The booming Bakken oil patch that’s given a major boost to U.S. energy production has emerged as a new front, in the fight against drug trafficking.  Organized crime rings are popping up in the Northern Plains, with traffickers sensing opportunity, in the thousands of men and women lured there by the hope of a big paycheck.  Law-enforcement officers across the region have teamed up to crack down on the trafficking, netting one of their most significant indictments so far this week — a dozen drug arrests in Montana and four in North Dakota.  Authorities say more arrests are in the works as part of investigations conducted through a new interagency partnership.  But with drug offenses, violence and property crimes on the upswing, they face an uphill climb to reduce the spiking crime rate.

The changes at play in once-quiet prairie communities were demonstrated this week with the shooting of an FBI agent in the small, unincorporated town of Keene, N.D.  The agent, who was not seriously injured, was executing a search warrant as part of an oil patch-centered investigation.

The law enforcement partnership, known as Project Safe Bakken, has been at work since last year.  A parallel effort in North Dakota in July charged 22 people with conspiracy to sell heroin and other drugs on an Indian reservation in the heart of the oil patch.  Authorities linked that case to a national drug trafficking ring seeking to make inroads in the Bakken.  In the Montana case, the government alleges that 49-year-old Robert Ferrell Armstrong, aka Dr. Bob, of Moses Lake, Wash., brought in large quantities of methamphetamine from his home state and distributed them in the Bakken and elsewhere in Montana through a network of couriers.  At the time of his arrest, Armstrong also was wanted for failing to check in with a community corrections officer in Washington State, where he has a history of drug, gun and assault charges.

Armstrong and several others among the 12 people arrested face federal drug conspiracy charges that carry potential sentences of 10 years to life in prison if they are convicted.  The severity of the potential sentences reflects the volume of drugs that the ring allegedly sold.  Armstrong and the other defendants pleaded not guilty during initial court appearances.

This week’s arrests follow sharp increases in crime across the board since the Bakken boom began about five years ago.  A review of FBI crime reports show violent crime was up 64 percent and property crimes up 63 percent in Montana’s four Bakken counties between 2009 and 2012, the period for which the most complete data was available.  Both categories showed decreases elsewhere in the state in those years.  The economic benefits from the boom have been substantial.  More than 20,000 people have poured into eastern Montana and western North Dakota since oil production began its meteoric rise in 2008.  Tens of thousands more are expected in the next several years as the boom continues.

Unfortunately, it is the criminal element that is winning this battle and the local law enforcement is unable and unwilling to stop it.  They were unprepared to meet the demand that was placed on them with the dramatic increase in population, and have been trying to play catch-up ever since.  This story, though related, is not mentioned, and that is the number of truck drivers that are abusing these same drugs on a daily basis on the highways and roads of Montana and North Dakota.  One in four drivers are estimated to be using these drugs and under the influence in the Bakken and the ever increasing traffic deaths, in the region, is the direct result.  It is unfortunate that most of those people killed on our roads are innocent bystanders, whose only mistake was that they have always lived in the area, attempting to go about their normal lives where the oil boom has had a negative impact on their lives.  Many people in this region have seen runaway prices for food and rent and dramatic increases in traffic and pollution.  These same people derive absolutely no financial benefit from this oil boom and never will and no one knows the cost these same people will have to endure once the boom is over.  Everyone knows that once the oil is depleted, those people who call North Dakota or Montana home will be the only ones left.