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.
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.
The recent U.S. oil and gas boom has been made possible by new technology that allows workers to drill deep into the earth, down and then horizontally, and crack open shale rock to release oil and gas using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Once a well is drilled and fitted with casing, Tarbox and his co-workers pump cement around it.
Wells can be miles deep, including the curve at the bottom: “I think the highest I’ve ever pumped was 20,000 feet.” After a well is drilled and fracked, workers top it with a pump jack. Much of the oil is shipped to the Gulf Coast on rail cars.
Problems have grown along with Williston’s population. Newcomers are disproportionately young men, oftentimes single, creating a gender imbalance. Men prowl in bars for dates, and locals say crime, prostitution, and the strip club business have grown, with dancers regularly flying in from out of state. Some longtime residents are leaving.
Ted “Frog” Krogen and his wife Marilyn, both 67, were born and raised around Williston, only leaving for about a decade while Frog served in the military, and returning in the late ’70s.
“We moved back here because it was a good place to raise kids. Not anymore,” said Frog, wearing black suspenders and eating ketchup over scrambled eggs at Gramma Sharon’s Family Restaurant, a three-decade-old establishment. With housing so expensive, the couple’s daughter, in her 30s, lived with them until recently. “We used to leave our door unlocked,” Frog said, but after the boom they forbade their daughter from going out at night alone. “Women have been followed home from nightclubs and raped,” Marilyn added.
For the Krogens, the solution was to get out of town: They moved to Sturgis, S.D., several months ago, and returned this week to clean out and sell their three-bedroom house. After putting it on the market for two days, someone bought it for several thousand dollars above their asking price.
The Krogens said many of their friends have already moved away. “This will never be the same town,” bemoaned Frog.
Domestic violence has increased too, according to Bonnet, who directs the Family Crisis Shelter in Williston, the only shelter for domestic and sexual abuse victims in the North Dakota oil patch. Since 2008, the number of adults and children staying at the shelter has tripled.
The Williston Herald reported the Williston Police Department gets an average of two calls a day for domestic violence situations. The calls increased 10 percent from 2011 to 2012, and as of October were on track to increase another 10 percent in 2013. An annual report provided to WORLD from the Williston Police Department indicates local 911 calls doubled between 2010 and 2012. Arrests for felonies and misdemeanors increased 40 percent in 2012 alone.
Crime in North Dakota overall, a historically safe state, ticked up 8 percent in 2012. Drugs are running in Williston: In November federal officials announced they were adding Williams County to their High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program.
While some see Williston’s rapid growth as a problem, others see opportunity. The town is building a $70 million recreation center with indoor tennis courts and a golf simulator. Instead of coming into town alone a few weeks at a time, many men are moving their wives and children here permanently. Although Williston’s increase in children has been overwhelming to public schools (they’re renting “portable classrooms” to handle the lack of space), pastors see an opportunity to reach young families or single workers looking for new community or spiritual direction.
“We’re tripling our square footage,” said Mike Skor, the lead pastor of New Hope Wesleyan Church, which has installed huge steel beams in the ground for a facility that will include an indoor playground and coffeehouse. “Just our middle school and high school ministry—every week it seems we have a record number of kids. It just keeps climbing.”
Ashley Olinger was a logger in northern British Columbia, Canada, before he moved to Williston in 2010 to become the senior pastor of Cornerstone FBC. The Southern Baptist church began building a new facility with a sloping 300-seat auditorium in a Williston field in 2011. Now the facility is surrounded by a new medical clinic, a new Motel 6, and a row of new apartments.
“Our church has gotten drastically younger in the last couple of years,” Olinger said. “Between 25 and 30 percent of our church is under 4 feet tall.” Since local kids sometimes live in camper trailers or apartments, Cornerstone opens its building on Thursday mornings to give moms and kids space to play. Every second Sunday the church hosts lunch, with much of the food provided by a local man camp, to provide fellowship for its members or for workers in town without their families.
After a short-lived oil boom in Williston a few decades ago, Olinger said, “there was an underlying assumption that [this one] was going to be another flash in the pan.” Now people speculate the current boom will last 20 years or more. He’s hoping to find the resources to build a second facility that would include more kids’ classrooms and a gym.
During a recent weekday evening sermon, the former logger spoke of the Great Commission and God’s sovereignty: “He owns the cattle on a thousand hills—and the oil that lies a mile beneath the earth.”
One hundred and thirty miles south of Williston, another dusty town called Dickinson is reaping the benefits of the region’s oil drilling. It hosts dozens of businesses, muddy roads that fling dirt beneath pickup trucks, a Ukrainian Cultural Institute, a railroad carrying black tank cars, and an oil pump jack bobbing next to a subdivision full of new homes and duplexes. Dickinson ranked third on the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent list of “Fastest Growing Micro Areas,” and is home to the first new U.S. oil refinery to be built on an undeveloped site in 37 years.
In late October construction of the $300 million refinery, the Dakota Prairie Refinery, proceeded at the end of a mud and gravel driveway with a posted 15 mph speed limit. Brown-and-white cows grazed in adjacent fields while cranes jutted up above cylindrical steel tanks that will hold crude oil, naphtha, diesel, and kerosene. Train tracks ran alongside the site.
Once completed, the refinery will use the region’s crude oil to produce 300,000 gallons of diesel fuel per day, enough to fill 42 tank trucks. Oddly, although North Dakota is pumping over 90,000 barrels of crude oil each day (second only to Texas in production), because much is shipped elsewhere for refining, the state imports much of the diesel needed to run trucks and heavy machinery.
The Dakota Prairie Refinery, built by MDU Resources Group, is scheduled to be finished in late 2014. Plant manager Dave Podratz said the company is in the process of hiring engineers, accountants, and clerks to run the facility. “We’re getting applications from all over the country. ... I’ve seen Montana, I’ve seen Nebraska, I’ve seen Arkansas.” —D.J.D.