Gas, Oil Booms Bring Complications To Small Towns

Guests

John McChesney, former director of the Rural West Initiative, Bill Lane Center for the American West, Stanford University

Ann Chambers Noble, historian and longtime resident of Pinedale, Wyo.

The discovery of oil and natural gas in Wyoming, Colorado and North Dakota has created a new generation of boomtowns. The explosive growth generated by the oil and gas drilling is often accompanied by an influx of new labor. The small towns near the fields wrestle to balance the economic advantages of the boom with the dramatic changes it brings to these tight-knit communities.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. There's a new generation of boom towns across the American West sparked by the explosive growth of oil and natural gas. When these industries move in, small towns near the fields change almost overnight. Once-sleepy main streets suddenly boast improved schools, libraries and community centers. Quiet rural airports expand to take corporate jets. Restaurants and motels and hardware stores all thrive.

But the infusion of cash doesn't come without complications. Outsiders double or triple the population. Service industries include prostitution and drugs. The air and water can suffer. And then what happens when the wells run dry?

If you've lived in a boom town, we want to hear from you. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, we continue our Oscar docs series. "The Invisible War" focuses on sexual assault in the U.S. military.

But first boom towns. Ann Chambers Noble is a longtime resident of Pinedale, on the edge of the gas fields in Wyoming's Green River Valley. She documented the town's history for a book on Pinedale's centennial and joins us now by phone from Rock Springs. Good to have you with us today.

ANN CHAMBERS NOBLE: Well, thank you very much for having me.

CONAN: And is there one moment for you that captures the rapid change that you saw in Pinedale?

NOBLE: Well, it did seem to happen awfully fast. And it was in about 2000, the year 2000 - our sleepy, quiet, dusty, isolated little cow town was changed really rather rapidly and stayed changed for several years, well over the decade.

CONAN: Well, what happened, for example?

NOBLE: Well, I think before - I'm going to give you a quick geography lesson that our county, for which this gas boom occurred, is Sublette County, and it is almost the size of Connecticut. So we're talking a very big, very isolated mountainous area in western Wyoming. And in this county, just before the boom, there were only about 6,000 people living there, half of them divided between two towns, Big Piney in the South and Pinedale in the North, and the rest of them were like myself and my family, on isolated little cattle ranches.

So when you only have 6,000 people in that kind of space, and when you suddenly double and triple the population, it has a huge impact on absolutely everything: our schools, our medical clinics, our streets, our housing. And it was a very stressful time.

CONAN: You raised four children in Pinedale. Tell us about some of the changes to the school.

NOBLE: Well, they were all girls, and when they were real little, they believed, and they did, live in a very, very safe community, very safe town, and they knew they could walk anywhere at any time, and it was never a problem. But when as a parent all of a sudden your children are about middle school or high school, and there's a tremendous amount of usually men coming to the community from different parts of the country, you're not sure you want your daughters walking all over town at any time.

Well, I also though refer to this time in our history, and it has ended, we - one thing about a boom, there is always a bust, and we're in the bust now, is that I always stole a line from Charles Dickens that it was the best of times and it was the worst of times.

The best of times is referring to the money and the jobs that were available It's nice to live in a community when you can have all the money you want. We have beautiful facilities, beautiful schools. And in the classroom are smartboards, every kid has a computer, our wonderful hot lunches cost us 50 cents, our breakfasts were 25 cents. And we're not on any aid, this is just the school covering everything for us because they have plenty of money. And we were paying our teachers very, very high salaries.

The downside was those teachers were really earning absolutely every extra penny they were earning because the classroom setting was perpetually changing. Every week there were new kids coming in, other kids leaving out. The population was constantly in transition during - for years, all through the 2000s.

And that's hard on us old-timers, that's hard on those new kids, and that's got to be very hard on those teachers.

CONAN: We're talking about boom towns. If you've lived in one, give us a call. Tell us what happened to your town, 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org. Let's go to Scott, Scott's on the line with us from Fairbanks.

SCOTT: Yeah, hello.

