How an oil industry town is handling the slump in oil prices : The Indicator from Planet Money Williston, North Dakota doubled in size during the shale oil boom a decade ago. Now oil prices have fallen and the town's facing hard times.
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When A Boomtown Goes Bust

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When A Boomtown Goes Bust

When A Boomtown Goes Bust

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. The last time the economy looked like this was about a decade ago, around 2009. It was the Great Recession. At that time, countless people were losing their homes, losing their savings, losing their jobs. Unemployment hit about 10%. But there was this one economic bright spot, this one place where the economy was booming - the industry was oil, and the place was Williston, N.D.

In 2009, fracking got huge. A giant oil and natural gas deposit had been discovered in Williston, N.D., and oil companies were drilling as fast as they could and hiring as fast as they could. I actually went to Williston around that time as a reporter. It was the only place adding jobs in the whole country. And I could not believe what I saw. It was like a gold rush town. Every business had a now-hiring sign in the window. The Taco John's was paying $20 an hour. You could not get a hotel room. People were sleeping in their cars and pitching tents in the Walmart parking lot.

I've actually been thinking about Williston a lot lately because, of course, the thing that was fueling its boom back then, back in 2009, was oil, and right now oil is in terrible shape. It has been at record lows. And we wanted to check back in on Williston and see how the town was doing now. So we started calling around, trying to find somebody to talk to, and this one name kept coming up. Like, everyone we called said, well, if you want to know what's going on in Williston, you have to talk to Sparkles. And we're like, who?

FALON JUSTICE: I am Falon Justice. I own Bride To Be and More, a formal shop in Williston, N.D. I was born and raised here in Williston.

VANEK SMITH: So I have, like, down in my notes that you have a nickname. Is that right?

F JUSTICE: Maybe.

(LAUGHTER)

VANEK SMITH: This is Sparkles. She is 38. And she describes herself as the Ask Jeeves of Williston. She seems to be involved in nearly every community board and charity effort and outreach program in the town. She, in fact, is Williston's 2020 citizen of the year. And she says everybody calls her Sparkles because she has always got glitter on - like, always.

F JUSTICE: There's got to be a little bit of glitter at all times, whether it's in my hair or on my face, in my nails. I am a firm believer that glitter makes everything better.

VANEK SMITH: Falon grew up in Williston, and she says when she was a kid, it was this small city of, like, 12,000 people, and everybody kind of knew everybody. But when fracking really started to take off around 2008, 2009, the town was totally transformed almost overnight.

F JUSTICE: It got real crazy real fast. And by crazy, I mean it went from - you have a town that's set up for 12- to 15,000 people, and then all of a sudden, you have, like, 30,000 people (laughter) using the same roads, trying to shop at the same places. Everything was out of stock all the time. Bars were bananas. I used to be able to bartend on a Friday night from 10 o'clock until 1 o'clock. So - what? - a three-hour shift? And make, like, $350 in tips, like...

VANEK SMITH: Whoa.

F JUSTICE: ...Easy.

VANEK SMITH: And there were some other perks. Falon met her husband Chase around that time. He moved from Montana to Williston in 2008 to work in oil. They met, and they fell in love. And Chase came to Williston for the work and for the money, which he says was pretty great.

CHASE JUSTICE: I was making $42 an hour as a driller.

VANEK SMITH: Whoa. That's great.

C JUSTICE: Yeah. I think - it was good money, for sure. I wasn't smart with it. When I was on the rig, I - you know, I wasn't smart with it. We were all buying stuff and partying and, you know, doing all sorts of goofy stuff, wasting money on goofy stuff.

VANEK SMITH: There were a lot of people like Chase, who had money to burn, and prices in Williston went nuts. Falon had a one-bedroom apartment in 2009. Rent was about $350 a month. About a year later, that same apartment was going for almost $1,500 a month. Now, though, Williston is in pretty dire straits. And with oil companies declaring bankruptcy every day, things could be about to get a lot worse.

F JUSTICE: Oil field is a tricky little beast (laughter). When it's rolling hot, it's rolling hot, and it's a lot of hours, and it's a lot of money, and those boys work for their money. But when it hits that slump, it hits hard and fast, and nobody's really safe, I guess would be the way to put it. You never know.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: Things in Williston calmed down a lot after 2010. The town grew to accommodate all the people. Houses were built. Roads were built. Schools, restaurants, hotels went up. People brought their families and settled down there. The population settled down, too, at about 29,000. But everything still revolved around oil, said Falon Justice.

F JUSTICE: My dad worked oil field. He was a derrickhand. My grandfather worked oil field. My uncles did. My brothers did.

VANEK SMITH: Falon does not work in oil. Instead, she decided to buy a business that was catering to the growing community and all of the new families in Williston - a bridal shop. But, Falon says, even if you work in bridal gowns, in Williston, you are basically always in the oil business.

Does everyone in Williston, like, know what the price of oil is?

F JUSTICE: I would say yes (laughter).

VANEK SMITH: Falon says oil prices are just a regular topic of conversation. Back in 2010, 2011, she'd get texts from people who were excited about how high the price of oil was. Now, she says, there's just a lot of fear and worry. The price of oil has been really low for a long time now. In fact, a couple of months ago, it hit a low for all time, kind of a shocking low. Falon's husband Chase was watching the price of oil from the oil company where he works. A bunch of stunned oil workers were standing around after lunch watching the price of oil drop down to $10 to $5 to zero and then into negative dollars - negative-$10, negative-$20, down to negative-$37 a barrel.

C JUSTICE: None of us had any idea that that could even happen, you know (laughter). It was brutal. Everybody was kind of just shellshocked and just - wow, this is bad, you know; how are we going to survive this?

VANEK SMITH: And, of course, this was all happening in the middle of the coronavirus shutdown. Falon had to shut down her bridal shop right before summer, her busy season, and money started to get really tight for her and for everyone. Oil companies started furloughing people, laying people off, declaring bankruptcy. Falon says a lot of brides have been postponing their weddings, and a lot of couples and families that settled in Williston 10 years ago during that boom have actually started to move away. Williston, the town, is shrinking.

F JUSTICE: There's a lot of people that moved up here, that brought their families to make this their home. They are moving back, whether it's to Alabama or Louisiana or - you know, like, they've been laid off. They got nothing. And they can't - like, right now there isn't that job here. So they're packing back up and moving home. There's been lots of phone calls with tears (laughter), lots of phone calls with tears between a lot of us, just trying to make sense of it and vent. And it's like, price of oil is just devastating.

VANEK SMITH: But Falon says that's just oil; oil is a boom-and-bust business. It's always been that way. It might be bust for a while, but it always comes back. Oil, she says, will come back. Williston will come back.

F JUSTICE: Wilson is going to be OK. This isn't the first time; it probably won't be the last. And it's just - be the good, even during the - you know, like...

VANEK SMITH: Yeah.

F JUSTICE: ...In the hard time. Like, and it's not - it's super scary. But that's the other reason. Like, for me, slapping on a little bit of glitter, it just - it's like my armor. I can get out there and conquer the world as long as I got my smile and some glitter on.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Brittany Cronin and Camille Petersen. The editor of THE INDICATOR is Paddy Hirsch. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

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