The Start Of The Boom
Oil was first discovered in western North Dakota in the 1950s. There was a boom in the ’80s, but the current one dwarfs everything that came before. It depends on fracking, the controversial technique that uses underground explosions, to exploit two massive oil fields, the Bakken and Three Forks formations, which the U.S. Geological Survey calls the largest continuous oil accumulation it has ever assessed. North Dakota recently became the nation’s second-largest oil producing state, trailing only Texas.
State Highway 85 runs north–south for about 100 miles through the oil fields. I remember when it was such a lonely stretch of road that you could just about park and have a picnic on the white line. No more. On my drive from Dickinson to Williston, the highway was so crowded with trucks and heavy equipment that I felt that I was traversing the world’s largest construction site. Youngs recently counted 204 trucks on a 45-mile section of 85. “I was watching a show on gold rushes a couple of nights ago,” he says. “It’s exactly the same. They had a gold rush. We’re having an oil rush.”
Williston is the county seat for Williams County. The last census listed the county population as 22,398, but Dan Kalil, county commission chairman, says a survey in late 2011 found it had swelled to 37,776. The county expects it to reach 50,000 within the next few years. Other oil-field counties are dealing with similar growth. Kalil’s family has been ranching and farming here for three generations, and he sees a world he knew being swept away. “I used to go days without seeing a person,” he says. “We’ve lost our solitude. Lost our privacy. Our quiet is gone. This is a monumental change. … I call it the complete industrialization of western North Dakota.”
Kalil acknowledges the benefits of the boom—he jokingly calls North Dakota “the land of angry millionaires”—but he says that the prosperity has come with a cost, distorting land values and the labor market while putting a huge strain on roads and other infrastructure. Williams County has hired Winston Associates, a Boulder, Colo.–based planning firm, to help draft a comprehensive development plan. “We’re trying to grow our communities logically,” Kalil says, “keep industrial with industrial and residential with residential.”
But with the flood of rigs and people continuing unabated, it’s been nearly impossible to get a handle on the situation. “They drill on this square, this square, this square,” he says. Practically overnight, 10 rigs go up, and “we don’t even know they’re here.”
In Williston, the boom has distorted the local economy to the point where the McDonald’s is offering $15 an hour to recruit employees, and the Chevrolet dealership is reputed to be selling the most Corvettes in the nation (the owner neither confirms or denies it, but allows he’s doing very well).
The city is sprawling in every direction—new housing developments, oil derricks, metal industrial buildings (“tin-can alley,” Allen Domagala, a Hulsing & Associates project manager, calls the worst strip), man camps—a crazy quilt that reaches far into the countryside. A thousand housing units were built last year, and 2,000 to 3,000 are planned for 2012, according to Mayor Ward Koeser, along with up to 10 new hotels or motels. But no one expects it to be enough. “We anticipate between 3,000 and 4,000 new jobs,” Koeser says.