CONAN: Hi.

SCOTT: Yeah, I've been here nine years. You know, I didn't live through the boom of the - building an oil pipeline, but I've sort of seen the aftermath. And, you know, what happens is that all the, you know, salaries are raised to get people to move up here, and then, you know, when the boom ends, you know, people - the state has to figure out how to attract people in the university and the hospitals without the same wage level.

And then the downtowns - the downtown of Fairbanks has really suffered. You know, you have all this infrastructure, a lot of it's vacant or rundown, and you've got to figure out what to do with abandoned buildings, and you're still paying, you know, for services on those things, but the city is left with a big price tag.

And it can hurt, you know, the local government. Even though you enjoyed a big tax base for a while, it can really hurt in the aftermath.

CONAN: I visited Fairbanks just last summer, and you're right, the downtown area, it looks like - a lot of shuttered storefronts.

SCOTT: Yeah, that's exactly right. So there's got to be - you know, the boom is great, but there has to be a lot of planning by the city fathers and mothers to make sure that they put money away and decide what's going to happen after the boom has passed.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it. Ann Chambers Noble, any indication the powers that be in Pinedale have done that kind of planning?

NOBLE: I do have to take hats off to our government leaders, all the way from the mayor to the county commissioners to the governor. Our governor during the boom, Dave Freudenthal, visited all of the communities and really pushed us hard to be pro-active about this boom that was coming, to be proactive rather than reactive.

And hats off to, for instance, our county commissioners that built all these beautiful big structures. At the time they were making the budgets for building these - our buildings, they at the same time put in at least a 30-year maintenance fund for them. So we fortunately, because of the great leadership from the state all the way down to the mayors, we did put in some good safety belts for that.

But our whole state history has been boom and bust. So we've had a little bit of practice at this. Not Pinedale, but at least we tried to learn from our neighboring towns.

CONAN: Our former NPR colleague John McChesney recently stepped down as director of the Rural West Initiative at Stanford's Bill Lane Center for the American West, where he reported and wrote about boom towns. He joins us now from member station KRCB in Rohnert Park, California. John, nice to have you on the program. John, are you there? I guess we're going to try to re-establish contact with John McChesney at KRCB and see if we can get him set up and get him on the program.

Let's see if we get another caller in on the conversation. John's on the line, John with us from Rapid City.

JOHN: Hi, great to be on the program. It's kind of deja vu all over again with the oil boom in Williston. I lived there back in late '70s, early '80s, during the last boom, and I remember there being these large fields that used to hold trailer house complexes now being empty and kids in high school racing up and down the streets; there were no speed limits.

Apartment buildings that were, I mean row after row of apartment buildings that were abandoned and were later bulldozed because of the shoddy construction work. I'm kind of thinking, you know, is all that going to happen again in Williston?

CONAN: Well, have you been out there recently? Is it - is the building quality the same?

JOHN: You know, I was up there just last summer, and I didn't get off to see any of the additional apartment buildings that were built, but the growth was exponential, the traffic was frightening. And it was just - there was, like, shades of deja vu all over again.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much, we'll have to see what happens there in Williston. And Ann Chambers Noble, in Pinedale, part of the package that, along with the boom, came a lot of environmental damage.

NOBLE: Yeah, that was probably the hardest for us locals to accept. There is the immediate doubling of the population that was scary enough to deal with, but you could try to at least handle that. But when it really got scary for many of us is when our air quality became very, very poor. In fact we had ozone levels that matched really the poorest of inner city like Los Angeles. And it was very dangerous.

And we didn't quite know how to handle it. Do you not let your kids go to ski practice because breathing in this air is very bad when we live in these pristine mountains? And that was probably some of the hardest part to deal with.

And then there was also lots of concerns, which we still don't even know the effects yet, of whether all of this quick drilling, massive drilling, what impact it had on our water as well. I mean we're in the headwaters of the Green River. We're in the most pristine environmental part of the world, and yet we were horrendously impacted in the environment because of all this drilling.

