New Boom Reshapes Oil World, Rocks North Dakota Breakthrough technology is allowing previously untapped oil to be drilled in the U.S., Canada and South America. And experts say that's moving the global energy supply's center of gravity away from the Middle East and toward the Americas. In a decade, they say, that could make the U.S. a bigger oil producer than Saudi Arabia. Small towns like Williston, N.D., are reaping the benefits — and bearing the burdens — of the boom.
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New Boom Reshapes Oil World, Rocks North Dakota

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New Boom Reshapes Oil World, Rocks North Dakota

New Boom Reshapes Oil World, Rocks North Dakota

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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GUY RAZ, host: From NPR News, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

A couple months ago, Jake Featheringill and his wife were robbed. They were living in Oklahoma at the time. Jake was managing a batting cage. His wife was looking after the kids. Now, no one was hurt in the robbery. But as for Jake, it was the last straw. He decided that that day, his bad luck was going to change.

JAKE FEATHERINGILL: We decided to pick up and move in about three days. We made a decision. We packed all our stuff up in storage and drove 24 straight hours on I-29, which was all flooded, and made it to Williston with no place to live. And...

RAZ: That's Williston, North Dakota, about 60 miles south of the Canadian border.

FEATHERINGILL: We came in right through the stretch of where the Badlands is, and the roads were pretty bad. And then you come into the town. So many trucks. Semi trucks and four-wheel-drive pickups - for a mile straight. You've never seen so many trucks in your life. There are no cars. Every vehicle is a truck.


RAZ: And those trucks? They're in North Dakota for one reason, the same reason Jake went there: oil. And over the past 40 years, Williston's population has almost doubled.

FEATHERINGILL: It's pretty crazy. When I got up here, I had probably three or four job offers within three days of being here. If you came here and drove here and got here tomorrow, you would get a job tomorrow.

RAZ: Our cover story today: the new American oil boom. In 2008, we imported almost two-thirds of our oil. This year, less than half of it came from abroad. And what happened? Well, the scientists figured out how to extract oil from rocks and sand. And it means that within a decade, the U.S. will be producing close to as much oil as Saudi Arabia. And within five years, America could pass Russia as the world's largest energy supplier.


RAZ: Now, the change in Williston, North Dakota, has been so dramatic in just the last three or four years because of something called the Bakken rock formation, and it's estimated that trapped within that rock is anywhere from 11 to 20 billion barrels of oil, enough oil to power the United States for four years.

WARD KOESER: For many years, they knew that there was oil in that area, but the technology wasn't available to get it out.

RAZ: That's Ward Koeser. He's been the part-time mayor of Williston for 17 years.

KOESER: There's oil companies coming from all over the country now.

RAZ: What is the unemployment rate in Williston?

KOESER: Well, it'd be somewhat less than 2 percent.

RAZ: Wow. That's incredible.

KOESER: Well, it's interesting because even though there is an unemployment level of something less than 2 percent, we actually have probably between two and 3,000 job openings in Williston right now.

RAZ: As a matter of fact, jobs are so plentiful in Williston, the town literally cannot build enough homes to meet demand, which brings us back to Jake Featheringill.

FEATHERINGILL: When we came up here, we were told housing was tough, but not impossible.

RAZ: Jake's 25. He works for oil giant Baker Hughes, and he makes enough to support his wife and their three kids. And even though he got that job in a matter of days, finding a place to live was a lot harder.

FEATHERINGILL: When we got up here, we immediately started looking for places to live. We got lucky, and one of my mom's friend let us use their RV. And we got lucky again and got to park the RV in a place that we were rent-free. Most of the RV spots here run 1,000 to $1,200.

RAZ: That's $1,000 a month for a parking space in North Dakota.

FEATHERINGILL: And that's in a 70-mile radius. That's just to park your RV.

RAZ: And most oil workers are living in what are known as man camps, huge temporary villages on the outskirts of town. Jake told us that the average wait time in line at Williston's Walmart is 30 minutes, sometimes an hour.

Mayor Koeser can't build road and sewage lines fast enough. Same thing, by the way, is happening in small towns in Colorado, Wyoming, Louisiana and Texas, and all that American oil could add up to two trillion barrels in reserve, close to twice as much as the Middle East. And all of this oil is now being extracted, thanks to relatively new technology known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking. And Charles Groat, a professor at the University of Texas, is studying the phenomenon.

CHARLES GROAT: What I think you're seeing is just the effect of a really rapid pace of development in the Barnett Shale in Texas and Haynesville, Louisiana. And the more people that are at it and the very innovative companies that are servicing these wells in this industry just find better ways literally every day. So the technology has provided the access and the resource base that we weren't even forecasting a couple of decades ago.

RAZ: OK. We've been hearing from folks in Williston, North Dakota, of course, and, say, you live there, right, and a neighbor or maybe you signed a deal with an oil company, and a rig goes up near your home. What would you want to know? What kind of questions should you be asking if you want to make sure that your drinking water is going to be safe and so on?

