Smithsonian series chronicles lives of oil patch residents


A documentary chronicling the lives of residents and workers in the oil-rich region of North Dakota and Montana that has created a modern-day gold rush will start airing at 9 p.m. Sunday on the Smithsonian Channel.

The six-episode “Boomtowners” is the latest television project aimed at capturing the complexities of life in the Bakken shale region that has attracted thousands of workers from around the country and their families as they seek high-paying jobs in the oil fields.

The series focuses on several people, including a judge whose caseload has soared, a Phoenix-native trucker who hauls oil across the region, and an oil field worker who’s a street preacher on his days off.

“What’s happening in the Bakken is one of the most important economic developments of our time. It has had a huge impact on people’s lives across America and a huge impact on the economy,” said David Royle, executive vice president of programming and production at the Smithsonian Channel.

The Bakken oil boom began less than a decade ago and has grown exponentially with the development of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which involves pumping water, sand and chemicals underground to split open rocks to allow oil and gas to flow. Oil production in the area has since grown to more than 1 million barrels of oil a day, despite plunging oil prices.

Ben and Phoebe Moorhead are among the oil patch residents featured in the series. The parents of two young boys left Phoenix in 2013 for steady work in the Bakken. Ben is a truck driver for an oil company.

But there’s a darker side to the story of the high-paying jobs, and Judge Greg Mohr witnesses the pitfalls of the boom on a daily basis: everything from methamphetamine and heroin networks to prostitution rings operating out of motels.