CONAN: And that's the controversy over fracking, not just there in and around Pinedale, but of course up in North Dakota as well. I think John McChesney, is on the line with us. John, are you there?

JOHN MCCHESNEY: I hope so.

CONAN: Good to talk to you again. Hi John, how are you doing?

MCCHESNEY: Hi.

CONAN: We've had - as Ann Chambers Noble was saying, this is a long history of boom and bust, not just in Wyoming but throughout the American West, and depending on the industry, well, gold towns turned into ghost towns. And what's different about this round?

MCCHESNEY: Well, let's talk about North Dakota because North Dakota is a little different from what's going on right now in Wyoming. People in North Dakota think this new horizontal drilling and fracking boom up there is going to last 20 or 30 years. You have to re-frack these wells over and over again.

So normally you go through a place, a point where you stick a straw in the ground and suck oil out, and then it goes away, the production goes way down. But up in North Dakota they're expecting this to last for a considerable period of time, 20 to 30 years.

Now, no one really knows whether that's going to happen. If the price of oil drops below 70 or 60 dollars a barrel, the enthusiasm for drilling up there may drop off. But what happens in these situations is there's no forward planning ahead of time.

People in these areas know that drilling's going to happen, and you'll find very few people who are just totally opposed to drilling there. What you do find is: Why can't we plan ahead? Why can't we pace this so that the local governments can adjust themselves to the impact? And that doesn't happen.

Over and over and over again, everything, as Ann said, is overwhelmed. Local governments, what used to be part-time jobs suddenly become, you know, 12-hour-a-day jobs. And there's no pay for that. Schools are overwhelmed not only in terms of the number of students, but the wages that teachers earn are not commensurate with the rents that are in the area.

Schools up in North Dakota are thinking about building their own housing now in order to compete with the housing prices that the oil boom has created. Health care systems are overwhelmed. They're not only overwhelmed by numbers and the horrendous accidents that happen when an 18-wheeler chews up a passenger vehicle, which happens all the time in North Dakota, they're overwhelmed by bad debt.

The folks who move in there don't have permanent addresses, they don't have - they only have cell phones. I talked to...

CONAN: John? We have to take a short break, John. We'll have more with you and with Ann Chambers Noble in just a minute. Stay with us. This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News; I'm Neal Conan. This hour we're talking boom towns, oil and gas. These days, they're mostly the result of oil and gas discoveries. It's hardly a new concept, though. The Western gold rush in the mid- to late 1800s produced a number of boom towns like Bodie, California.

That little town in the Sierra Nevadas was formed in 1861 after William S. Bodey discovered gold. Miners didn't find much else until 1875, when a cave-in revealed a rich vein of ore. The rush was on, and Bodie's population swelled with families, miners, entrepreneurs, crooks and prostitutes. Then it was known as the most lawless, wildest and toughest mining camp the far West has ever known.

But two fires wiped out much of the town, and now Bodie is one of America's most famous ghost towns. If you've lived in a boom town, we want to hear from you. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

John McChesney, who just stepped down as director of the Rural West Initiative; and Ann Chambers Noble, author of "Pinedale, Wyoming: A Centennial History" are our guests.

I wanted to read this email we got from Bob in Seattle: I'm an experienced truck driver. I've heard about the job market in North Dakota for years. I was interested in working there but decided not to. That's the thing for me: What about winters there? What's the working conditions - the working conditions like? It would be one thing if after working there for five years I could retire at age 44, but that's not how it works.

Further, the cost of living is a big issue. A well-paying job working 70 hours a week that also comes with a very high cost of living still makes you poor. Why would I want to be poor? The same things apply to workers that earn less than truck drivers, like those working at McDonald's or cleaning people. What's the quality of life for them?

And John McChesney, you hear about these fabulous job opportunities in places like North Dakota. Is Bob right, or is it less than what it looks like?

MCCHESNEY: Well, I think there are fabulous job opportunities there and especially for truck drivers, but you're going to have to live in rather austere circumstances, probably in a man camp or - you know, which is temporary housing, where you live with a lot of male drivers and male oil workers. And the wages are good, and you can probably put money away.

