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Page added on January 30, 2014

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Oil Boom: See A Modern-Day Gold Rush In Motion


Credit: Ritter Brothers, a jewelry and gift store in Williston, N.D., sells miniature oil rigs and other oil-related novelties. (Annie Flanagan for NPR)

If you’ve seen any coverage of North Dakota’s oil boom, you’ve seen the images — oil rigs, truck traffic, “man camps,” miles of temporary housing.

But there is something about this place that just can’t be captured by a still photograph. It’s a feeling you get when you cruise down an endless highway under a vast, big sky — until suddenly: BOOM. You’re wedged between semitrucks dwarfing what was once a quiet farm town.

A car drives along the North Dakota horizon.

Credit: The road to North Dakota’s booming towns like Williston is long; the countryside is vast. (Annie Flanagan for NPR)

A monument of Abraham Lincoln

Credit: A cracked monument of Abraham Lincoln recently appeared just outside of Williston. Locals say they’re not sure where it came from. (Annie Flanagan for NPR)


Credit: The “horsehead” pump of an oil rig has become a common feature along the rural North Dakota skyline. (Annie Flanagan for NPR)

Everywhere you look you see windows peppered with “help wanted” signs. And as thousands rush to the new jobs, affordable housing becomes nearly nonexistent and the state’s social fabric begins to fray.

We commissioned photographer Annie Flanagan, currently based in Williston, N.D. — the heart of the boom — to capture what it feels like to be a part of it. Her visual reporting reminds us that there is nothing natural about the impact of an economic boom; familiar landscapes are forever altered.

Patrons of Lonnie's Roadhouse Cafe

Credit: Patrons of Lonnie’s Roadhouse Cafe — almost all men — eat before work. (Annie Flanagan for NPR)

Stirring coffee at a diner in Williston, N.D.

Credit: Lonnie’s Roadhouse Cafe is a popular spot for a quick coffee before heading to work in Williston. (Annie Flanagan for NPR)

Diners at Lonnie's Roadhouse Cafe

Credit: Downtown Williston is bustling early in the morning. (Annie Flanagan for NPR)

“Hey, buddy — wanna buy an oil well?”

A few decades ago, you would have probably been wise to run away from that come-on as fast as your feet could carry you. But if it came in the past half-dozen years in the western Great Plains, you might have been smart to get out your checkbook.

That’s because of in western North Dakota. And it’s so big, so diverse and apparently so unstoppable that it’s changing that state’s fortunes, landscape and arguably its very being.


Credit: A smoke break outside of K K Korner Lounge in Williston. (Annie Flanagan for NPR)


Credit: Jay Dalton, 62 (left), and his nephew Brett Dalton, 32, came to Williston from Utah for work. (Annie Flanagan for NPR)


Credit: The “horsehead pump” of an oil well at dusk. (Annie Flanagan for NPR)

This used to be largely windswept farm and ranching country. But now the pursuit is of “black gold,” as The Beverly Hillbillies‘ Jed Clampett might say. “Oil, that is.”

And lots of it — trapped in the Bakken shale formation, an immense underground “rock unit” that geologists figure could contain billions of barrels. For the past half-dozen years, tens of thousands of people have flocked to the harsh region, seeking their piece of the oil-rush pie.

North Dakota has seen oil booms before — and the inevitable busts that accompany them. But for many people rushing to the western part of the state, this time feels very different, in part, because the price of oil has hovered around $90 to $100 a barrel for some time now. And because new technologies — including the most environmentally controversial, — make the oil and gas much easier to reach and extract in huge quantities.


Credit: Stanley Baker, 18, moved with his father from Utah to Williston to work in construction. (Annie Flanagan for NPR)


Credit: Construction workers lay foundations for new housing units on a site outside of Williston. (Annie Flanagan for NPR)


Credit: Townhomes in Sleepy Ridge, one of many new neighborhoods in Williston. (Annie Flanagan for NPR)

The upheaval felt by many North Dakota residents is dramatic and palpable. Watford City, a once-sleepy farm town of 1,500 people in 2010, now has an estimated 10,000 residents.

The lack of enough affordable housing has become a keystone issue throughout the region. As many as 1,000 people are living in their cars and trucks. “Man camps” have sprung up as last-resort housing for oil workers. Even the shoddiest motel room can fetch in excess of $200 a night — and good luck finding a tiny one-bedroom apartment for less than $1,500 a month.

Pouring drinks at K K Korner Lounge in Williston, N.D.

Credit: The oil industry has brought lots of jobs and money to Williston, but not much in the way of entertainment. (Annie Flanagan for NPR)

Patrons at K K Korner Lounge in Williston

Credit: Patrons pass the time at K K Korner Lounge. (Annie Flanagan for NPR)

Playing pool at K K Korner Lounge in Williston, N.D.

Credit: Ed Wespanick, playing pool at K K Korner Lounge, moved to Williston in 1973. (Annie Flanagan for NPR)

And that’s for the people who have jobs. Those who don’t risk ending up homeless in a part of the state with few social service resources or strong safety nets.

And then there’s the jump in reported crime and prostitution. A record number of domestic violence calls to overtaxed police departments. Overcrowded schools, and strains on social services. The nonstop parade of loud, heavy trucks and equipment on roads not designed to carry them.


