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

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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.
A monument of Abraham Lincoln
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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
Stirring coffee at a diner in Williston, N.D.
Diners at Lonnie's Roadhouse Cafe

"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 the fascinating and remarkable transformation underway 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.

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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, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — make the oil and gas much easier to reach and extract in huge quantities.

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

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.

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A drilling station outside of Willison, N.D.
The road to North Dakota country at night.

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?

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