SIDNEY, Mont. – Politicians are quick to extol the virtues of domestic oil drilling while ignoring the tradeoffs. Here in this fast-developing Western oil patch, the gritty side of America’s new oil boom is on display with rising crime, a slain schoolteacher, rents that have tripled and public resources stretched thin.
That’s just the half of it. Some area high schools are at historic low attendance levels, students dropping out to work the oil fields. Menial service jobs go unfilled despite high wages, and most everyone worries that the boom is transforming small-town values into something new and unpredictable.
“It’s just happened so fast, and many small communities just didn’t have time to plan,” said Mike Coryell, executive director of the Area Economic Development Council of Miles City, Mont., a town just south of the oil boom that struggles with spillover effects. “The impacts hit, but you don’t have the resources to attack it.”
Deep below the surface here are large quantities of crude oil trapped under rock that could make the United States less dependent on foreign oil if extracted. The Bakken formation, some 200,000 square miles of it, stretches across North Dakota, Montana, Native American reservations and parts of Canada’s Saskatchewan province.
Signs of the boom abound. Natural gas is flared in the middle of sugar-beet farms and on prairie ranches that look like the set of old TV Westerns. Just across the North Dakota line, oil rigs dot a landscape where President Theodore Roosevelt lived out his final years.
“We’re glad we have an area that’s booming but it has totally ruined the quality of life around here,” said Kerry Finsaas, 60, walking her land, which abuts an expanded rail terminal near Trenton, N.D. “I’d say life as we knew it here is gone.”
After 34 years on her land, Finsaas and her husband, Darrell, today look out the kitchen window at a natural gas flare a few hundred feet away. Crude oil is pumped into rail tank cars that stretch in front of their house almost as far as the eye can see. Nearby irrigation ditches adjacent to a new open-air disposal pond reek of sewage.
“We don’t need a night light,” Finsaas said sarcastically.
Drunken driving arrests are way up, and police report seizures of uncommon illicit drugs.
“Heroin is starting to come back. The drug activity has really changed in this region,” said Doug Colombik, the Miles City police chief.
Cops on the beat feel a difference, too.
“The level of aggression that we’re met with when we’re responding (to a call) has really increased,” said Mark Kraft, 33, a night officer for the Sidney Police Department. “It makes our job a little more dangerous than it was a couple of years ago.”
The big wakeup call came in early January, when schoolteacher Sherry Arnold went for a morning jog in Sidney and never returned.
Police said the 43-year-old cancer survivor was kidnapped and killed. Two Colorado men who came to the area in search of work in the oilfields are charged in her death.
Arnold’s slaying brought soul-searching over the costs of a transformative oil boom.
Almost to a person, everyone interviewed in the region complained they no longer recognize people in the grocery store, and that they now must lock their doors. A large town here is home to fewer than 6,000 people, and leaving doors unlocked and keys in the car is the very definition of small-town life.
“I think whenever you don’t know people, you become suspicious of them. You just have to remember that not all strangers are bad,” said Maj. Robert Burnison, Sidney’s assistant police chief. “I tell people that, and to be aware of their surroundings just be cautious. You don’t have to be afraid.”