The roads are terrible. The chances of accidents are very high. The hospitals are overburdened with accidents between 18-wheelers and passenger cars. So there's a - it's a mixed bag, but basically you can make good money there driving.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Teresa(ph), Teresa from Beaufort, South Carolina.

TERESA: Yes, hello, thank you. I lived in Pinedale for 17 years. I left it six years specifically because of the boom. It was - it hurt, Tom(ph), it just hurt. The nature - things - the degradation that I saw, there was a 13-to-one ratio of men to women with the man camps that came in. They're not just - they weren't, when I left, temporary structures. They're still up.

There was a huge - we called it big brown cloud that just, as I think was mentioned, the pollution that just never went away. The intrinsic beauty of the place was to me being raped and pillaged. Every day I watched an oil rig, another one, go up in the mesa and the roads and the trucks. And it was endless and ceaseless. It never stopped.

It was all for, I imagine, making money or the good of the country, but I who lived there did not feel that, and I left because it was not the place I knew it to be, and it would never return because once you take nature, once you tear it apart, you just can't get that back. It won't come back. And it saddens me because I really loved being in Wyoming.

And yeah, that's what I have to contribute to that. Thank you.

CONAN: All right, Teresa, thanks very much for the call. And Ann Chambers Noble, there are some of those trailer camps still around Pinedale.

NOBLE: Right. It - we have some big, beautiful, gorgeous structures as a result of the money from the gas fields, no doubt about it. But yes, there's definitely a lot of homes in foreclosures and buildings that are no longer in use. But could I just add a comment: You're talking about those wonderful high-paying jobs that the gas fields did bring to the community, and that is very true.

But that also became a huge burden for people like my husband and I, who have cattle ranches there, because we couldn't begin - we weren't getting any more for our cattle, and we couldn't begin to compete for wages with what the gas fields were paying. So we were very labor-starved. We couldn't begin to compete with the gas companies when it came to getting parts for our tractors, or if our trucks broke down, we couldn't afford - now the mechanic that used to be $50 an hour was now $200 an hour, and he was plenty busy with work out in the gas fields.

So that - those increased wages may have been great for those temporary workers, but for the local businesses, it was a huge burden, and it's one we still have not recovered from.

MCCHESNEY: And that, Neal, is true in spades up in North Dakota. The schools, the hospitals and the police and ancillary service workers cannot compete in the wage market created by an oil field. So teachers are being recruited in there and being housed - the last time I was up there, there was discussion of the schools buying housing for their teachers so that they could actually live there.

Police come in there, they've been recruited from academies across the country, they get there, and they discover they can make a lot more in the oil field than they can driving in a cruiser, and they leave. And in the hospitals, the support workers who, you know, do all the scut work in a hospital, the hospitals can't compete. It's a really difficult situation in terms of wages.

CONAN: Leanne(ph) is on the line with us from San Antonio.

LEANNE: Hi Neal, thank you for this program. Yeah, I live down in a tiny town called Falls City, right in the middle of the Eagle Ford Shale. And everything you all are saying, it's true. It's what we're living right now. And what's so frustrating to me is I say this and hear what's happening in the rest of the country, and I see it happening, but it's like the first time anyone's heard about it.

When you complain to the railroad commission about the environmental concerns, the traffic, the rent, all these costs to our little community, it's like it's the first time it's happened. And I don't understand. Why isn't there some sort of support? Where's the research, the evidence that we should use to say this has happened somewhere else? We know the chemicals are bad for our water supply, we know there's going to be air pollution.

We need help to fight. But it seemed like whatever happened in Pennsylvania doesn't apply to Texas. I just don't understand.

CONAN: And she's talking about the - some of the problems there have been with fracking in Pennsylvania and that of course it's going on in Texas, as well as in Wyoming and North Dakota and other places. John McChesney, talk about big field in California, as well, in Mendocino.

JOHN MCCHESNEY: I'm sorry, Neal, I'm having a little difficulty hearing you.

