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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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Coming home years before the oil boom, Sanford was an anomaly. Most in his generation stayed in Fargo or Phoenix or Denver, working good jobs, raising their families, and not thinking twice about moving back to western North Dakota. Beyond the romantic notions of small-town life and refuge from the hustle and bustle of the big city, there was nothing there to come home to​—​no jobs, no industry, no future. The population of Watford peaked at just over 2,100 in 1980, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 1990, it had fallen to fewer than 1,800 people and by 2000, fewer than 1,500. 

By 2010, as the oil boom began to spread to the smaller towns like Watford, nearly as many people were living there as had been 20 years before. And today Watford City is bigger than it’s ever been, close to 2,500 people. Sanford says a lot of thirtysomethings originally from the area are moving back as he did, but plenty of new faces are coming, too, looking for a place to live in the middle of the oil patch. That’s created some tangible problems, like a housing shortage. New apartment complexes and single-family homes are starting to be built around town, but supply is far behind demand. Sanford says rents can reach $3,500 a month​—​prices more like those in a big city than in rural North Dakota. Locals rent out rooms in their houses to newcomers. “There’s not enough motels,” he says. “So every available bedroom becomes a motel room. Everything’s a hundred bucks a night.”

Traffic and crime have spiked, too. Decades-old roads and infrastructure were built for a population half the size of today’s. No one anticipated the fleets of trucks that now pass through town on a regular basis. And earlier in the week, Sanford tells me, a drunk set himself on fire outside a bar on Main Street. Drugs and prostitution, unheard of in a small town where everyone knows your business, are small but noticeable problems now. Watford City had four policemen when Sanford was first elected mayor in 2010. Now it has 10, and Sanford says they probably need 15. Many of the new cops in small Bakken towns are rookies from cities in Minnesota where budget crunches have cut police departments.

Well-drilling in the Bakken will continue for a few more years, but the important jobs of oil production, refinement, and distribution could remain in North Dakota for the long haul​—​maybe even the next 40 or 50 years. The industry will need a workforce of permanent employees. Sanford says that Watford City’s goal is to be a place for families to settle down. He’s optimistic that the new North Dakotans of the oil boom can revive and maintain the old spirit of Watford City​—​or at least give it a future it hadn’t had.

“My daughter’s a sixth-grader. There were five kids born that year, the year she was born. There’s 80 kids in her class now. Five kids in a generation? That’s no way to continue your community,” Sanford says. “So no matter what we think, this is better than that.”

Small-town America may have limped along during western North Dakota’s long, uneventful decline, but can it survive a boom? That’s on my mind as I drive across the state. There are times when the landscape looks like a Remington painting, the faded green and yellow hills rising softly above the flat prairie, a farmhouse planted proudly on the horizon. These are the scenes of Dave Hynek’s and even Brent Sanford’s childhoods. 

 But around a bend in the road, I’m looking at the new frontier. There, in the center of a field, is an active oil well, the pump jack swinging up and down in a steady, hypnotic rhythm. Next to the oil tanks, natural gas burns off in a brilliant flare you can see from a mile away. The farmer who owns the surrounding field is plowing right up to the oil company’s fence, his tractor circling the well with grudging deference. The farmer may have title to the land, but these days, the oil company controls the riches below.

“I don’t think it gets much better than this,” says Fred Evans, wearing a wide-brimmed cowboy hat and an infectious grin. “There’s action going on!”

Evans is the oil boom’s most enthusiastic local booster, and he’s been interviewed by almost every major news outlet about the benefits of oil and fracking. The owner of the TTT Ranch in Mountrail County, Fred and his wife Joyce became millionaires overnight when the oil companies moved into town. That’s not just because Evans’s ranch sits atop plenty of oil-rich reservoirs, which it does; he’s also taken advantage of North Dakota property law.

As the New York Times reported in its 2011 profile of Evans, the 75-year-old rancher spent years buying up the mineral rights of his neighbors. Property owners in the United States typically obtain not just the right to build, farm, and live on the surface of their property, but also title to the natural resources underneath. North Dakota is among the states where these mineral rights are severable from the surface rights. Selling your mineral rights is a bet against there ever being any resource of value, like gold, coal, or oil, under your land. In hard times in the past, a farmer might have sold his mineral rights to his neighbor for some much-needed funds. Evans, his faith in the eventual recovery of the Bakken’s oil fortune never wavering, spent years purchasing or leasing these mineral rights from his neighbors. When oil fever arrived in Mountrail County five years ago, Evans was able to lease all those mineral rights he had accumulated to the exploration companies and reap the royalties. For those with Evans’s foresight, it’s been a bonanza. But for those who made the wrong bet and sold their rights?

“Those are the people that I feel sorry for,” says Dave Hynek, shaking his head. “I really do. They have virtually no say in the matter. Minerals take precedence over surface, and that’s the law. In most instances, the mineral owner and the oil exploration company try to do a reasonable job of compensating those surface owners, but in some instances it just simply doesn’t work. There can be enormous hard feelings created [over] that.”

This facet of the boom has transformed the formerly egalitarian social structure of the agrarian society. As I’m waiting to pay for my sandwich at the Subway in Stanley, I see Fred Evans open his wallet to pay for his. While the cashier is counting out the change, Evans pulls a pair of tens out of his wallet and unceremoniously drops them in the plastic tip cup that’s otherwise filled with ones and coins.

