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The Bakken Oil Boom and Watford City, North Dakota - Home Will Never be the Same
It was recently announced that North Dakota surpassed Alaska for the second top oil-producing state in the nation, ranked just below the oil king state of Texas.
The oil boom that is taking place in Western North Dakota is because of the oil drilled from the Bakken Shale Formation. Those in the industry have known about the large amounts of oil in that region since the 1950s but were not able to get at the oil with traditional drilling methods. It is due to the modern technology of horizontal drilling that this oil has been able to be pulled from underground. And now that the technology is there, oil production in the Bakken is currently at 450,000 barrels a day with projections of producing 1.2 million barrels per day by 2017.
Western North Dakota, including my hometown of Watford City located in McKenzie County has experienced an oil boom before but nothing to this magnitude. Many changes are taking place, some of them good and some of them not so good. Whether I like the changes or not, one thing is obvious - home will never be the same.
Increase in Population
It is hard for me to imagine that the little town of 1,700 in which I grew up now has a rush hour and experiences traffic jams. And the rush hour and traffic jams are only going to get worse as the once small town grows to a projected population of 7,500 people. This influx in population is not just happening in Watford City but in many communities in western North Dakota.
In this tough economy, people are flocking to the oilfields of the Bakken to find much-needed work. So many people, that there is a huge housing shortage leaving families to live in their campers or even their vehicles year-round. Most hotels in western North Dakota are filled to the hilt and man camps abound where ever they are permitted to be built.
Not surprisingly, the demand for housing has caused rent and prices for houses to skyrocket. When I lived in Watford City in 2000, my husband and I rented a 2-bedroom home with a basement and detached garage for $250 a month. This house was valued at $30,000. Today, in Watford City, a manufactured mobile home with 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms has an asking price of $375,000. And in Dickinson, 90 miles from Watford City in another hot spot for oil activity, a man who owns a four-bedroom home rents out 3 of his bedrooms for $800 each.
Those who own apartment buildings have dramatically increased their rent so that those who lived there can no longer afford to do so. Some roughnecks make close to $100,000 a year and they can easily afford the increased rates. But not so with those who don't have a lucrative job in the oilfield.
Business owners are desperate to hold on to and find new employees. In McKenzie County, people get paid $12 an hour for entry-level jobs at convenience stores and in Williston, Taco John's is paying their employees $15 an hour.
Increase In Crime
Unfortunately with the increase in population to western North Dakota and the surrounding area, comes the increase in crime. One of the most horrible crimes took place in Sidney, Montana when two men from Colorado in the area looking for work, kidnapped and killed a well-liked school teacher.
Just recently another tragedy took place in a campground were many oilfield workers were staying when a drunk driver ran over two boys sleeping in a tent and killed them. The two boys were up from Texas visiting their father who worked in the oilfield.
There has been an increase in traffic fatalities, domestic disputes and burglaries. According to the McKenzie County Sheriff's department, their workload has increased 213 percent. And now even new crimes like prostitution are making their way to the area. In 2012, there were eight prostitution arrests made in Watford City alone. One of the prostitutes had come all the way from New York. Besides prostitution, there is another new situation in the area - registered sex offenders coming here to work and to live. According to the state's sex offender website, 18 sex offenders are living in Watford City but only four are actually living within the corporate city limits.
Watford City Police Chief, Slade Herfindahl, says a broken sex offender registry system which isn't organized on a national level, but instead a state level, makes things very difficult to keep track of people moving into North Dakota from several other states. For instance, a satellite installer going into the homes of McKenzie County residents was not known to have been a high-risk sex offender in another state.
It wasn't so long ago that everyone in these small communities knew one another and looked after their neighbors. Now, people just don't feel safe and those who live in the country are locking their doors for the first time in their lives. Truly, home will never be the same.
But What about the Brutally Cold Winters?
We used to have a saying here in North Dakota when talking about our brutally cold winters - that they "keep out the riff raff." It is not unusual for it to be well below zero in the winter, sometimes with the wind chill making it feel like 50 below zero. Besides being cold, the winters can also be long, sometimes lasting from October through April
This past winter, we had one of the mildest winters on record and I think many of the out-of-staters who came here to work must have thought, well this isn't so bad. Thankfully for those living in their cars, it really wasn't so bad. But who knows what next winter will bring. I suppose in times of desperation, though, some will take on our tough winter season if it means having a job and making good money.
Is it All Really Worth it?
The crime, increased traffic, dealing with sex offenders and prostitution not to mention companies illegally dumping waste into our ditches, really makes one wonder if it is all really worth it. Many have decided it is not worth staying in the once peaceful, quiet communities of western North Dakota. I know of several people who have lived in Watford City for years and have up and moved to Bismarck and other towns east of the oil activity.
I personally am thankful that I live in North Dakota where we are doing so much better than the rest of the country during this time of high unemployment and financial crisis. However, I am not right in the middle of what is going on in western North Dakota and all the changes they are facing. Many of my friends who live there long for how simple life once was and they wished they didn't have to worry so much about their kids safety or their own safety for that matter.
I have mixed feelings because the oilfield has provided a livelihood for my dad and my two brothers. In fact, my dad has driven truck in the oilfield for over 30 years. I just wish that the people who foresaw all the oil production would have planned better for what was to come. And I don't think so many permits should have been issued to do the drilling on the land. Many people say it is "too much too soon."
Watford City was a great community in which to grow up and so it is that I can't help but feel deeply saddened that home will never be the same.