On The Plains, The Rush For Oil Has Changed Everything Rough-and-tumble towns have popped up in areas once dominated by sleepy farming hamlets. Black gold has brought big-money jobs, but housing is expensive, crime has spiked, and water is running out.
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On The Plains, The Rush For Oil Has Changed Everything

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On The Plains, The Rush For Oil Has Changed Everything

On The Plains, The Rush For Oil Has Changed Everything

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Hey, this week we're reporting on the drilling boom in North Dakota, which is transforming just about everything it touches. The state sits atop one of the world's largest oil deposits. The industry employs some 60,000 workers there, and every day people flock to the Williston Basin, as it's known, looking for work. The boom is also causing growing pains. Long time residents hardly recognize their own home towns. NPR's Kirk Siegler has the first story in our series on the Great Plains oil rush.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Jennifer Brown is watching the snowy plains of northern Montana pass by outside the frosty windows of the Amtrak empire builder. On a Sunday at dusk, this eastbound train is jam-packed. People are heading to their jobs in North Dakota towns like Minot, Williston and Watford City. Brown is moving there from Idaho to join her husband, who's been working in the oil fields since the summer.

JENNIFER BROWN: I haven't seen him in two months.

SIEGLER: Are you kidding?

BROWN: No. It's been really hard.

SIEGLER: The Browns ran a logging truck business in northern Idaho, but work was hard to come by. And out here they've heard you can make a hundred grand or more just starting out in the oil fields. Jennifer Brown says they had no other choice.

BROWN: So we've been financially living paycheck to paycheck. We've been married for 20 years, living paycheck to paycheck in that area. So we're going to try something different and basically start all over.

SIEGLER: Start all over in this remote corner of Northwestern North Dakota. Just a few years ago that would've been laughable. A hundred grand in wages out here? Believe it. And more and more people like Jennifer Brown are moving here every day. This frozen frontier now boasts the nation's lowest unemployment rate. Help wanted signs are everywhere - in the oil fields, the hotels and restaurants that support them, in construction, hospitals, you name it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible) station stop, Williston, North Dakota, will be coming up in about 10 to 12 minutes.

SIEGLER: At the heart of it all is the rough-and-tumble boomtown of Williston. The first thing you see leaving the Amtrak station are two strip clubs, Heartbreakers and Whispers, that cater to the wave of men coming into town from the oil fields, their pockets stuffed with cash. Oil workers with the smell of diesel still fresh on their Carhartt overalls also pack watering holes further up the street, downing Buds and burgers after work.

Every gas station here has a special on 5-Hour Energy. The local Wal-Mart can't keep its shelves fully stocked. Forty miles to the south, in the once-sleepy farming hamlet of Watford City, a line of trucks clogs snowy Main Street. New hotels, grocery stores and man camps - that's oil-field slang for cheap temp housing - sprout up on the prairie overnight. The 2010 census counted 1,500 people here; today there are an estimated 10,000. A fivefold increase in just over three years.

ALICIA DEEDEE: The example I always give people of how it's changed, my little sister and I used to be able to walk all over town. Our parents didn't worry. And I have a daughter of my own, and my husband and I won't let her outside by herself anymore.

SIEGLER: From behind the cash register at Larson's Drug, Alicia Deedee says a lot of these changes are bittersweet. While she welcomes the money, she doesn't like all the trucks and the big city traffic and the crime that's come with the boom.

DEEDEE: At the same time I'm thankful, you know, we have good jobs and we have jobs. A lot of people in the country don't.

SIEGLER: The boom brings money to local coffers while straining infrastructure. Town leaders say they only have enough water to sustain about 7,000 people. Good luck finding a one-bedroom apartment for less than 1,500 a month. And then there's the crime.

JESSE WELLEN: Hi. I apologize for being so late...

SIEGLER: Watford City's police chief Jesse Wellen offers me a seat in his cramped 28 by 28 foot station. His force has also grown fivefold. There are now 10 officers sharing these four desks, but they're usually out on patrol or calls.

WELLEN: Our domestic violence calls have definitely increased; alcohol-related calls have drastically increased as well. We seem to go to quite a few assaults.

SIEGLER: Wellen says they responded to an unprecedented 18 domestic violence calls in December alone, and his officers are arresting about one person a day now for drunk driving. These are stats nobody in a town of 10,000 people can be proud of.

WELLEN: It's basically call to call, I mean instead of kind of a proactive, going out there and trying to get stuff, you're jumping from call to call all the time, crashes and, you know, bar fights.

SIEGLER: Chief Wellen, who's 28 and new here, got some help from the state lately and will be able to hire four more officers. Watford City has seen oil booms before, most recently in the 1980s. That boom ended in a bust, and those memories are still fresh for some people here. Still, you get the sense that this boom may be different.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: We're ready to rock and roll.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Okay. Here we go...

SIEGLER: Steve Holen is counting on that, because he has to plan for it. He's the superintendent of the local school district.

STEVE HOLEN: We know we are probably in about the second or third inning of a nine-inning game here. Our demographic studies say they'll expect about 1,600 kids by 2017, '18.

SIEGLER: Holen is watching a line of kindergartners bundling up in their snow pants, face masks and hats, as school is about to let out. Since 2010, enrollment here has more than doubled to 1,000 kids.

HOLEN: And even just today is a good example. We probably picked up another 15 kids today after the post-Christmas little push.

SIEGLER: Holen plans to ask voters to approve a property tax hike to pay for building a new high school, but he knows that won't be an easy sell.

HOLEN: Some of our community members do believe that the industry, the state, somebody else should be paying for this. It shouldn't be me. And so getting a bond passed in that environment can be a real challenge.

SIEGLER: And even if the school bond passes, there's another challenge weighing heavily on Holen's mind. His district has lately had to get into the real estate business. So far it's bought about 20 housing units, but they need a lot more. After all, how do you recruit teachers to come all the way out here to this boomtown when there's no place to live? Kirk Siegler, NPR News.

INSKEEP: The oil rush series continues tonight on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED with a report on the tensions between oil production and the state's largest industry, agriculture.

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