CONAN: Oh that's all right. We're just talking about the possibility not just in Texas, as Leanne was saying, and in Wyoming, which we've been talking about, North Dakota, Pennsylvania there have been problems with fracking, and they're talking now about opening a big field in California, as well.

MCCHESNEY: They are, and it's actually - there's discussion of Mendocino, but they're actually talking about a big shale formation down around Bakersfield, down in the southern San Joaquin Valley. And some people are saying that that could dwarf the Bakken up in North Dakota. So California is looking at the possibility of an oil boom, as well.

CONAN: Let's go next to Spencer(ph), Spencer on the line with us from Pinedale.

SPENCER: Hi, I just wanted to mention I've lived here in Pinedale for a few years and don't work directly in the gas industry but I actually work at the local airport, which has benefitted a lot from the increased traffic. But I've just noticed that the Pinedale area has kind of leveled off. We had the boom, but now things draw down. The community seems to be finding ways to make other income besides just the gas boom, trying to focus on tourism and use the money from the boom to make a sustainable, long-term economy.

CONAN: Ann Chambers Noble, you talked about some of the structures that Pinedale has benefited from, including the wonderful Sublette County Library there in Pinedale, and there's a beautiful aquatic center that any community would be proud to have.

NOBLE: Yes, for a community of only a couple thousand people, we have close to a $30 million aquatic center, a couple of swimming pools, beautiful indoor walking track. We have a couple of basketball fields. The best part about that, and this is definitely the upside of a boom, it's nice to live in a place that has a lot of money, is that as it - every single age group in our community benefits from that - what we call the PAC, Pinedale Aquatic Center.

There's day - in the morning, it's full of people that are 60 and older. We'll have our geriatric groups in there walking every day, and yet it's also full of preschoolers. Our school kids use it constantly. It's a wonderful facility that we have all benefited, and that never would have been possible without the boom.

And especially this time of year, you know, seven months of the year, we're in snow cover, and if you want to be able to exercise, you - if you're not on skis, you need to be inside.

CONAN: But are you going to be able to sustain that when the economy, if as people say, the boom flattens out and begins to ebb away, and the fields start drying up, with a tourist economy and with cattle ranching as Pinedale used to have?

NOBLE: Well, it's definitely already slowed down. We are definitely seeing the results of a bust, and we are seeing budget cuts, no doubt about it. I was telling someone just recently, my freshman in high school this year brought home for the first time ever a supply list. I had to buy her supplies for school. I've never done that. So we are beginning to see where - the decline in the income.

But as I mentioned earlier, we have some very smart city and county planners that did set money away. They found some legal way to set money away at the time the boom was at its peak to maintain these buildings. So we're not too worried about that at this point. But that was a case where we did do some planning. You could always have done more planning.

And what - an earlier caller mentioned about the importance of planning. I will say that it's very easy to say that and very difficult to do that because you don't know what you're in for. And we, in some ways, over-planned because we built this gorgeous elementary school clear out in a field that was going to be the next new neighborhood, and then the bust came. So now we have this beautiful elementary school out in the middle of nowhere with no neighborhood. So that was a case, potentially, of over-planning.

MCCHESNEY: Well, there are...

CONAN: Spencer, thank - go ahead, John.

MCCHESNEY: There are two levels of planning, and, as you know, one is what you do on the field in terms of where you drill and how you drill, and the other is the infrastructure planning that you do. And one of the Williams County supervisors up in North Dakota told me, he said when Hewlett-Packard or some big company like that comes to town, they come in and they say, we're going to need X number of houses.

We're going to need - we're going to bring in this number of students. It's a centralized operation, so it's easier to plan for. When an oil development happens, it's all over the place, and there are dozens and dozens of companies that are operating independently. So it's very hard for planners to get a grip on it and try to make it happen in a more orderly way.

But most people I've talked to said they'd much rather try to slow it down and get that orderly plan in place, rather than the rush that you've seen in North Dakota and I think you saw down in the Upper Green River Valley.

