September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
This new method, hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," has increased the estimated recoverable oil from the Bakken from 3 to 4.3 billion barrels to as much as 24 billion barrels.
Sitting in the middle of this new oil boom is Williston, N.D., a rural town with a 2010 population around 13,000 people. While the town of Williston is reaping the benefits of the boom - increased retail sales, almost zero unemployment rate, etc. - the effects of it are wearing and have turned the once rural town upside-down.
"Our rural way of life - that pristine beauty - we've lost much of that. In its place we have a lot of dust," said Warren Froelich, North Dakota State University Extension Educator for Williams County.
This is not the first oil boom northwestern North Dakota has seen; in fact, it's the third, following one in the early 1950s and one in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The latest boom, however, is turning out to be the most significant due to the introduction of fracking.
"All the oil at those [first two] booms was developed solely through vertical drilling," Froelich said.
Fracking requires a vertical drill to 11,000 feet below the surface, followed by horizontal drilling covering about 1,280 acres per well. Water mixed with sand and chemical is then pumped down the well at high pressure, cracking the shale and releasing the oil, as well as natural gases.
"Back in the early '80s there was a risk that the vertical wells would not be successful," Froelich said. "The new technology of fracking shale has almost guaranteed success for each well."
On any given day, Froelich said around 200 oil rigs are operating. Each rig takes many workers, but finding people to fill positions has not been a problem.
In the last year and a half, the population of Williston has increased from 13,000 to nearly 30,000, with people from across the lower 48 states as well as Alaska.
"We've got a crazy boom - an uncontrolled, chaotic boom," Froelich said.
This boom is affecting every walk and facet of life in northwestern North Dakota and has taken a serious toll on the local infrastructure. Gravel roads are being pulverized from the hundreds of trucks that cross them each day. Water, sewer systems and law enforcement are all maxed out. Schools, Froelich said, are finding it challenging to plan for classroom space and teachers because of the oil workers' families. Those in retail - while they are benefitting from increased sales - are finding it difficult to provide quality service to all of their customers.
Housing has also become an issue. Developers are building new housing units and motels to accommodate the extra people, but prices for those units have skyrocketed. Froelich said it's not uncommon to pay $1,500-2,000 a month for a one or two bedroom apartment. While some workers may be able to afford this, older residents of Williston and students looking for housing while they attend Williston State College cannot. Visitors to the Williston area are also hard-pressed to find an available room.
"I don't know how many motels we've built; I've given up keeping track, but it's hard to find room for a passing visitor," Froelich said. "... We've had a lot of older people move out because of affordability."
For the oil workers, Williams County is permitted to construct a 9,400-bed 'Man Camp' but county commissioners currently have a moratorium on it until they can build the infrastructure to support it.
The Williams County ag industry is also feeling the effects first-hand.
The ag sector in Williams County is comprised mainly of crop production, including durum, pulse crops (lentils and peas), spring wheat, barley, sugar beets, sunflowers and safflowers. Beef production accounts for 15-20 percent of the gross farm income. There is no dairy, very few sheep and no swine.
Since the oil boom began, one of the biggest challenges farmers and ranchers in the area are facing is an inadequate workforce.
"Finding workers that are qualified is tough to do because labor in the oil fields pays pretty good," Froelich said.
The same goes for finding truckers to haul grain or other commodities. Many have contracted their services out to the oil companies for better pay than crop producers or beef farmers can pay.
Aside from dealing with poor road conditions, farmers and ranchers are now faced with the difficulty of moving very large equipment while trying to avoid trucks traveling to and from the oil fields. They are also concerned with the loss of ag land to the oil rigs. Each rig encompasses five to seven acres of land - typically prime cropland. While the surface owners are compensated for the loss of land they have little or no rights unless they also hold the mineral rights. Many farmers and ranchers feel the compensation doesn't adequately cover their loss of productive land.
And the land itself is becoming invaluable. Land that would have sold for $800 an acre in recent years is now going for anywhere from $3,000-20,000.
"Everybody has been trying to practice tolerance, but that is becoming a real challenge as time goes on," Froelich said. "People's patience is wearing."
Dust has also been an issue. Many farmers complain of lower crop yields near gravel county and township roads.
"We really need research in this area. Livestock owners are very concerned about the potential respiratory problems when animals are forced to forage these areas. [Dust] might be a real problem this year because we're not receiving the frequent rains of last year," Froelich said.
To help buffer the effects of the boom and organize for future growth, the Williams County Commission is in the process of developing a comprehensive land use plan that would take them to 2035.
"They are expecting a doubling in population," Froelich said. "... The big issues are public safety and services."
While Froelich understands the frustration felt by the local community, he also feels for many of the workers who have - in many cases - left their homes and families to work in the oil fields in hopes of providing a better life.
"People working here view it as a Godsend," Froelich said. "A lot of people are making quality of life sacrifices just to work in the oil patch."
With oil drilling in the area projected to continue another 30 to 40 years, one good thing that is happening is that nearby communities are watching closely at what is happening in Williston in hopes of sparing themselves the chaos that the boom has brought.
"They are taking notes and taking positions to lessen the impact on their communities," Froelich said.
The initial boom will slow in time, but Froelich is concerned about the long term effects it could have, especially on the agriculture industry.
"I don't think it's going to promote ag producers to be good students of ag efficiencies," he said. "... If they (producers) have an income from the oil, they are not going to be as [determined] to make every input dollar stretch. They won't be as efficient in their production."
1 Information on the Bakken Oil Shale Formation found at http://www.bakkenoil.org/bakken-oil-shale-formation-introduction
To Submit an Event Sign in first
No calendar events have been scheduled for today.