It takes a while to get back on the highway, with one big rig after another zooming down the tired asphalt, their tanks filled with oil, rushing eastward to distribution centers in Minot, Bismarck, Grand Forks, or Fargo. Meanwhile, I’m headed west, toward Williston, the alpha boomtown and the heart of the Bakken. The signs of development begin miles outside of Williston city limits, chiefly in the form of brand-new, full-service truck stops. Ten miles from the city center there’s an extended-stay hotel that offers rooms with full kitchens for $599 a week. That’s high, but so are the salaries. At the new, massive Walmart down the street, there’s a help wanted sign offering entry-level jobs with starting wages at $17.50 an hour. Restaurants, bars, hotels, gas stations, retail shops all line the main drag into town, each with its own “Help Wanted” sign. There’s work here, if you can find a place to live. 

It’s not unheard of for men to sleep in their cars in a lot behind a truck stop, using the facilities to steal a shower when they can. There are also the infamous “man camps,” some of which are exactly what they sound like, tent cities on the outskirts of town. They house temporary workers, roughnecks who took the tough jobs on the drilling rigs and need a place to park their carcasses at the end of the day. But as demand for temporary housing rose and locals became weary of the unsightly settlements, the man-camp professionals came in. Companies like Target Logistics manage collections of modular homes for oil workers and other temporary laborers, complete with full board, on-site laundry and canteens, and 24-hour security. In North Dakota, these man camps can house anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand workers. When the temporary jobs dry up, the companies pack up the supplies, put wheels under the trailers, and move on to the next boomtown.

On the northern rim of Williston is the next phase in the development of a boomtown in transition. Turning off Dakota Parkway onto 26th Street, the older apartments and trailer parks thin out to reveal Williston’s second boom: housing. Specifically, single-family homes. Thousands of lots have been cleared. New subdivisions have been partitioned, streets and sidewalks paved. The suburbs have come to the Bakken. Plenty of the new houses are already occupied, and it even looks like some of the major energy companies have purchased homes for their workers. My eye catches a completed neighborhood of charming (if seemingly out of place) pastel-painted two-story houses. Parked outside each and every one is a white pick-up truck with red letters on the door: “Halliburton.”

I meet a subcontractor in Williston named Bobby Solarz, a 30-year-old Minnesotan. He’s the only gringo working on an all-Mexican crew, installing cabinetry in a couple of housing developments. He takes me into a house he’s been working on. A ranch-style with three bedrooms and a basement, the home is cozy and would be a welcome change for an oil rig worker stuck in a man camp and looking to move his family up from Louisiana. Solarz doesn’t know how much this house is selling for, or even if it’s already been purchased, but homes like these are going for more than $300,000. That may sound like more than they’re worth, but it’s closer to affordability than most have seen in four years in Williston. As in Watford City, the housing supply is coming, slowly.

Solarz, meanwhile, lives with his crew in a mobile home less than a mile from the neighborhood where he’s been working. It’s an unofficial man camp. “I walk to and from work every day,” he says. “It’s not that bad.” His rent’s cheap, but he sleeps on the closet floor of a bedroom housing four others. The Mexican food his crewmates cook up every night is a big plus, he says, but he likes to get out to a couple of the good bars and restaurants when he can.

Some nights, Solarz ends up in one of the city’s two strip clubs, Whispers or its next-door neighbor, Heartbreakers, with the rest of Williston’s unattached males. There’s a sign on the door of Heartbreakers that says the club is closed temporarily for “repairs.” The real story, I’m told, is that there was a shooting in the club a few weeks back. That’s why the bouncer at Whispers frisks every guy who enters.

Five years in, Williston is desperately trying to move on from the Wild West period of boom, away from the strip clubs and seedy bars that men without wives and families and real homes frequent​—​and where they frequently get in trouble. That’s the philosophy behind the plan for the Williston Area Recreation Center, a multimillion-dollar facility near the state college. The rec center, opening up next year, promises an indoor water park, tennis courts, basketball courts, batting cages, meeting rooms, two pools, a fitness center, and much more. It’s the kind of building project a growing, prosperous city undertakes, and it’s the kind that might sell a city in the middle of nowhere to a reluctant wife or girlfriend.

One afternoon, I drive downtown, past the rec center and new hotels and restaurants into old Williston, a city that came of age in the 1950s, during the first oil boom. All along Main Street sit relics of Williston’s past. There’s the postwar modernist First Lutheran Church, with its tan bricks and freestanding bell tower. Farther down the road is a two-screen movie theater and another tan brick building, an Eisenhower-era J. C. Penney still with its original block-letter signage.

At the southern end of Main Street, near the train station, is a tiny city park. In the middle of the park is a restored locomotive of the class that once pulled cars through Williston along the Great Northern Railway. It’s a reminder of how the rail industry tamed the frontier and helped build cities like Williston at the turn of the 20th century. Two young men who work for the city are watering the freshly planted flowers that surround the park’s tidy courtyard. If the locomotive is a symbol of Williston’s past, the immaculately landscaped park is a sign, like the rec center across town, of its promising future.

Suddenly, I spot something in the engine’s shadow. It’s two men, wearing oil-stained blue coveralls, passed out side by side on the manicured lawn. Whispers is only a block or so away. There’s a half-empty soda bottle between them. Not even the loud horn of a passing freight train rouses them.

Michael Warren is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.

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