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Frack to the Future

Can small-town North Dakota survive an oil boom?

Jun 24, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 39 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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“Almost every time they drill a new well, they learn something new about that formation,” says Hynek. “And when they learn new things, they develop new technologies for extracting the oil.” The flow hasn’t stopped, either. In the first two months of 2013, oil production already far outpaced last year, and the number of active, producing wells has doubled since the end of 2008. Even in oil-rich places like Texas and Alaska, a miscalculation might give you a dry hole, a large, expensive well that produces no oil. You never hear about dry holes in North Dakota.

The fracking process is not without its drawbacks. After drilling is complete, the fracking fluid​—​water laden with chemicals​—​is pumped into the ground in deep reservoirs. In some places, there is a risk the fluid could seep into the groundwater, which is often used for irrigation and drinking water. Local leaders use this fact as a way to lobby the state for access to better sources of water than wells, like the Missouri River. Environmentalists decry not only the risk these chemicals pose to surrounding bodies of water but also the aesthetic damage to the Great Plains landscape, which from parts of the highway is dotted with seven-story drills, grasshopper pump jacks, and natural gas flare stacks.

But it’s impossible to ignore the overriding economic benefits of fracking. A study from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis found that in 2012, North Dakota had the fastest-growing economy in the country for the third straight year. The state’s growth rate of 13.4 percent was three times that of its closest competitor, Texas, and five times the rate of the country as a whole. North Dakota’s unemployment rate is under 3 percent, and the state’s population, which had been in decline since the 1930s, is at its highest since the Great Depression.

Before the latest boom, western North Dakota was aging, and not gracefully. While agriculture in the fertile Red River Valley, back east near Grand Forks and Fargo, kept the state afloat through the past half-century, the towns and communities of North Dakota’s oil country were shriveling away, especially after the boom of the late 1980s busted hard. Places like Williston, Keene, Stanley, and Watford City looked more like ghost towns every day. 

 “They were dying,” says Rob Port, an influential political blogger in Minot. “The oil went away. There’s not a lot of other employers. So a lot of the people went on disability or they had to move. It was very much dying.”

They may have been dying, but locals say the small-town ethos survived in these communities. For decades after America’s major cities were ravaged by crime, and even suburbanites learned to lock their front doors every night, a simpler way of life endured in western North Dakota. Neighbors watched out for each other and held each other accountable. “We’re accustomed to knowing everybody,” Dave Hynek says. “You’ve probably known not only their children, but you’ve known their parents and some instances their grandparents.”

Brent Sanford, the 41-year-old mayor of Watford City, is a fourth-generation North Dakotan descended from Norwegian homesteaders. After witnessing the post-oil-boom recession of his high school and college years, Sanford left home, working as a CPA and living in Fargo, Phoenix, and eventually Denver. But his home in Watford City was always on his mind.

“I didn’t like doing business in Denver, where a handshake meant nothing and it was like, there’s no trust,” Sanford says as we sit in the family car dealership he now owns. “It was like, ‘Here’s the keys for this car and here’s the title. Give me that cashier’s check.’ And, you know, boom, gone. You never see each other again. No trust at all. In a small town, there’s trust there. And mainly it’s out of the peer pressure that the person you’re dealing with across the table might be related to you or might be your wife’s best friend or your grandma’s best friend. It’s going to get directly back to them in two seconds, on either side of the table, if you’ve got a bad attitude or you’re crooked.”

In 2004, Sanford and his young family moved back to Watford City, and he immediately knew he was home. “When I moved from Denver to Watford, I walked down the street the first day, and I talked to more people than I had in three years in Denver. ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ ‘Brent, welcome home.’ All the way down the street,” he says.

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