BAKKEN PLAY

BAKKEN PLAY: BOOM or BURDEN? Paying the price

‘Prairie will never be the same’
2010-08-16T00:05:00Z 2010-08-16T12:32:32Z BAKKEN PLAY: BOOM or BURDEN? Paying the priceJAN FALSTAD Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
August 16, 2010 12:05 am  • 

WILLISTON, N. D. — In two short years, Bainville, a town with at least 150 residents on the Montana-North Dakota state line, has seen its K-12 school enrollment of 67 nearly double.

Lying in the heart of the Bakken oil field, Bainville’s two RV parks are full, mostly with oil field workers. Few buyers were around to buy a local home a few years ago, said two-term Mayor Dennis Portra, but now the price of property and homes has jumped at least 50 percent.

“It’s stunning for us because we haven’t had these many new people in town since the 1970s,” Portra said. “It’s really, really busy here. It’s crazy.”

The last Bakken play in Eastern Montana peaked in 2006, but the furious pace of drilling in western North Dakota is moving across the state line into Montana again.

Nobody is living in tents and there are no “man camps” of ship-to-rail storage containers yet, he said. But home construction in Bainville is hot and the town has become home for some of the thousands of oil workers heading to work at nearby rigs and wells or commuting to Sidney and Williston, N.D., or farther.

North Dakota just moved up to the third-most active drilling state, with 143 rigs searching for oil and natural gas and is on target to surpass the record of 148 rigs set in 1981, according to the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources. North Dakota now is the nation’s fourth-largest oil-producing state behind Texas, Alaska and California.

And this hot Bakken Formation play is jumping across the state line and heating up in Eastern Montana again. Two townships near Bainville have been leased with another 40 to 80 more wells sites staked out, Portra said.

 Despite the ever-increasing heavy-truck traffic and other demands on public services, the mayor said lucrative jobs are bringing young people back to town, as well as families from far away.

“We’ve ended up with some really good people,” he said. “But the boom is just starting.”

And when the next round of drilling begins, some locals who own mineral rights will see a huge influx of money.

“I don’t think they’ll go wild, but they’ll have the money to do whatever they want to do,” the mayor said.

Impacts to the east

Though his emergency budget is depleted just halfway through the fiscal year, Williams County Sheriff Scott Busching welcomes many of the changes the latest oil boom, with its flood of outside workers and money, is bringing to Williston and western North Dakota.

“Cultural change isn’t necessarily all bad. We are pretty similar here: Scandinavians, Germans and some Irish,” he said. “There are opportunities, but there are problems as well we’ve never seen here before.”

Getting noticed by the world is enough of a change for what has been a friendly, slow-paced agricultural town surrounded by prairie and stunning badlands.

“Our little town out here in northwestern North Dakota, nobody cared about it but us,” the sheriff said.

With an estimated 200 oil companies coming to the region for the action, Busching has isn’t sure how many people have followed. But he expects the upcoming census will show the town with 15,000 residents, a gain of 3,000.

In a nation burdened by 9.5 percent unemployment, an estimated 2,000 mostly high-paying jobs are waiting to be filled around Williston, considered the ground central of the boom. Truck drivers can earn $80,000 per year, with ample overtime, and skilled oil field workers can earn an average of $100,000. 

The latest boom has brought hundreds of high-paid, hardworking professionals to town, trying to tap the Bakken oil shale foundation 2 miles beneath the prairie. The Bakken field of western North Dakota and Eastern Montana harbors 3 billion to 4 billion barrels of recoverable oil under today’s technology — 25 times more than the U.S Geological Survey estimated 15 years ago. And underneath that is the Three Forks layer, which may be just as rich and could spawn a boom that could last a decade or more.

“One of the biggest benefits to the oil boom is the jobs that lure young people back home,” said Williston Mayor Ward Koeser, including his son, a landman, who moved back to Williston with family.

And he said he’s happy to hear the drilling permits are up in Eastern Montana.

“Sidney and Williston are as close to sister cities as you’ll ever find,” he said. “I love it when we’re both doing well.”

Drugs and fights, too

The oil boom is just one reason the sheriff has no emergency budget left. The local hospital recently closed its mental health unit, forcing deputies to drive patients to Minot, two hours away, or even Jamestown, six hours away.

Methamphetamine certainly pre-dated the oil boom and, like rural areas everywhere, Williams County has “progressed” from small labs to bigger, more sophisticated operations, Busching said. In February, Busching’s deputies seized $30,000 and $300,000 worth of crystal meth.

