North Dakota: where the jobs are
School-bus driver Barb Russell heard good money could be made in the oil fields of North Dakota, so she packed a bag, locked her Farmington, Minn., home and headed west last month. She tripled her income.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis
WILLISTON, N.D. — School-bus driver Barb Russell heard good money could be made in the oil fields of North Dakota, so she packed a bag, locked her Farmington, Minn., home and headed west last month. She tripled her income.
She rose every morning at 3 o'clock in September to bus 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, 60, lives in one of many dormitory-style "man camps" that help house an influx of an estimated 35,000 workers.
"I wish 'em the best on getting housing for everybody, especially with winter coming," said Russell, who in her pink cap stands out among the men. "I'd hate to see people sleeping in their cars."
There's no other place like it in America.
New drilling technology has freed up vast reserves of oil in the Williston Basin of western North Dakota, fueling what has become a flat-out gold rush. As the rest of the country desperately tries to skirt a double-dip recession, North Dakota has a $1 billion budget surplus and the nation's lowest unemployment rate. Recruits keep arriving, reversing a long population decline. Schools are rushing to hire teachers. Towns are adding police officers.
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.
Yet, many longtime residents and officials are beginning to complain about something most places in the country barely could 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. Up to 100 workers are needed to drill and prepare a well; only one operates it once it's producing.
"We got caught off-guard, thinking this would be another blip on the radar screen," said Ron Seeley, a longtime Williston dentist, umpire and sports announcer. "We need schools, roads and housing so that we can welcome both workers and their families."
Oil was first discovered in the vast "Bakken" formation in 1951, but the layer of oil-bearing rock is thin, and early vertical wells didn't produce much. Smaller booms in the 1950s and late 1970s and early 1980s petered out when oil prices fell.
But new advances in precision horizontal drilling and multistage hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," changed everything around 2005.
The new techniques make nearly 100 percent of new wells productive. North Dakota went from producing 110,000 barrels of oil a day in the fall of 2006 to 444,000 barrels a day today. It is expected to pass California and Alaska to become the second-highest oil-producing state, behind Texas.
Experts say the industry conceivably could pump between 4 billion and 24 billion barrels of oil out of the Bakken, which extends into Montana and Canada. They say 48,000 more wells are possible in the next 20 years, which would give the region a large role in allowing America to achieve energy independence.
20,000 in man camps
Handling all the workers would be impossible without temporary cities known as man camps or crew camps. Up to 20,000 workers live in such camps, scattered across 17 counties, officials say.
One of the largest, Bear Paw, houses nearly 1,000 people, 15 percent of them women. Each bedroom, most with private baths, flat-screen TVs, Internet access and DVD players, was spoken for before it was built.
The camp, north of Williston, on what was a wheat field 18 months ago, has 215 prefabricated buildings. The sprawling complex includes a convenience store, free laundry facilities, an Internet cafe with 20 computers, and a rec center with poker tables and big-screen TVs. Alcohol is banned.
The dining room seats 300 and is staffed by professionals. "Nobody goes hungry around here," said Travis Kelley, local manager of operations for owner Boston-based Target Logistics.
But Bear Paw and other camps have strained roads, water and sewage systems. Williston's wastewater-treatment system reached capacity last spring and stopped accepting sewage from Bear Paw.
Trucks now haul 36,000 gallons of sewage each day to Minot, 126 miles away, as Target Logistics builds a treatment facility.
Two of the most heavily affected counties last month voted to stop permitting new man camps until they have time to measure the impact.
"People are coming here with their campers and setting up, and they don't have the proper protections or services that they need," said Stanley Mayor Mike Hynek, who proposed the 18-month timeout for Mountrail County. He said local governments need time to expand water and sewer systems, rebuild roads and hire more police officers.
It's not hard to understand why workers are drawn, as one local official put it, like moths to the flame of western North Dakota's economy. They see a better life.
Kenny LeBaron, 24, uprooted his wife and 4-year-old daughter and left Prior Lake, Minn., in April to more than double his salary driving a semi in the oil patch.
He will make $60,000 to $90,000 annually hauling water — a byproduct that comes up with the oil — to sites where it's pumped back into the ground.
LeBaron and his brother, Joshua, 22, work seven days a week, taking turns driving while the other sleeps. Kenny LeBaron and his wife plan to "save every dollar" they can for a couple of years, then return to Minnesota, and open a retail store.
"I took advantage of this opportunity," he said. "There's a huge need for people here. Since I've been here, I got three friends jobs, too."
For Russell, the bus-driving grandmother, it was about more than money. It was an adventure. "It's my turn to do what I want to do," she said. "I'm having my midlife crisis."
Williston under siege
Williston is straining at the seams. The population grew from 12,500 to around 20,000 in the past five years. Dozens of oil companies and an army of support workers have snapped up nearly every available house, motel room, apartment and tent site, at prices double what they were a few years ago. Stores barely can keep shelves stocked.
"There are people living in basements, in campers, in backyards," Mayor Ward Koeser said. "There are hundreds of homes and apartments going up, but people are coming faster than they can build them. It's wild and crazy."
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 a 25 percent increase in students in the past two years. The city and school district had to secure apartments and subsidize rent by as much as one-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," schools Superintendent Viola LaFontaine said. "I can't keep a janitor because they all want to go work in the oil fields.
"It's a good thing Williston is coming alive and thriving," she added. "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."
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