THE OIL VEIN - SPEARFISH, SOUTH DAKOTA / GLENDIVE, MONTANA
Gold: Men in all ages have lived for it, fought for it, died for it… It was gold that filled the Black Hills with tens of thousands of people drawn from all parts of the country and that gave to the State an impetus which still is felt.
—A South Dakota Guide (WPA, 1938)
You could say the same about oil today. Oil: We live for it, fight for it, die for it. It is oil that has filled the not-so-long-ago barren acres of North Dakota—just east of that state’s badlands—with tens of thousands of people drawn from all parts of the country.
The promise of gold in the latter half of the 19th-century made the region. Because after the gold veins stopped bleeding, people stayed and put down roots, even if they stayed only because they didn’t have the means to leave. Yes, there was (and still is) ranching—along with a dogged sense of self-sufficiency—but it was that shot at fortune, and therefore freedom, that gave the Dakotas its frontier spirit. And it’s what’s remaking the region now: the Bakken shale, stretching across 200,000 square miles with the city of Williston at its center, and its promise of 7.4 billion barrels of oil and 6.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
There’s gold in North Dakota.
—SPEARFISH, SOUTH DAKOTA—
Go to the Back Porch bar in Spearfish, South Dakota, and you just might meet Jake, in his big yellow tinted glasses and wild white mustache. Shake his hand and you’ll feel just three fingers in your grip. It’s a ghostly feeling, but one he doesn’t mind letting you experience.
The way Jake tells it, the other two digits were lost working in the oil fields during North Dakota’s last boom in the 1970s and ‘80s. He’s a Texan by birth and after he was discharged from the Army, he asked for a one-way ticket to the Dakotas—a place he’d never been—to follow the promise of work and oil.
He found it. Just not for long. In 1980, the price of oil was a record $40 a barrel. Thousands of workers flooded Williston and nearby Dickinson in North Dakota. But the high energy prices of the 1970s bottomed out and by 1986, the price dropped to $9 a barrel. The New York Times said, “when prices crashed…workers in the small city of Dickinson left the coffee in their cups when they quit their trailers.”
Today, the oil boom is again in Williston and Dickinson. What’s changed is that the price of a barrel of oil is again high and reserves that were previously inaccessible have been made accessible by hydraulic fracturing. First discovered in 1951 with only moderate prospects, the U.S. Geological Survey now calls the Bakken shale foundation the largest continuous oil accumulation it has ever seen.
There are stories of people coming from all over—as far away as Florida, even—to work the Bakken. On a Friday night about an hour and a half west of the shale in Glendive, Montana, the Beer Jug bar rail is lined with Coors Lite and Miller Lite cans, many claimed by oil workers who spend their days on the other side of the state line.
You start overhearing talk of the Bakken. And when the pyramid of cans is stacked high enough, it’s alright to ask questions. Out here, they might as well say the Bakken is better than Jesus. It’s a savior to a land that hasn’t had much since the last boom went bust. The bar talk is about $40 an hour jobs and an economy that will last 15, maybe 30 years—something to raise a family with.
A recent estimate puts over 40,000 oil industry jobs in North Dakota, plus an additional 18,000 jobs supporting the industry. The state has a three percent unemployment rate and the Williston region is around one percent. When you hear that, you say, “I’m moving to North Dakota.”
But, people out here know what follows the good times. This is a one-generation boom. The children of the workers today will not inherit their parents’ jobs. Many workers don’t even bring their families with them when they come to work the Bakken. So, the infrastructure is in a stasis. Looking at the landscape, investments are made in hotel building, where rooms can run you over $650 a week.
Service jobs are in such demand that McDonald’s pays a starting wage of $15 an hour. Strippers say they can earn more in one night of tips than most Americans take home in pay for a month.
Driving down Interstate 94—right through the Bakken—you ask yourself: what will happen once the region’s population grows 50 percent, as it’s predicted to, in the next 20 years and then disappears in the 20 years after that?
Map Note: “An aerial view of farmland dotted with oil rigs and pumps, near Ray, North Dakota, in 2009. The image is 11 miles across (north is to the left), and the contrast has been boosted to distinguish oil rig pads from farmhouses and natural features. See this region on Google Maps. (© Google, Inc.) (Source: The Atlantic.)
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Tom McNamara is the co-editor of THE AMERICAN GUIDE.