Taking Stock Of The Northern Plains Oil Boom

Beginning next week, NPR News will be taking an in-depth look at the unprecedented oil drilling boom happening on the Northern Plains, where the state of North Dakota has fast become one of the nation's most productive drilling regions. NPR's Kelly McEvers talks with NPR reporter Kirk Siegler, back from a recent reporting trip in North Dakota for the series.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEvers.

Next week, NPR News will take an in-depth look at the unprecedented oil drilling boom going on right now in the Northern Plains. The state of North Dakota now produces over a million barrels of oil a day. That means it's now second only to Texas as the top oil producer in the U.S. This drilling boom is transforming the once isolated Northern Plains, making some towns in the area unrecognizable to the people who live there.

NPR's Kirk Siegler just got back from a reporting trip in North Dakota. He joins me now at NPR West. Hey, Kirk.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Hey, Kelly.

MCEVERS: So this series is going to look at what sounds like a pretty major transformation of western North Dakota. Can you just tell us what does it look like up there?

SIEGLER: Well, it's really a modern-day gold rush going on up there. You know, in some places, the infrastructure is starting to catch up with all the influx of these people coming in. But in other places, not at all. One place we're going to visit for this series is Watford City. Now, this used to be a sleepy little farming town in the northwest part of the state. 2010 census put it at 1,500 people. Town officials told me they think it's about 10,000 people.

We'll also visit a town just across the state line in Montana, which has a budget of $10 million. And the mayor there told us that $50 million in infrastructure improvements are needed. They're hammered by all this truck traffic. The roads just weren't built for it.

MCEVERS: And you had an incident yourself, didn't you? Do you want to talk about that?

SIEGLER: I did actually. Like, the very first day I was there, I took a trip down to Watford City and, boom, a boulder the size of my palm went into my windshield. First person I told was like, yep, that happens all the time. And what's worse is an hour after you fix it, it happens again.

MCEVERS: Wow. So with this population booming like this, where are people living? I mean, what does it actually look like, you know, to see...

SIEGLER: On the outskirts of these little towns are mobile home parks, modular homes, temporary housing, man camps is what they're called. Workers are coming in and crowding into hotels. One night I stayed at the Holiday Inn Express in Williston, North Dakota. It cost $250 just for one night. So big city prices.

MCEVERS: Wow. What do the locals make of all this?

SIEGLER: Well, the biggest complaint I would hear is about all the heavy truck traffic clogging these little towns. There's also a lot of crime now, DUIs, prostitution, bar brawls. You know, a lot of people would tell me, though, that the boom is sort of bittersweet. You know, not that long ago, people were talking about western North Dakota maybe being turned into a bison refuge just to attract tourists.

Well, now, you know, all of a sudden, there's so many jobs, there's so much money coming in. I talked to a woman named Myra Anderson in Watford City. You know, she's lived in that area for more than 40 years and taught for most of them at the local school. Let's hear from her.

MYRA ANDERSON: It's been a huge change, but there's been good. We were very close to being one of those dried-up towns that didn't exist.

SIEGLER: But then, Kelly, Myra went on to tell me that she lives out in the country on a farm. And it used to be quiet, but now her night-light out there is an oil flare. In fact, tensions between the oil industry and farmers and ranchers is also quite palpable. And that's one of the stories we'll explore in the series as well.

MCEVERS: But this isn't the first time this part of the world has had an oil boom, right?

SIEGLER: No, it's not. This area boomed in the '50s and the '80s as well. But, you know, there's a pervasive sense when you go there that this one is different. A lot of folks are saying and planning for this boom to be there for quite a while. And people told me that things had started to settle down a bit compared to, say, two, three years ago. But there are still a lot of people coming in there with the promise of good-paying jobs.

I met a guy from New Zealand who had just moved there. I met other commuters coming from Washington and Idaho where jobs are scarce. It's quite a time to be there right now.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Kirk Siegler. He just got back from North Dakota where there's an oil drilling boom on. The first of his stories about the Northern Plains will air on MORNING EDITION this Wednesday. Thanks, Kirk.

SIEGLER: Thank you.

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