According to environmental activists, fracking was one of the worst things to happen to North Dakota, bringing not only environmental pollution, but also soaring crime rates. While the start of the shale revolution in 2008 certainly brought tens of thousands of new residents to work the Bakken shale fields in North Dakota, new analysis of the data shows that crime rates for local residents actually decreased during the uptick, thanks to increased economic opportunities.
In a new working paper, Brittany Street, a Ph. D student at Utah State University’s Center for Growth and Opportunity focused on crime committed by local residents before and during the shale renaissance and wrote what she believes is the first paper to identify how the phenomena itself—rather than migration to the area—affected crime rates. She found that starting during the leasing period, crime rates in the Bakken decreased:
“Residents exposed to fracking activities change their criminal behavior relative to residents in non-fracking counties in response to the economic shock. Results show relatively large reductions in driving, drug, and other offenses in the leasing period.”
Drawing from criminal cases filed by the North Dakota Judicial Branch, she calculated crime rates for local households from before shale discovery, during the leasing process, and during production with the goal of separating the impacts of better job opportunities and wages from increased earnings through royalties. This data set included offenses like drug charges and DUIs which are not always included in crime statistics.
Crime rates among long-term residents declined, though this was partially offset by crime committed by new residents. This was a widespread impact seen even among people who did not receive royalty payments, but benefited from better job prospects and increased economic opportunity:
“Local residents engaged in less criminal activity at the start of the boom with a smaller effect in later years. Effects are largest and most robust for drug offenses, and are observed across all counties with fracking activity. Additionally, I show that effects are most pronounced for residents that do not also receive royalty payments.”
This data was used to test two competing hypotheses—whether increased economic opportunity led area residents to avoid illegal activity for legal employment or if increased wealth led to increased opportunities for theft.
“It is possible that decreases in crime are the result of an incapacitation effect, as individuals become occupied with legal work and thus has less time for criminal activities…A second explanation is that residents may no longer feel the need to engage in activities related to crime, such as drug use, given their improved economic outlook.”
The results were clear. Counties with minor fracking activity saw a 19.5 percent reduction in cases filed. In counties with major fracking activity, the reduction was even greater—a 27.5 percent decline.
“This is consistent with predictions of the economic theory of crime when the returns to legal employment increase and indicates that fracking has reduced individuals’ propensity to commit crime.”
This research is significant in pushing back against the narrative that fracking is associated with increases in criminality. In fact, for long term residents, the opposite occurred.
Lower crime rates are only one of the many ways in which shale production has helped North Dakotans. Previous research has shown that the state not only survived the Great Recession, but thrived during the same period, leading the Midwest in job creation and GDP growth between 2010 and 2018.
According to a Brookings Institute study from last year, North Dakota’s growth rate led the nation and was more than double that of Tennessee, the number two state:
“As to output growth, North Dakota has seen the fastest economic growth in the Heartland, and the nation as a whole, with the real annual growth of 5 percent since 2010, largely due to the rapid growth of the state’s energy sector driven by the spread of hydraulic fracturing.”
In turn, this economic growth has helped to reduced crime rates among long term North Dakota residents. That’s yet another benefit of the American shale industry.
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