GROAT: If I'm getting my water out of a shallow ground water well, I would want to make sure that the oil or gas well is cased adequately, that the cement job is sound, that the handling of the fluids that are being put in the ground to do the fracking is done in a careful way, and that the flowback waters that are handled when the well begins to produce are put in secure places.

This is where the environmental issues have occurred, not at seven or 8,000 feet. So I'd want some assurance from the operating company that all of these things have been looked at and that they were handling them well.

RAZ: OK. So we know that fracking is, basically speaking, a combination of sort of pushing pressurized water, chemicals and sand into rocks to break it up, to release the oil. There's also something called horizontal drilling. That is another technology that is fueling the oil boom. Can you talk a little bit about the difference and what that's about?

GROAT: Well, in past technology days, you drill the vertical well and you completed it and you produced what you could from a conventional reservoir. Now the ability to drill down several thousand feet and then to turn literally the drill bit around and go sideways and go horizontally for thousands of feet gives us the opportunity to sweep or to penetrate a reservoir in a horizontal direction, not just a vertical direction. So that's what's made shale gas and shale oil such a viable resource, the combination of horizontal drilling, accessing a huge area of reservoir, and then the fracking process, which itself props open those cracks and allows the liquid or the gas to flow to the well.

RAZ: From an environmental perspective, I wonder if there's a downside here too. I mean, it seems to send a signal that we shouldn't worry about consumption and about conservation and those kinds of things.

GROAT: Well, I think there is a danger here - the fact that we drill so many wells. If you look at the number of wells that have been drilled in North Dakota, just in recent times - or in Louisiana or the Barnett - the numbers of wells are huge, which increases the opportunity for bad things to happen environmentally and procedurally in developing the resource. We also are not dealing, of course, with the question of greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide as we continue our hydrocarbon dependence.

We are certainly boosting the economy. We're providing a resource that we know how to use and love to use, and so that aspect of it is going to be extremely good for the world economy. But the environmental side needs to be paid attention to and certainly can be handled, I think.


RAZ: Charles Groat from the University of Texas. Now, since the 1960s, the center of gravity for the world's energy supply has been the Middle East. But many oil experts, including Amy Myers Jaffe of Rice University now believe that power center will soon shift to North and South America and fast.

AMY MYERS JAFFE: That in, you know, five or 10 years' time, we're a major oil-producing region, where our production is going up, you know, dramatically, not by, you know, 10 percent, but by considerable volumes.

RAZ: Let's talk about the geopolitics of all this for a moment, because if the center of gravity is shifting to North America and South America, what does that mean for the Middle East in the next five, 10, 15, 20 years?

JAFFE: So it's going to be a turbulent time in the Middle East that's going to absolutely propel more and more investment into the energy resources in the Americas, and I do think you're going to really have a shift in the geopolitics. We are already seeing an impact on Russia. Just from the fact that we have so much natural gas here in the United States, we're not importing liquefied natural gas, LNG.

What that means is that LNG that we might have bought, that natural gas is being diverted to Europe. And because the Europeans can buy LNG, they're buying less natural gas from Russia. So Russia would only supply 10 percent of European natural gas demand by, say, 2030. Well, that means the Russians are no longer powerful.

RAZ: If oil and gas equal power, then your argument is that the power of the United States will actually increase and the power of countries like Russia and Middle Eastern states will decrease.

JAFFE: So I wouldn't say that oil is power, per se. It's really more my vulnerability. If you could cut off my oil, and that's going to harm my economy, then that's a vulnerability I have. The United States is going to be much less vulnerable to those kinds of shocks or events. And then the leverage that a Russia or an Iran might have over Europe or over the United States is lessening, and so therefore the power structure changes.

RAZ: Amy, for the past 10 years, there's - we've been talking about alternatives to oil, options like nuclear energy and wind power and solar power, but it seems to me that if the United States has this potential and this capacity, then all of those arguments and all of those hopes will also be diminished.

JAFFE: Well, I think the way we need to look at it is that if we're going to produce domestic oil and natural gas, and we're going to get extra royalties and revenues from that extra oil and natural gas, then we should be investing that extra income in R&D for solar, for better, safer nuclear. And the reason that that's a forward-looking thing is that we don't have the commercial technology now.

The administration put a lot of money into subsidizing existing companies with existing technologies, and we've just had three solar panel companies, you know, go bankrupt. So the point is you can't force a technology that's not commercial. So the money that we're spending, rather than subsidize things that are not going to be competitive, we need to actually use that money to do R&D to create technologies. The same way that the industry created these technologies to produce national gas, and it turned out so commercially successful.


RAZ: Amy Myers Jaffe from Rice University. Domestic production of oil, by the way, is increasing so fast that according to the U.S. government, in just three years, production will be growing faster than the rate of demand.

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