The Williston Basin lies beneath parts of Montana, North Dakota, and Saskatchewan. A rock unit called the Bakken formation occupies about 200,000 square miles of it. Originally described in 1953, it’s named after Henry Bakken, a farmer in Williston, North Dakota. He owned the land where the first drilling rig revealed the rock layers in 1951. As you may have heard, there are significant oil reserves in the Bakken.
The US Geological Survey has estimated that there are about 3.65 billion barrels of oil in the Bakken. More recent estimates suggest there could be up to 18 billion barrels.
The oil is wrapped in layers of shale, which initially frustrated extraction attempts. But petroleum engineers devised a fracturing method that overcame this problem. What they do is drill down and then horizontally into the rock, then pump water, sand, and chemicals into the hole to crack the shale and allow the oil to flow up. It was first used in 2007, quite successfully.
The result has been a population boom as people from neighboring areas, other parts of the country, and even overseas have rushed into North Dakota and Montana in pursuit of oil field jobs. John McChesney paints a picture of how life has changed for some residents of North Dakota.
Imagine you live in a small rural town worried for years about depopulation, and suddenly, overnight, the population doubles, and the newcomers are thousands of young men without families. Imagine that you live in a tiny town with one main street that doubles as a state highway.
That’s the situation in New Town, N.D., population 1,500 – at least, it was a couple of years ago. Today it’s anybody’s guess how many people live here, and no one knows how many 18-wheelers roll through every day, either. They just know it never stops.
McChesney says that for the people of New Town, it seems that every big tank truck in America is on the road here, making tens of thousands of trips a day hauling water, fracking fluid, wastewater and crude oil – and tearing up the roads.
It’s been described by one county official as the complete industrialization of western North Dakota. And it’s placing an incredible strain on the community there. Dan Kalil, chairman of the Williams County Commission, told McChesney:
They’re consuming all our resources. They’re consuming all our people looking for jobs. All the employee base is used up. Our roads system is being used up. All our water is being used up. All our sewage systems are being used up. They’re overwhelmed. All of our leadership time as local public officials is consumed with this.
And for the newcomers, life in the Bakken isn’t exactly what they had in mind, either. They often arrive with no money and nowhere to live. There’s not enough housing for them. Homeless shelters and churches are taking in some of the job-seekers but the need is overwhelming.
Some of the men are sleeping in their cars. Some have sleeping bags they roll out in the woods or in abandoned buildings. There are camps where people park RV’s they’re living in. But the water pipes and waste tanks on standard RV’s can’t handle the freezing temperatures. Super-insulated campers and trailers are just as hard to find as actual housing.
And let’s not forget: this is North Dakota, after all. One taste of winter in the Bakken sends some job-seekers back to where they came from.
In the meantime, housing prices are higher than they’ve ever been. Some of the local residents can’t afford to pay rent anymore. And crime used to be nearly nonexistent. Now crime rates have spiked across western North Dakota and eastern Montana, with an increase in vagrancy, “drunken and disorderly” charges, burglary, assault, property crimes, and prostitution.
“Men need servicing just as much as their machines,” one oil patch worker told Adam Luebke.
There have even been a couple of violent crimes that have made headlines in the area. A hitchhiker was wounded in a drive-by shooting while on US Highway 2, a major route in and out of the oil patch. A teacher from the oil patch town of Sidney, Montana, was allegedly kidnapped and murdered by two Colorado men on their way to the Bakken.
The oil industry is aware of what locals are going through and is making some PR efforts to keep people on their side, but their efforts aren’t as successful as they’d like. As John McChesney explained:
Back in New Town at a gathering of a few local residents, we met rancher Donnie Nelson, who had just paid $7 for a gallon of milk, one example of a price inflation here. He says patience here is wearing thin.
“Just about anybody I talk to that’s a neighbor – and some of them are getting wealthy – are sick of it. It’s never going to be the same in this country, and they’re starting to realize that we had it kind of good, even though we weren’t No. 1 in oil and we weren’t the No. 1 state economically,” Nelson says. “We had a good life up here.”