Published December 08, 2011
While most of the country is still mired in a troubled economy, North Dakota is riding an unprecedented boom that has jobs looking for people, rather than the other way around.
"And largely that's driven by the oil play in what we call the Bakkan Formation," Lynn Helms, Director of North Dakota Dept. of Natural Resources explains.
"We're estimating now about 18,000 square miles of western North Dakota, another 6,000 square miles in Montana, Saskatchewan and Manitoba that is mature oil-source rock. It can be drilled up almost (like) an oil-producing factory. We did not drill a single dry hole in the last year-and-a-half," she said.
New technology called hydraulic fracturing has enabled oil companies to drill for previously inaccessible reserves trapped inside shale formations. Experts estimate the fracking method, though controversial, will provide access to an astounding two billion barrels of oil in the Bakken field.
"We're very confident that we've got a twenty year oil boom ahead of us," Helms says. "And that's driving tens of thousands of jobs. I think right now we're estimating 35,000 jobs in direct employment. People actually out there working. And there's about another 18,000 jobs that are looking for somebody to fill."
The result is money and people pouring into a mostly rural state with an economy historically based on agriculture. Before the boom the population of North Dakota actually declined in every census since 1939. In just the last five years the population climbed back to its 1939 level, and the people just keep coming.
"Did a few inquiries with the recruiters and me and my brother both were hired and here we are. It's everything they said it was and I absolutely love it," he said.
A drastic shortage of housing in the small towns inundated by these mostly young, male workers has lead to the rapid creation of numerous temporary housing villages. Called man camps, they run the gamut from small collections of trailers and RV's, to much larger, company-run communities with individual huts with laundry machines, full kitchens, bedrooms and security services.
"It's nice, it's quiet" Stephen Patterson of Florida who has lived in a man camp in Stanley for eleven months, said. "Because people are either eating or working and that's it. That's the daily pattern of life here, really. You're working or you're sleeping," he said.
Mountrail County Commissioner Arlo Borud says the boom is bringing in revenue, but is also putting a major strain on local infrastructure.
There are, "shortages of manpower, workers, and housing. Also the emergency services are stressed. To provide ambulance service, fire department service, police service."
In recent weeks Mountrail and Williams counties imposed moratoriums on man camp development.
"I guess what we hope for is stability. If it would stabilize and not be growing quite so fast, so that we could kind of catch our breath. So that we can get more things in place as to how we want them to run, what we need for services that we're going to supply. So that the local community doesn't get hung."
Besides housing, one of the biggest complaints is the strain put on roads by a seemingly endless line of huge trucks running to and from drilling sites.
"There's 1,600 miles of road in Mountrail County," Borud explains. "We used to have 100 miles of pavement, but now that's down to 75 miles. We have milled up that much and turned it back into a type of gravel road, because it got so unsafe with big holes. You couldn't really drive on it unless you weaved back and forth."
Governor Jack Dalrymple has promised more than a billion dollars to help communities in the oil producing region deal with problems associated with this tremendous growth. Growth which shows no sign of slowing down any time soon according to Helms.
"If we go back to 2004 the state was producing 80,000 barrels of oil a day and we had 12 drilling rigs operating. In 2009 we jumped to 50 drilling rigs and our production was about 150,000 barrels a day. In 2010 we went to166 rigs and were producing 300,000 barrels a day. And today we're at 200 rigs, producing almost 500,000 barrels a day and we’re going to permit 2,000 wells this year."