Arrow-right Camera


North Dakota town struggles to keep pace with oil boom

WILLISTON, N.D. – School bus driver Barb Russell heard there was good money to be made here in the oil fields of North Dakota, so last month she packed a bag, locked her Farmington, Minn., home, and headed west. She tripled her income.

The 60-year-old grandmother rose every morning at 3 a.m. in September to drive a bus full of Halliburton workers to drilling rigs in a place where trucks roar nonstop and everybody who wants a job has one.

Finding somewhere to lay your head is another matter. Russell ended up living in one of the dormitory-style “man camps” that have sprung up across the booming oil patch to help house the influx of an estimated 35,000 workers.

“I wish ’em the best on getting housing for everybody, especially with winter coming,” said Russell, who stands out among the men in her pink cap. “I’d hate to see people sleeping in their cars.”

There’s no place like it anywhere else in America.

New drilling technology has freed up vast reserves of oil in the Williston Basin of western North Dakota, fueling an economic bonanza that has become a flat-out gold rush. As the rest of the country desperately tries to skirt a double-dip recession, North Dakota boasts a $1 billion budget surplus and the nation’s lowest unemployment rate. Recruits from Minnesota, Texas and both coasts keep arriving, reversing a long population decline. Schools are rushing to hire more teachers. Towns are adding more cops.

And the boom keeps booming – almost 200 drilling rigs are boring 100 new wells a month. The state’s most recent figures show 16,435 job openings, 48 percent more than a year ago.

But so many workers have flooded the oil patch that many longtime residents and officials are beginning to complain about something most places in the country could barely comprehend: Too much prosperity; too much rapid growth.

In a region burned twice by oil booms that went bust, memories run deep. Towns such as Williston are caught trying to foster roots for workers, many of whom have no intention of settling in North Dakota, while figuring out how long this boom could last. It takes up to 100 workers to drill and prepare a well, but only one to operate it once it’s producing.

“We got caught off-guard, thinking this would be another blip on the radar screen,” said longtime Williston dentist, umpire and sports announcer Ron Seeley. “We need schools, roads and housing so that we can welcome both workers and their families.”

Experts say the industry could conceivably pump between 4 billion and 24 billion barrels of oil out of the Bakken oil formation, which also extends into Montana and Canada. They say there appears to be enough oil to support drilling 48,000 more wells in North Dakota during the next 20 years and give the region a large role in allowing America to achieve energy independence.

It would have been impossible for the region to handle all the workers without temporary cities known as man camps or crew camps. Officials estimate up to 20,000 workers are living in such camps, scattered across 17 counties.

One of the largest, Bear Paw, houses nearly 1,000 people, 15 percent of them women, just north of Williston, on what was a wheat field 18 months ago. Each bedroom was spoken for before it was built.

The camp consists of 215 prefabricated buildings bolted together to form a sprawling complex of sleeping quarters, a convenience store, free laundry facilities, an Internet cafe with 20 computers, and a rec center with poker tables and big-screen TVs. Most bedrooms have private baths, flat-screen TVs, Internet access and DVD players. Alcohol is banned.

If drilling continues as projected, western North Dakota will have 45,000 wells within two decades, each with a life expectancy of 30 years or more, supporting 45,000 long-term jobs. That’s in one corner of a state with 647,000 people.

It would mean not only growth but change – from a nearly empty landscape cloaked at night in darkness to one covered with bobbing mechanical grasshoppers and licking flames of natural gas. It means dealing with environmental concerns about wasting natural gas and the effects of so much multi-stage hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” even if it occurs 2 miles below ground.

For towns such as Williston, it means trying to remain a place where people go to live, not just work. “The town needs to catch up,” said Seeley, the dentist and sports announcer, watching Monday night football at J-Dubs sports bar with buddies from their 26-year-old fantasy football league.

The city added eight employees in 2010 and is adding 20 more this year, including six police officers. Police calls jumped from 6,500 in 2009 to 16,000 last year.

The school district added 28 teachers and 10 prefabricated classrooms this year to handle the 25 percent increase in students in the past two years. Both the city and school district had to secure apartments and subsidize rent by as much as a third so new hires would have affordable places to live.

“The oil field companies pick up places left and right, and they don’t think anything of paying $1,000 or $1,500 a month, but my teachers can’t afford that,” said schools Superintendent Viola LaFontaine. “I can’t keep a janitor because they all want to go work in the oil fields.”

Public officials in the oil patch say that they need a greater share of the extraction taxes that oil companies pay the state – 11.5 percent on every barrel, currently more than $1 billion a year – to correctly plan for the growth and build what’s needed.

“Eighty-eight percent of that money stays with the state,” Koeser said. “We need a lot more money out here to deal with the impacts.”

LaFontaine said she anticipates 600 more students in 2012 – double the increase the district saw this year. A bill in the state Legislature last year that would have given her district $12 million to add on to an elementary school didn’t even make it out of committee, she said, because lawmakers from the eastern part of the state said it wouldn’t be fair.

Her Plan B is to try to persuade 10 oil companies to pony up at least $1 million each. So far, she said, they’re not too receptive to the idea, saying they already pay the state so much.

“It’s a good thing Williston is coming alive and thriving,” she said. “But it’s scary because we’re not prepared. We’re trying to rush around and plan and build. Some of the older people are scared we’re going to see another bust. And in some ways, I think they wish we would.”


There are eight comments on this story »