined “Study shows just how violent Bakken became as oil drilling surged in North Dakota, Montana,” was based on a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Here’s her lede:

FARGO, N.D. — The notion that crime boomed in the Bakken as oil development took off is nothing new. But a study released this month by the Bureau of Justice Statistics offers a detailed look at the spike in Oil Patch violence.

Counties in Montana and North Dakota that contain the Bakken shale formation saw their violent crime rate jump 23 percent from 2006 to 2012, according to the study. The violent crime rate dropped by 8 percent for the surrounding region during the same period.

That’s all true, at least as documented by the BJS report, and Baumgarten’s story is worth your time to read. But there’s some context missing.

You can read the full report from the BJS below, and I would encourage you to scroll down to page 13 of the PDF (page 7 as numbered in the report) to take a gander at this table of statistics:

As you can see, the rate of violent crime in the Bakken region certainly grew while the rate in surrounding areas fell. But looking closer, you can see that even the peak of violent crime in the Bakken region in 2012 was still lower than the rate was in the surrounding region in 2006.

Does anyone feel like we were having a violent crime crisis in North Dakota or Montana in 2006?

I’m not sure anyone honestly feels that way. Yet, when violent crime rates in the oil field reached in 2012 what they were in the surrounding region in 2006 many in the press, not to mention the various politicians and political activists, carried on as though we were talking about a war zone.

It just wasn’t true.

Also interesting is that even the peak rate of oil field violence in 2012 isn’t that much higher than the rate of violent crime in the rest of the region. In fact, it’s less than 5 percent higher.

Which means that, during the oil boom, violent crime in the Bakken region went from more than 22 percent less than the surrounding region to about the same as the surrounding region.

Critics of oil activity will argue that there was still an increase in violent crime, and that’s absolutely the truth. And it probably has a lot to do with the oil field attracting a lot of young males to the region. Young males, we know from national crime statistics, commit a disproportionate amount of crime.

But what’s also true is that the Bakken region was much safer than the surrounding region in 2006, as measured by violent crime, rates, and was about as safe as the surrounding region in 2012.

Nobody wants to see crime increase, but when it does we need to make sure we understand it in context.

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