Credit: Another common feature along the North Dakota skyline: gas flares, where excess natural gas is burned off at an oil well. (Annie Flanagan for NPR)

A drilling station outside of Willison, N.D.

Credit: A drilling station outside of Williston at night. (Annie Flanagan for NPR)

The road to North Dakota country at night.

Credit: Traffic quiets down after dusk, just outside of Williston. (Annie Flanagan for NPR)

Yet North Dakota is awash in oil money: More than $200 million in oil-related taxes went to the state and local governments just last year, and the per capita income there doubled in just the past decade to $55,000.

But how long will this last? And with oil money and the explosive growth it sparks affecting nearly everything it touches, what other economic, social, political and environmental changes are up next as entrepreneurs continue to dig deep in one of the nation’s most remote places?


4 Comments on "Oil Boom: See A Modern-Day Gold Rush In Motion"

  1. DC on Thu, 30th Jan 2014 2:33 am 

    200 million in taxes eh? Does that necessarily mean that ND is is ahead of the game? According to some reports Ive read, many of these (uS) states are spending at least as much subsidizing these sorta-oil operations as they are making from them in taxes. They build roads for them, run water, and provide all sorts of services for(free), that in a real free-market economy, oil corporations would have to actually pay for. This nothing unusual of course, govts have been providing free riders for auto\oil corporations for over a century now. But I would really be interested to see what the balance of taxes\subsidy support for oil corporations in these not-oil booms truly is. Wouldnt you?

    While I would never dispute that *some* people are indeed making money during this artificial ‘boom’, that does not mean it is NET benefit to everyone. And that is an important distinction.

    For example, in Canada the tar-sands are indeed, making some people overly high wages. A situation I dont doubt the recipients think is just dandy. However, the govt of Alberta is STILL losing money, nor does the nation as whole make money. 1.5 billion in direct subsidies at the national level, and so many direct and indirect subsidies by the province of alberta itself, that the govt still runs consistent deficits.

    Perhaps the situation is similar in the uS of Coal and War vis-a-vis these shale-frak ‘booms’? Given the epic corruption and fraudulent accounting practices down there, why would the situation be any different than it is in Alberta\Canada?

    Like the wall animated gifs of grizzled old amerikan red-necks smoking there benzene sticks in greasy spoon diners? Fancy eh?

  2. rockman on Thu, 30th Jan 2014 1:08 pm 

    Good timing for this story. They’ve been running stories about some locals in ND on NPR the last few days. On the flaring issue obviously it would be better to pipe all the NG out. But from an environmental/GHG stand point the NG would still be burned…just burned somewhere else. Currently about 25% of the NG produced in ND is flared…the rest is being shipped out. But at least there would be the energy gain to the system. OTOH that’s exactly why they are flaring the NG: the energy gain from producing the oil. And time isn’t really the issue: if the NG was commercial they would lay the pipeline quickly. Time in the oil patch is like in most businesses…it’s money. For the most part the small NG reserves would never be sold.

    But now the striking aspect of the two latest stories on NPR. Two land owners went on about how the boom has changed life on their property: the noise, the traffic, the flares making it difficult to see the stars at night, the “ugliness” of the drilling rigs and pump jacks, etc. etc. We’ve all heard the valid complaints. But what was interesting was what both reports let slip: neither land owner was forced to put up with the inconvenience. They VOLUNTARIALLY leased their ranches. Leases that are making them $millions of dollars in royalty. Apparently whatever they gave up was worth that “mail box money” they get every month. I can understand the complaints of folks who don’t get those royalty checks (or those paychecks) but in the case of the two NPR stories all that was highlighted was the hypocrisy of those two landowners.

    If the N Dakota govt is footing the bill for oil patch infrastructure they are fools. I’ve drilled for almost 4 decades in Teas and La. and neither state has spent a penny building anything for me. OTOH I’ve spent $millions building lease roads, improving flood control systems and giving water wells to landowners. And the counties I’ve drilled in used the taxes I paid them to improve their infrastructure. Just two weeks ago I met with school officials in a very small town that asked me to present my estimate of the cash flow they would be getting from my new well. They’ve got a number of projects that have been on hold for years they are now hoping to get down with the taxes from my well. Both Texas and La. have received many $BILLIONS over the years from oil/NG severance taxes. That doesn’t even include corporate taxes. At one point those production taxes subsidized about 90% of the costs of the Texas university system. Granted it’s been 40 years but when I went to grad school at Texas A&M my tuition was $150/semester. Not per hour of course work…for all my course work for the semester.

    And this carries over to why I have little sympathy for the folks in PA that complain about how much oil patch activity is costing local and state govt in repairs, etc. Unlike Texas and all other states, PA has never collected a penny of production taxes. Two years ago I estimated that if PA charged the same severance tax as Texas (which is significantly less than La. charges for oil production) the state and counties would have gotten over $280 MILLION. That would fix a lot of potholes.

  3. rockman on Thu, 30th Jan 2014 5:08 pm 

    And I should have pointed out that the $280 million was for just that one year. It would have been even more for last year.

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