Growing Pains: Scenes from the North Dakota Drilling Boom
From Small Town to Boomtown
To understand the magnitude of the current oil and gas boom in North Dakota, you need only stand alongside U.S. Route 85 anywhere just north or south of Williston at night. The area’s 200 drilling rigs are lit up like carnival rides: towers of floodlights make up a luminous vertical cityscape amid the surrounding darkness. Semis hauling heavy equipment, pipe, water, fuel, oil, rigging, and any number of other loads roll past -- an unyielding train of oilfield supplies and products. And in the spaces where there aren’t semis, there are pickups hauling men back and forth to the drill sites.
Five years ago, say locals, this stretch of U.S. 85 was as quiet as a dance floor on a Tuesday morning, and the small towns of western North Dakota were drying up like shallow lakes in the desert. Now some are predicting that Williston, where fewer than 13,000 people lived a decade ago, could reach 35,000 by the year 2020. The more fevered projections have it eventually reaching 100,000 -- almost the size of the entire Bismarck metropolitan region.
Driving the population surge in North Dakota and in other energy-producing states are jobs. Scott Terrell drives a Volvo haul truck on a construction crew that builds the flat-as-a-table, laser-graded oil drilling pads that now dot the northern Great Plains like a dropped stack of playing cards. During the long light of summer, he spends 14 hours a day behind the wheel breathing dust. In the fierce cold, wind, and dark of the Dakota winter, the 58-year-old Terrell drives 12-hour days. He works three weeks on, then gets a week off to go home to his wife.
"When I leave, it’s as if I’ve never been here," Terrell says. "When I return, it’s as if I’ve never left. It’s sort of unreal when you’re away from it all. And the return just sucks you back into the whirlwind."
An underemployed painter and carpenter back in Idaho, Terrell says he’s grateful for a steady gig and a good place to live. He shares a bed and breakfast with four other oilfield workers in Sidney -- west of Williston, just over the Montana state line. His housemates come from Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Billings, Montana. The oldest is in his mid-40s, the youngest just 19.
The Saturday morning that Terrell and I meet for breakfast at Gramma Sharon’s Family Restaurant in Williston, every single seat is taken by men fueling up on eggs and chicken-fried steak before heading out to work. As he eats, Terrell acknowledges the dangers that go with the job of being one of the new breed of roughnecks in this era of fracking. He brings up a recent fiery explosion on a drilling platform that killed two young workers and badly burned two others. Drilling crews, he notes, routinely probe portions of the Bakken shale formation that are saturated with hydrogen sulfide, a lethal gas.
Even just driving to and from work is hazardous, he tells me. During its first year of operation, each drill site is served by an average of 2,000 round trips made by big trucks hauling equipment, chemicals, men, water, and materials. Taking into account the number of wells drilled last year, that’s nearly 110,000 round trips to well sites every single day. In short, the highways in western North Dakota are now packed with giant trucks moving very fast -- the principal cause for a marked increase in the state’s highway fatalities.
Almost 30 years ago, Terrell worked 100-hour weeks on Alaska’s North Slope. "We were a mobile exploration crew and worked -- minimum -- seven days at 14 hours per day, with a few extra hours usually thrown in," he recalls. "It was much more organized in Prudhoe Bay and the outlying oil fields and exploration areas, compared to the oil patch in the Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming. The fracking, and all that’s required with this process, makes it much more intense and heavy equipment-oriented." Hence Terrell’s ironic, uncomfortable name for his new workplace: The War Zone.
The heavy toll that this supercharged industrial advance is exacting on the land, the air, the water, human health, and the region’s sense of stability and security is easy to discern, if hard to measure. Waste pits overflow. Migratory birds are dying. New roads, pipelines, and drill sites are slicing the prairie. School buildings are overflowing with new students. A sense of personal menace is enveloping the area, whether from rising rates of fatal traffic accidents, or more crime -- including murder. In January, a 43-year-old teacher in eastern Montana was kidnapped while jogging near her home; her body was later found on a farmstead outside of Williston. That same month an oilfield worker was killed and dumped in a ditch in another town close by. The police arrested and charged out-of-state oil workers in both crimes.
When we finish breakfast, the line of customers waiting to pay their bills is so long that I simply leave cash on the table and slip out. I feel a little guilty doing it, like I’m violating the ethos of the place. That ethos is expressed on the hand-lettered sign next to the cash register. Please be patient, it urges in plaintive, neat cursive. We are short-staffed every day.