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Bakken oil well

An oilfield worker checks tanks at a well near Sidney. 

Even as the bottom fell out of the Bakken boom, Shawn Wenko saw good news in the economic statistics for Williston, America’s fastest growing small city during the oil days.

True, more than 6,000 jobs had vanished along with the high oil prices in October 2014. That’s when overproduction put more crude on the world’s plate than it could possibly consume. The housing shortage, which had oilmen living in camper trailer villages and shipping container man camps, disappeared. The vacancy rate for apartments swelled to 40 percent. Restaurants experienced a 30 percent drop in business.

Bakken Shawn Wenco

Shawn Wenco is the director of Williston Economic Development.

But something else happened, the oil workers who stayed started putting down roots, said Wenko, Williston's Economic Development executive director. Now the crude is making a comeback and Williston is ready to roll again.

“People who decided to make Williston their home started bringing their families in. So, things were slow, they started to lay people off, but school enrollment started going up,” Wenko said. “School enrollment is good, it’s strong. Our birth numbers are off the charts. A good year in Williston, back in the day we might have done 300 a year. We’re tracking about 800 a year right now with birth records.”

That number, 800, is a good birthrate statistic for a town of just under 30,000 people — and which was a population of only 12,000 a decade ago. If half those children grow up in Williston, there’s going to be a boom in child care jobs and the need for new schools. There were 2,302 students in Williston elementary schools in 2009. In 2015, there were 3,645.

There’s another area in which 800 is Williston’s lucky number: in drilled but uncompleted wells, or DUCs. When the oil boom went bust, companies walked away from hundreds of wells that had been drilled but never hydro-fractured. It’s the fracturing of the oil shale miles beneath the Western North Dakota plain that frees up Bakken oil. After a well is drilled deep and then horizontally, explosives are sent down to crack the earth. Then, sand and fluid is pumped into the fractured bore under high pressure to keep the opening from collapsing. Oil then seeps out of the shale into the void and is pumped to the surface.

Now that the West Texas Intermediate price of oil has risen above $50 a barrel, fracking crews are bringing those DUCs back online.

“We’re probably at about 15 frac crews in the state right now,” said Alison Ritter, of North Dakota Oil and Gas. “We’ll probably add about 10 more frac crews over the next year to get to 25.”

Each fracking crew employs about 40 to 60 workers. Another 40 to 50 people will hire on to service the job by trucking supplies to the site and hauling the tanker trailers of oil away once the wells come online. Ten more crews would mean 1,000 new jobs in the Bakken this year, Ritter said.

The growth is already being felt. Last summer, there were only five fracking crews in North Dakota.

The state is also expecting to add 10 or more drilling rigs to its current fleet of 41. The new rigs would bring another 1,200 jobs to North Dakota, as each drilling rig, boring new holes in the earth, employs 120 people.

“The estimate for the year is that we reach 50 rigs and 25 fracking crews and that’s about 2,200 jobs,” Ritter said. “And if the price of oil reaches $60 a barrel, while we don’t expect it to get to $60, we would see more rigs.”

Bakken rail yard

Red River Oilfield Services that operates the Stony Creek rail yard in Williston where oil field materials like frack sand are unloaded.

The number of drilling rigs working in North Dakota now is nothing like the 200-plus rigs working the oil play at the peak of the boom. But, there’s more activity than statistics let on, said Kent Ellis, who has worked in the oilfield for more than three decades. He now runs an office of land men, the people who track down mineral rights holders and arrange contracts with oil companies.

“The difference between a 2006 rig and ones now is the new ones can actually walk 40 feet and drill the next hole,” Ellis said. “They can almost do three times the work without having to be torn down and moved.”

Ellis is working with young North Dakotans entering the workforce, advising those interested on what college classes to take to get long-term jobs in the oil business. The demand for workers with two years of trade education in electronics, or science is growing.

The mood around Williston as the oil economy picks up is subdued, nothing like the frenzy around the community 10 years ago as the Bakken first fired up. Businesses are trying to adjust to the a commodity economy that fluctuates with global market prices.

“Obviously, we're a commodity-based market. So with the price of oil starting to keep up, we’re starting to see activity increase in the area,” Wenko said.

Bakken Curtis Shuck

Curtis Shuck is president of Red River Oilfield Services that operates the Stony Creek rail yard in Williston.

This time around, the services needed to support the oil industry are available locally, partly because oil companies established home bases in Williston, but also because local businesses, like the Stony Creek rail industrial park, developed services to accommodate future oil development.

“When people said it was slow, we opened up this rail yard. In their first year, about $168 million dollars of product went through there. It’s everything from the concrete to do the roads, the steel that’s building the bridge out here, the frac sand that’s coming in for the industry, shipping ag product out,” Wenko said. “The first year they did $168 million and last year they did just under a half billion dollars. So, it’s a lot of activity.”

Williston is expecting another growth spurt of 20 percent over the next decade, which would add 5,000 to 6,000 more people to the community.

“To me that’s manageable,” Wenko said. “It was tough back in the day when you were seeing 3,000 to 4,000 a year come here. It was just tough to keep up. I think it’s enough to help us fill the apartments up around here, it helps the single-family-home market and it helps some of these businesses pull the trigger.”

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