CONAN: And even in the service industries, there were motels in Pinedale and motels in Williston, main. As soon as they built it, the oil company would call and say, we will rent every room for the next three years. This doesn't teach people how to run a competitive business.

MCCHESNEY: Right. When I went to North Dakota, I had to stay in a private home. I could not find a motel room within a 100-mile radius of Williston.

CONAN: We're talking with John McChesney, just stepped down as director of the Rural West Initiative at Stanford's Bill Lane Center for the American West. Also with us, Ann Chambers Noble, historian and longtime resident of Pinedale, Wyoming. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

David's on the line with us from Willow River in Minneapolis.

DAVID: Minnesota.

CONAN: Minnesota. Go ahead.

DAVID: Yes. Yes. I worked in Williston on a frack crew for the last - for nine months last year. I was - went out in the field every day. It was 110 hours per week, two weeks straight, one week off, lived in a man camp. Two weeks ago, we buried one of my co-workers, died out there in a frack accident.

CONAN: I'm sorry to hear that.

DAVID: It was not a pretty place to work.

CONAN: I can't imagine that it was, but how was the money?

DAVID: Well, the money, it started out pretty good because we were getting well bonuses. Each well we drill that we were successful on without any sort of environmental mishap, we would receive $1,500, maybe $2,000 well bonus a month. And that was pretty much our, I would call, profit. The hourly wage was not bad, but so many hours, so we had a lot of overtime.

But I spent a lot of money driving back and forth to Minnesota, and it was a 700-mile drive, so I would spend four days driving back and forth. So I essentially had three days off per month. And eventually I broke down with anxiety. I had to see a neurologist. I - so I spent a lot of money on medical bills, and ultimately they would not reduce my hours, and I ultimately quit.

CONAN: Well, David, again, sorry to hear about your loss, and we wish you the best of luck.

DAVID: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Let's see if we can get Nadine with us, Nadine with us from Rock Springs, Wyoming.

NADINE: Yeah. Hi.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

NADINE: I was just calling to say that, you know, my family moved here in '71 into Rock Springs at the end of a boom, and at the end of that boom ended up with a whole generation of children coming up with alcohol and drug problems, with nothing to do and nothing to look forward to in the future, you know?

CONAN: Because there's - Rock Spring's a mining boom there.

NADINE: Yeah. Well, we had mining in the (unintelligible), you know? They all overflow and come living there, and then we boomed out and everybody moved away. The smaller class sizes made the teachers know you very well, but your parents no longer have the income coming in to maybe send you off to school somewhere, you know? And at the time, when you're going to school, you're thinking that you're going to be in the mines or the oil fields.

CONAN: And those jobs then go away. And, John, I just wanted to ask you. The - those ancillary problems, I guess, of drugs and prostitution, those happen a lot of places.

MCCHESNEY: They do. I mean, you had the history of Gillette, Wyoming much earlier where the - it became the Gillette syndrome, which was an influx of prostitution and so on. I don't think North Dakota - North Dakota does have those problems but that they're not anywhere near on the scale of the earlier rough days of the '70s and '80s. You do have a lot of gun permits being issued up there, particularly to women. It's a little rough. The male versus female proportion is way out of balance, so it gets a little rough for women up there.

One of the things I wanted to mention is that there's a lag, there's a revenue collection lag between the beginning of production and when the revenue starts flowing, and that doesn't match the impact on these local small towns. They don't get any revenue for two, three years. And so the impact piles up and you're trying to catch up afterwards, and that's still happening in North Dakota, and there's no guarantee that that money that's coming into the state gets back into the local towns that are being impacted because the states really have to go hat in hand, I mean, the towns - I'm sorry, have to go hat in hand to with the states to get special grants to mitigate the damages to their roads and everything else.

CONAN: John.

MCCHESNEY: So there's a real problem in that revenue collection and I won't get down on the weeds on it but it's a real problem and collecting tax revenue for the rainy day, as you pointed out earlier, when these non-renewable resources run out.

CONAN: John McChesney with us, and also Ann Chambers Noble. Thanks to you both. This is NPR News.

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