California had the forty-niners, Alaska had the Klondike. And now, North Dakota has the Bakken. It’s a gold rush without the gold, and it has turned North Dakota on its head.
Between 2.1 billion and 7.4 billion barrels of extractable oil lie in the Bakken oil formation, depending on which estimate you read and how much rock fracturing technology advances in the coming years. To get it out of the ground, oil companies are drilling 100 new wells a month, a pace likely to continue for upwards of 20 years. Extraction will continue long afterward.
But the current drilling rush—which started in 2008—has opened jobs for “anyone who wants one.” I heard that line again and again from Montana to Minnesota, and then again from anyone who has a relative in the area. The statement usually comes with an opinion, but regardless of how they feel about it, the Bakken affected everyone I met in western North Dakota.
The oil fields first came up through a warning. “Go through South Dakota, dude. It’s bad up north. Seriously.” This was in western Montana, from an 18-year-old who, although he talks big and likes even bigger stories, was genuinely concerned for me. “There’s too many guys been alone too long. They’re rapin’ people up there. Even men, dude. Don’t go.”
But the next day, when I found a driver going through the rest of Montana and a ways past Williston, I decided zooming through 500 miles of flat and boring was worth risking one kid’s horror story. So I rode with Tim, a middle-aged water truck driver for an oil company.
At $30 per hour, he likes his job. “Oil’s where the money is, man. Work a few years, and you’ve got enough to buy a truck with cash and put a good down payment on a house. And you got an education–they want guys like you. You’d get $80,000 a year, starting salary! You can’t beat that!”
A safety inspector I rode with later seconded the idea. “There’s money in the oil fields,” he quipped. An Australian citizen, the inspector works in North Dakota for six months a year, in stints broken up by family vacations and trips back home. His pay, plus his wife’s income, is enough to fund holidays around the world, usually for two or three weeks at a time and multiple times a year.
But although it’s available, the money does not come easy. Prospectors suffered in the California and Alaska gold rushes, and so do oil chasers in North Dakota. Physically and emotionally, the work is tough. Most drive trucks or do hard, manual labor, pulling twelve-hour days without weekends. Tim, for instance, works 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. on a 24-days-on, 8-days-off schedule. He says the work is hardest after 4 a.m., when the sun comes up and he fights to stay awake.
Accidents are common. I saw one worker’s camper flipped over in the ditch, and I heard of an oil-truck collision that happened just days before at an intersection I drove through. A driver had dozed through a stop sign and smashed into a pickup.
In their off hours, workers live in modern versions of company towns. Clumps of the cheap, temporary housing litter the area around Williston and Minot. Picture a dozing housing developments smashed together and filled with single-wide mobile homes. Furnish those like college dorms and put four men in each one. You have an above-average “man camp.”
Tim lives in one of these better ones. Each worker has his own room, and each pair of rooms shares “a shitter and a shower.” His place came fully furnished, and unlike many of the others, it even has a television. But in other man camps, workers live in rooms “smaller than a prison cell,” and less homely, too. Such housing might have been cheap to build, it is not cheap to rent. Depending on the oil company you’re working for, a glorified dorm room can run between $300 and $1,600 a month.
And while the Montanan’s story of wanton rape might be overblown, it has a kernel of truth. Some women live in the man camps, but oil work is a male-dominated profession, and families, as a general rule, do not follow the workers to the oil fields. “There’s a woman behind every tree in North Dakota,” Tim joked bitterly.
The result of exhaustion, bad housing, and loneliness: tension, to put it mildly. One night, Tim arrived on site to find ambulances and police cars. In weeks prior, two Texans had relentlessly bullied a college kid. “A guy just like you,” Tim said. At the time, everyone else ignored it or laughed.
But one night, after weeks of abuse, the kid took a .44 revolver from his truck, and he shot both Texans in the stomach. “I suffered,” he said. “Now it’s your turn.” The kid turned to the onlookers. “Why isn’t anyone laughing? It’s not funny anymore? Why’s no one laughing now?”
Things settled down a bit after that, Tim said, but the oil fields are still rough, at best. In their eight days off, men go home, take a vacation, visit a friend–anything to get the hell away from North Dakota.
The rest of the region feels the oil rush, too. As it was in California and Alaska, existing infrastructure can’t handle the employment boom. Take the city of Williston, for example, right in the heart of oil country. Three years ago, its population numbered less than 15,000, but now, it has 33,000 people, with a projected 2017 population of 44,000. According to the US Census Bureau, Williston’s growth averages out to a new resident every four hours.
The result is housing shortages, RV influxes, near-constant traffic. The check-out lines at Wal-Mart stretch clear to the front doors. “They’re running at full capacity, and they can’t keep up,” Tim explained. “I have to shop during the day. You go on a weekend or in the evening, and those shelves are bare, man.”
The prices at Wal-Mart are as high as the lines are long. Demand for groceries and basic supplies has residents facing sticker shock wherever they turn. Gasoline in Williston costs $3.74. Ironically, in Fargo–almost a full state away from the oil–you can fill up for $3.27 a gallon.
But stores have to raise wages and well as prices, as one local whose DUIs keep him from driving an oil truck explained. He said he could make $14 an hour flipping burgers at a Williston McDonalds, but the conditions there are bad enough to keep him east of Minot. The high pay is necessary for two reasons: residents have to make enough to survive the cost of living, and businesses have to attract employees whose peers make $30-$40 an hour in the oil fields.
“You see all these restaurants with ‘Now Hiring’ signs, and it’s because of oil,” the Minot man said. “Their cooks keep quitting to take trucking jobs.” Cut out from oil money by his driving record, he did not hide his resentment. “Everyone who’s not in oil hates oil.”
I met one driver in Michigan whose brother moved from Minot to Fargo to escape the oil culture. He got a good price on his house and fled east.
The biggest divide between those broken and made by the Bakken, though, lies between farmers. Most farmers who bought their land in recent decades neglected to also buy the accompanying mineral rights. So when an oil company moves in, the farmer gets a one-time payment, but no share of the extracted oil. Instead, he loses a piece of farmable land and has to deal with the region’s inflated prices with the same income as before.
Those who inherited their land from grandfathers or great-grandfathers, though, retain the original mineral rights, and when an oil company drills, those farmers get a sizable cut. Some make as much as $80,000 every few weeks. Those families pay off the house, buy a new truck and tractor, get a motorhome or a boat, and set aside enough for an early retirement–all for just a few negotiations with a big company.
National debate rages as to whether the economic boom justifies the environmental cost, but for those in western North Dakota, at least, the debate is also a personal one. Driving through the region at night, I saw an agricultural landscape dotted with the flames of oil wells and the lights of drilling rigs, the latter like lonely high-rises amid miles of cropland. The people here actually experience the issues most of us only argue about, and after speaking with many of them, I realize that I know far too little to condone or decry the oil rush.
Instead, I find myself agreeing with a waitress I met in Michigan, whose fiancee has driven trucks in North Dakota for the past three years. “After three or four weeks out there, I can tell it in his voice,” she said. “He needs out–he starts to hate it there. What a lot of people don’t realize, is that while you make a lot of money, you sacrifice so much else.”