Ken Cedeno/Corbis/AP

Extreme makeover

Oil | For one Midwest town, the price of a U.S. oil resurgence has been transformation, for better or worse

WILLISTON, N.D.—The Milky Way isn’t the only nighttime spectacle illuminating western North Dakota’s grasslands. Drive along U.S. Route 2, and you’ll pass dozens of blazing torches casting orange halos among the hills. Oil here is so abundant that energy companies drill wells without bothering to capture all the natural gas leaking from them. So they burn it off, in flares that sometimes streak sideways 10 feet in the wind.

Route 2 doglegs through Williston, a bustling town and a hub for the region’s oil development. Williston and its environs, its wells and the seesawing pump jacks atop them, are smack centered on the Bakken, a huge underground shale deposit that is defining America’s energy future. Thanks to workers tapping the oil riches of the Bakken and of shale formations in Texas and elsewhere, the United States will jump ahead of Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest producer of oil sometime between this year and 2015, depending on whose forecast you use. Growing 3.2 million barrels a day since 2009, America’s four-year surge in oil output is the greatest the world has seen since the 1970s.

The manpower needed for this surge means drillers, cementers, and haulers have flocked to Williston from surrounding states. They’re showing the world what the U.S. Midwest can do with oil. On the flip side, Williston is showing the rest of us what oil can do with a town—some of it pretty, some not.

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Williston’s population has approximately doubled since 2010, to somewhere between 25,000 and 33,000. The town and vicinity have grown so much they ranked first on the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent list of “Fastest Growing Micro Areas.”

“I was so glad to move here because it was so quiet and peaceful,” said Lana Bonnet, a social worker who moved to Williston from Utah in 2006. “And then it just exploded.”

Bonnet first moved to Williston in 1976, in her early 20s, when a previous oil boom was getting underway and Williston was a rural, “clean town where neighbors kept their yards up.” Today, things have changed: “[There’s] not enough housing. People are living in campers, trailers, or their cars.” There’s so much new development Bonnet barely recognizes the place.

In town, Route 2 is reduced to one lane each way because workers are renovating the roads. Beige dust floats in the headlights of pickup trucks and sticks to their sides like a special oil town paint job. Roads are lined with new apartment complexes and hotels, and construction workers are building a Famous Dave’s, an Outlaws Bar & Grill, and a Fuddruckers: Oil development is bringing in not just rig workers, but an entire economy to serve them.

Even with new apartments, housing remains in high demand and expensive. Local classifieds advertise a two-bedroom rental home for $1,950 a month, a three-bedroom with a garage and basement for $3,400.

Williston’s overflowing workforce is exemplified by the iconic “man camps,” rows of temporary mobile housing units. One of them, the Black Gold Williston Lodge, provides three meals a day, room service, pool tables, and small rooms for $130 to $200 a night. “Basically you’ve got a bed, a closet, a TV, a little desk,” said Colton Vaughn, a 23-year-old security guard on duty. He said most of the lodge’s occupants are in their 20s or 30s and stay for several months at a time.

Vaughn, whose home is in northern Idaho—15 hours away by train—works seven days a week. After six weeks, he returns to Idaho to spend two with his wife: “The money’s good. It’s hard being away from home, but you get through it.”

In Williams County, where Williston lies, the average wage was a whopping $76,942 last year, and it had the lowest unemployment rate in the nation. Kyle Tennessen, manager of the Williston branch of Bakken Staffing, said his office places 15 to 25 new workers per day, including truck drivers, heavy equipment operators, and office positions. Workers often come from out of state. When Williston got its first snowfall this season, many left for home, unwilling to brave the North Dakota winter, which brings 50 days or more of subzero temperatures.

“You can always put on more clothes,” said Brandin Tarbox, 25, a cementer working for Sanjel, a pressure pumping company.

I found Tarbox at one of the man camps, lounging in front of a TV playing Thursday Night Football after a camp-provided dinner of prime rib. Oil companies here work around the clock, and Tarbox was expecting to head out to his job after midnight. He works two-week stints then drives 15 hours back home to his girlfriend and daughter in Walworth, Wis., for a few days.


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