After Struggles, North Dakota Grows Into Its Ongoing Oil Boom The U.S. recently became the world's biggest producer of crude oil. The ongoing oil boom has transformed Great Plains towns like Watford City, North Dakota.
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After Struggles, North Dakota Grows Into Its Ongoing Oil Boom

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After Struggles, North Dakota Grows Into Its Ongoing Oil Boom

After Struggles, North Dakota Grows Into Its Ongoing Oil Boom

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The U.S. hit a milestone this year producing more crude oil than any other country. A lot of that oil comes from North Dakota. It's the No. 2 oil state behind Texas. NPR's Jeff Brady has spent years covering the region's oil boom and periodic busts. He recently returned to Watford City, N.D., to find a town transformed.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Five years ago, many in this rural community talked about rising crime as workers migrated from other states and traffic jams of pickups and tanker trucks traveling back and forth to the thousands of new wells that were drilled. Traffic is still the first thing many people mention.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR TRAFFIC)

BRADY: But with the new bypass around Watford City, there's less truck traffic in town, and it's easier to notice the sound of North Dakota's other big business.

(SOUNDBITE OF COWS MOOING)

BRADY: At the Watford City Livestock Association, brand inspector Donna Rustad watches as ranchers unload calves.

DONNA RUSTAD: I moved here to get away from people, and they followed me (laughter).

BRADY: Because of the oil business, Watford City's population more than tripled in the past decade from about 1,800 to more than 6,500. Rustad and many others express mixed feelings about how the oil industry changed their town. But, ultimately, most seem to agree it's helped Watford City at a time many rural towns are hurting.

RUSTAD: There's a lot of lives that have been changed to the - for the better here. Our town is booming. Our main street is full. You don't go through little towns and see every storefront have a business in it. We do.

BRADY: Before fracking and horizontal drilling revived North Dakota's oil business, Watford City Mayor Phil Riely says his town was losing population.

PHIL RIELY: It was possibly our top priority. How do we stop out-migration? It was scary almost at times. We were going to close a school. We were going to, you know, have to lay off teachers.

BRADY: Riely says now friends he grew up with are moving back. During the previous boom, there were a lot of temporary workers coming from other states and living in RV parks, some in their cars and many in so-called man camps. But this time is different, says Riely. Workers are bringing their families to settle down. Instead of closing a school, a brand-new $54 million high school was built on the edge of town. And the oil industry has influenced what's taught there. Down a gleaming hallway past the lunchroom that looks like a nice cafe, there's a truck driving simulator that cost about $20,000. Senior Jake Leppell is behind the wheel.

JAKE LEPPELL: It's basically like a video game. You've got three screens surrounding you. You're sitting in an actual truck seat. You got every pedal that a regular truck would have.

BRADY: The goal is to encourage students to pursue truck driving as a career. Another senior, Garrett Thorgramson, says a local company told him pay in the oil field is good.

GARRETT THORGRAMSON: Fresh out of high school, you'll make about 80 grand, and if you're trucking for three or more years, you're making well over 100.

BRADY: North Dakota's unemployment rate was a low 2.8 percent in October - nearly a full point below the national figure. That means oil companies and others have trouble finding enough drivers, says teacher Scott Wisness.

SCOTT WISNESS: It's great that we have people moving here from all parts of the country for jobs, but we don't want to export our students, or at least I don't, and neither do these companies. They want to keep people here who are going to stay here, who are going to raise their families here.

BRADY: And keep Watford City growing. The town has plans for more housing and businesses, and it's expanded the water and sewer systems. Local leaders are counting on the oil business continuing to boom, hopefully without the bust cycles that have disrupted life in the past. And the industry thinks it can do that. North Dakota Petroleum Council president Ron Ness says companies now can make money drilling in the Bakken shale formation even when crude prices are as low as $45 a barrel.

RON NESS: Throughout the downturn starting in really 2015 and 2016, the industry put the engineers to work and the technology to work and were able to increase the efficiency of each individual Bakken well substantially and reduce the costs of operating.

BRADY: Today, the industry is producing record amounts of oil with half as many drilling rigs. The controversial Dakota Access Pipeline also has helped. It moves more than a half million barrels of oil a day more cheaply than it used to cost by train. But pipeline capacity is filling up quickly and Ness predicts another surge in oil production.

NESS: We're really looking at potentially well over 2 million barrels a day sometime over the next maybe four to seven years.

BRADY: Recently, another big pipeline was proposed that would keep oil moving and keep these rural towns on the plains growing. Jeff Brady, NPR News, Watford City, N.D.

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