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On The Plains, The Rush For Oil Has Changed Everything

A remarkable transformation is underway in western North Dakota, where an oil boom is changing the state's fortunes and leaving once-sleepy towns bursting at the seams. In a series of stories, NPR is exploring the economic, social and environmental demands of this modern-day gold rush.

On a Sunday at dusk, Amtrak's eastbound Empire Builder train is jampacked, filled with people heading to their jobs in North Dakota towns like Minot, Williston and Watford City.

Jennifer Brown is watching the snowy plains of northern Montana pass by outside the train's frosty windows. She's moving to North Dakota from Idaho to join her husband, who's been working in the oil fields since last summer.

"I haven't seen him in two months," she says. "It's been really hard."

The Browns ran a logging truck business in northern Idaho, but work was hard to come by. Out in North Dakota, though, a person can make $100,000 or more starting out in the oil fields.

That's because North Dakota sits atop one of the world's largest oil deposits, and the drilling boom here is transforming just about everything it touches. Oil and related industries employ some 60,000 workers in the state, and people like the Browns are flocking to the Williston Basin in droves looking for work.

Brown says she and her husband had no other choice but to make the move here. "We've been married for 20 years, living paycheck to paycheck," she says. "So we're going to try something different and basically start all over."

Growing Pains On The Frozen Frontier

Just a few years ago, the idea of starting over in this remote corner of northwestern North Dakota was laughable. Starting wages of $100,000 — out here?

Believe it. Now, more and more people like Jennifer Brown are moving here every day. This frozen frontier boasts the nation's lowest unemployment rate. "Help wanted" signs are everywhere: in the oil fields, the hotels and restaurants that support them, in construction, hospitals — you name it.

But the boom is also causing severe growing pains — and turning many rural towns into ones that longtime residents may no longer recognize.

At the heart of it all is the rough-and-tumble boomtown of Williston. The first thing you see leaving the Amtrak station is two strip clubs that cater to the wave of men coming into town from the oil fields, their pockets stuffed with cash.

Oil workers with the smell of diesel permeating their Carhartt overalls also pack watering holes up the street, downing Buds and burgers after work. Every gas station has a special on 5-Hour Energy drinks. The local Wal-Mart can't keep its shelves fully stocked.

Forty miles to the south, in the once-sleepy farming hamlet of Watford City, a line of trucks clogs snowy Main Street. New hotels, grocery stores and "man camps" — oil-field slang for cheap, temporary housing — sprout up on the prairie overnight. The 2010 census counted 1,500 people living here; today, there are an estimated 10,000.

From behind the cash register at Larsen Drug, Alicia Deedee has an example she always offers to explain how things have changed.

"My little sister and I used to be able to walk all over town. Our parents didn't worry," she says. "[Now] I have a daughter of my own, and my husband and I won't let her outside by herself anymore."

Deedee says a lot of the changes are bittersweet. While she welcomes the money, she doesn't like all the trucks and the traffic and the crime that have come with the boom.

"At the same time, I'm thankful we have good jobs — and we have jobs. A lot of people in the country don't," she says.

Bursting Schools, And Cops Rushing Call To Call

The boom is bringing money to local coffers, but it's also straining infrastructure. Town leaders say they only have enough water to sustain about 7,000 people. And good luck finding a one-bedroom apartment for less than $1,500 a month.

Then there's the crime. Watford City's police force has grown fivefold in recent years — there are now 10 officers sharing four desks in the cramped 28-feet-square station. But most officers are usually out on patrol or calls.

"Our domestic violence calls have definitely increased; alcohol-related calls have drastically increased as well," says Police Chief Jesse Wellen.

Wellen says his team responded to an unprecedented 18 domestic violence calls in December alone, and his officers are arresting about one person a day for drunken driving. These are stats nobody in a town of 10,000 people can be proud of.

"It's basically call to call, instead of ... proactive, going out there and trying to get stuff," Wellen says. "You're jumping from call to call all the time — crashes and, you know, bar fights."

Wellen, who's 28 and new here, got some help from the state government recently and will be able to hire four more officers.

Watford City has seen oil booms before, most recently in the 1980s. That boom ended in a bust, and those memories are still fresh for some people here. Still, you get the sense that this boom may be different.

Steve Holen is counting on that, because he has to plan for it. He's the superintendent of the local school district.

"We know we are probably in about the second or third inning of a nine-inning game here," he says. "Our demographic studies say we'll expect about 1,600 kids by 2017-'18."

School is about to let out, and Holen is watching a line of kindergartners bundling up in their snow pants, face masks and hats. Since 2010, enrollment here has more than doubled, to over 1,000. And just after Christmas, Holen says, he picked up about 15 new kids in just one day.

Holen plans to ask voters to approve a property tax hike to pay for building a new high school, but he knows that won't be an easy sell.

"Some of our community members do believe that 'I shouldn't be paying for this — the industry, the state, somebody else should be paying for this,' " he says. "Getting a bond passed in that environment can be a real challenge."

Even if the school bond passes, another challenge weighs heavily on Holen's mind. His district has had to get into the real estate business lately. So far, it has bought about 20 housing units, but it needs a lot more.

After all, how do you recruit teachers to come all the way out here to this boomtown when there's no place to live?

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
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