August 5, 2011

Karratha and Crosby: Parallel boomtowns a world apart

Oil. It's the hot word in town and has been for a couple of years now. But since last year at this time, things have exploded. Housing has become more scarce and outrageously expensive, grocery prices have gone up, roads have been ripped up from endless multi-ton truck traffic, and it seems as though everyone is complaining about "all the strangers in town."

Tonight, I got a strange sense of relief (mixed with anger) that there is another place, very much like northwest North Dakota, that is reeling from the consequences of a natural resource boom (or rather, curse). In fact, the similarities are eerie.

Australia's big boom is taking place in Pilbara, the country's northwestern-most region. The area is rich in iron ore and the nearby neighbor China is awfully hungry for it. Workers fly to remote, small towns for two to three weeks at a time, then return home to their families for their two weeks off. But while on the job, they find themselves with little more to do in town than go to the local bar. And housing is becoming a big problem too; homes in mining towns sell for nearly double what they would in cities like Sydney, Perth, or Melbourne. Most mining companies shack their men up in single person trailers that are connected in one big block (what we Americans like to refer to as "man camps.") Oh, and I can't forget to mention the labor shortage troubles in the service industries. When energy workers can make upwards of $150,000 Australian dollars each year (which is nearly equal to US dollars), why would someone want to work for much less waiting tables or working in a clothing store?

Sound familiar??

Then there are land use issues. Aboriginal lands are being snatched up by large energy companies and the native carvings and spiritual grounds are being totally disregarded in pursuit of development. 

Small towns in Australia's mining areas are struggling with infrastructure. They're finding it difficult to encourage miners and their families to move their permanently. Since so many energy companies provide housing and meals for their workers, locals are frustrated that there is little incentive for the energy sector employees to become part of the community. (With the exception of the Aussie football player).

At any rate, the little town of Karratha has a lot in common with my hometown of Crosby. Check it out. Australia's boomtown curse. Want to see a side-by-side comparison? Here's the documentary I worked on last summer about ND's oil boom... granted, things have gotten much worse around here since then. From Ghost Town to Boom Town.

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