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Do oil and gas “boomtowns” attract sex offenders?

Feb. 19, 2010
Courtesy Wiley-Blackwell
and World Science staff

Towns de­pend­ent on the oil and gas in­dus­tries seem to at­tract more sex­u­al of­fend­ers than av­er­age, ac­cord­ing to a new stu­dy.

Re­search­ers pro­pose that the bi­zarre ef­fect may come about as a re­sult of so­cial up­heav­al that oc­curs when ris­ing en­er­gy prices at­tract flocks of new­com­ers to these en­er­gy “boom­towns.”

Towns de­pend­ent on the oil and gas in­dus­tries seem to at­tract more sex­u­al of­fend­ers than av­er­age, ac­cord­ing to a new stu­dy. (Im­age cour­tesy U.S. DOE)


The re­sults in­clude not only the better-known ef­fect of en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age, but al­so “so­cial dys­func­tion,” the re­search­ers wrote in the stu­dy, pub­lished in the jour­nal Con­serva­t­ion Bi­ol­o­gy.

Sci­en­tists an­a­lysed com­mun­i­ties in the Great­er Yel­low­stone Ec­o­sys­tem of Wy­o­ming, an ar­ea of­ten re­ferred to as the larg­est in­tact ec­o­sys­tem in Earth’s tem­per­ate zone. Many towns across the ar­ea are de­pend­ent on en­er­gy ex­trac­tion, while oth­ers are de­pend­ent on ag­ri­cul­ture and tour­ism. 

The in­ves­ti­ga­t­ion found that from 1997 to 2008 the num­ber of reg­is­tered sex of­fend­ers in en­er­gy “boom­towns” was two to three times high­er than towns de­pend­ent on oth­er in­dus­tries. 

“In the past few years it has be­come clear that the de­vel­op­ment of wide-scale en­er­gy pro­jects takes both so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal tolls,” said study co-au­thor Jo­el Berger of the Uni­vers­ity of Mon­tana and New York-based Wild­life Con­serva­t­ion So­ci­e­ty. 

Through nine lo­cal coun­ty at­tor­ney’s of­fices the au­thors stud­ied the num­ber of reg­is­tered sex of­fend­ers, de­fined as con­victed felons re­quired by law to reg­is­ter with le­gal au­thor­i­ties, in the ar­ea. The U.S. Sex Of­fend­ers Reg­is­try be­came law in 1997, the be­gin­ning of the nine-year study pe­ri­od.

“The ab­so­lute and rel­a­tive fre­quen­cy of reg­is­tered sex­u­al of­fend­ers grew faster in ar­e­as re­li­ant on en­er­gy ex­trac­tion,” Berger said. “This is a se­vere symp­tom of the so­cial prob­lems faced by these com­mun­i­ties. These prob­lems, cou­pled with a par­al­lel rise in ec­o­log­i­cal de­struc­tion, fit a pat­tern which has been re­flected con­sist­ently around en­er­gy boom­towns from Ec­ua­dor to north­ern Cana­da.” 

“This is not to say that the ar­ri­val of the en­er­gy in­dus­try in­to a com­mun­ity di­rectly leads to sex­u­al preda­t­ion. Rath­er it is symp­tomatic of wid­er so­cial and eco­nom­ic is­sues which com­mun­i­ties face when they be­come de­pend­ent on the rise and fall of these in­dus­tries,” said Jon Beck­mann of the Wild­life Con­serva­t­ion So­ci­e­ty, the oth­er au­thor. 

“Our find­ings un­der­score an in­crease in sex­u­al preda­tors as a re­sult of the dra­mat­ic so­cial up­heav­al caused when a large in­flux of peo­ple are at­tracted to en­er­gy boom­towns” by plen­ti­ful, well-paying jobs. 

Oth­er symp­toms of so­cial change seen in en­er­gy boom­towns across the west­ern Un­ited States in­clude il­lic­it drug use, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, wild­life poach­ing and a gen­er­al rise in crime, the sci­en­tists added. They sug­gest these changes oc­cur be­cause of the dif­fer­ences be­tween the tra­di­tion­al ru­ral res­i­dents and the in­com­ing work­force. 

The link be­tween these so­cial is­sues and en­vi­ron­men­tal change has led to the rise of un­likely al­liances as so­cial ad­vo­cates and state agen­cies have band­ed to­geth­er across the ar­ea to con­serve tra­di­tion­al ru­ral lifestyles, Berger and Beck­mann said. “Our find­ings sug­gest that the pub­lic and in­dus­try need stronger reg­u­la­tory ac­tion to in­still great­er vig­i­lance in ar­e­as which face ec­o­log­i­cal, eco­nom­ic and so­cial prob­lems, due to de­pend­ence on the en­er­gy in­dus­try,” con­clud­ed Berger.


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Towns dependent on the oil and gas industries seem to attract more sexual offenders than average, according to a new study. Researchers propose that the bizarre effect may come about as a result of social upheaval that occurs when rising energy prices attract flocks of newcomers to these energy “boomtowns.” The results include not only the better-known effect of environmental damage, but also “social dysfunction,” the researchers wrote in the study, published in the journal Conservation Biology. Scientists analysed communities in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem of Wyoming, an area often referred to as the largest intact ecosystem in Earth’s temperate zone. Many towns across the area are dependent on energy extraction, while others are dependent on agriculture and tourism. The investigation found that from 1997 to 2008 the number of registered sex offenders in energy “boomtowns” was two to three times higher than towns dependent on other industries. “In the past few years it has become clear that the development of wide-scale energy projects takes both social and environmental tolls,” said study co-author Joel Berger of the University of Montana and New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society. Through nine local county attorney’s offices the authors studied the number of registered sex offenders, defined as convicted felons required by law to register with legal authorities, in the area. The U.S. Sex Offenders Registry became law in 1997, the beginning of the nine-year study period. “The absolute and relative frequency of registered sexual offenders grew faster in areas reliant on energy extraction,” Berger said. “This is a severe symptom of the social problems faced by these communities. These problems, coupled with a parallel rise in ecological destruction, fit a pattern which has been reflected consistently around energy boomtowns from Ecuador to northern Canada.” “This is not to say that the arrival of the energy industry into a community directly leads to sexual predation. Rather it is symptomatic of wider social and economic issues which communities face when they become dependent on the rise and fall of these industries,” said Jon Beckmann of the Wildlife Conservation Society, the other author. “Our findings underscore an increase in sexual predators as a result of the dramatic social upheaval caused when a large influx of people are attracted to energy boomtowns” by plentiful, high-paying jobs. Other symptoms of social change seen in energy boomtowns across the western United States include the use of illicit drugs, domestic violence, wildlife poaching and a general rise in crime, the scientists added. They suggest these changes occur because of the differences between the traditional rural residents and the incoming workforce. The link between these social issues and environmental change has led to the rise of unlikely alliances as social advocates and state agencies have banded together across the area to conserve traditional rural lifestyles, Berger and Beckmann said. “Our findings suggest that the public and industry need stronger regulatory action to instil greater vigilance in areas which face ecological, economic and social problems, due to dependence on the energy industry,” concluded Berger.