Drug-testing standards among the top oil companies are tough and workers will be fired for any illegal drug exposure or for even having alcohol in a workers’ “man camp.” But the middle-level companies aren’t always so careful, Busching said.

Bar fights and domestic disturbances still top illegal drugs for law enforcement.

“They come from no-place Ohio. They have a home they can’t sell. They owe too much on it and they come here for work, but they don’t leave their problems behind,” Busching said.

The Williams County Sheriff’s Department has two detectives and a dozen deputies patrolling the roads crisscrossing 2,040 square miles. Busching needs to hire eight more deputies, but, like other employers, finding and keeping workers is a tough. The county can pay $36,000 to $38,000, plus benefits, and oil companies come in and hire them away at double or more those wages.

With virtually no affordable housing, even with big paychecks in their pockets, many workers can’t bring their families with them. Williston’s four RV parks are full. Three “man camps” house workers. Some live in storage containers where four workers were paying $800 each a month basically for a bunk bed and a large-screen TV.

 Halliburton Co., one of the world’s largest oil field suppliers with revenues last year of $14.7 billion, is building onto its Williston complex manned by some 600 workers and is starting its second “man camp” with housing hauled in from the Olympics in Vancouver, B.C. Due to suspension of deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico after BP’s deep-water well disaster, Halliburton recently said it was “redeploying our people and equipment to other areas of stable or increasing activity.”

Truck drivers who can’t find an apartment or hotel room routinely sleep in their cabs. A lone tent was pitched in front of a duct-taped car near Walmart and in early August, oil workers had pitched seven or eight tents outside the local ballpark. If you are seeking work in the oil fields, Busching said come with a job and a place to sleep lined up.

“The ones who think that this is the promised land where people plop down in town and somebody will take care of you, forget it,” he said.

Williston has eight hotels and motels, with three more on the drawing boards. A handful of subdivisions are proposed or under construction. And six apartment buildings with nearly 70 new units also are being built or planned for Williston, where rents have doubled or tripled.

“That is the most disturbing part of my job,” Koeser said, “dealing with little old ladies on Social Security paying $450 a month and suddenly now they have to pay $750,” adding that some have no choice but to move out of town.

A Williston home that sold for $55,000 during the last boom in the early 1980s was lucky to sell for $35,000 during the bust. Today, that residence could fetch $150,000. And the oilfield nouveau riche are building the town’s first mega-homes — one complete with a man-made lake and fountain on what was a deer-and-pheasant hill.

Cultural change

While oil field workers can be among the hardest-working employees to be found, there is a cultural gap with some.

Decades ago, the sharpest public rebuke in this region was “you’re different” and the offender would beg forgiveness.

On a blazing-hot, Fourth of July Sunday in a Sidney convenience store, a Southern accent wasn’t the first give-away that a 20-something oil field worker wasn’t from Montana. A black T-shirt with oversized white letters spelled out an obscene message. The worker stood near an elderly man dressed in a suit coat and skinny tie, apparently returning from church.

But truck traffic remains the most common complaint about the boom.

One 80,000-pound, five-axle truck has the same impact on roads and bridges as 9,600 cars. In 15 minutes by New Town, a community of fewer than 1,400 people about 70 miles southeast of Williston, one of Busching’s friends counted 57 oil rigs rolling by. At his home eight miles outside of Williston, the sheriff sold his family’s cars, which got torn up by the rough roads, and bought four-wheel drives.

“I live in nowhere North Dakota and I really enjoyed walking the dogs and losing a little weight last summer,” he said. “But I can’t do that now. It’s just not safe. Too many oil trucks.”

Fishing and hunting, the beauty of the two units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park along the Little Missouri River and a friendly, laid-back way of life hold people to this land. Development of any kind, especially across prairie this remote, stands out. At night now, dozens of natural gas flares light the once-pristine sky.

After leasing out the farming on his family’s Williston-area land, Carroll Hegge has been making his living as a landman in Montana and North Dakota. He spends his days tied to a computer to figure out who really owns the mineral rights. He and his wife, Pam Ritter Hegge, receive payments from their own oil interests. But they spoke almost in unison when they talked about changes to the land they love.

“Western North Dakota’s prairie will never be the same,” Hegge said.

Contact Jan Falstad at jfalstad@billingsgazette.com or 657-1306.

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