Thoughts on black gold

Trip Start Jul 01, 2013
Trip End Sep 07, 2013

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Flag of United States  , Minnesota
Thursday, July 25, 2013

Today I want to talk about oil. I have been meaning to dedicate a post to the North Dakota oil boom since I entered the state, and have finally found time. Many, I think, will be surprised to hear of an oil boom at all; I certainly had no idea until I began hearing cyclists tell me to avoid a town called Williston.

Williston is about 50 miles from the western border, midway up the state. It was a quaint town until 2008 when prospectors struck black gold on the Bakken oil field a few miles away. The town skyrocketed into a frenzied madhouse of traffic, overpopulation, and crime.

The maps I follow led directly through Williston until 2011 when, after hearing reports from cyclists of nowhere to sleep and heavy traffic on the road posing serious threats to anything less than 18 wheels, Adventure Cycling rerouted south around highway 94, the route I followed through the state. While oil reserves have been found in this area as well, they are not as developed or productive as Williston.

The tech: the oil reserve is expected to produce for 50 years at a reasonable rate of exploration. There is a reserve close to the surface, then a reserve of mixed oil and sand under that, then a reserve of pure oil under that. The bottom two are projected and we will only know for certain once the top layer is drained. The area stretches into Canada, eastern Montana, and to an extent South Dakota, thus cities in these areas will be affected to undetermined extents once drilling expands.

Banks have a difficult time of giving loans to contractors and their backers, for fear of a repeat of a similar boom in the area in the 80's. Dickinson, a town 50 miles due south of Williston, nearly went bankrupt when their wells ran out, granted much smaller wells than Williston's, and the town had to struggle back to its agricultural roots. Wells Fargo has not lent any money to the region with a representative saying, 'we just want to get repaid.'

Which leads to a difficult situation. There is an almost infinite amount of money to be made in the area, but the manpower necessary to make it happen is vast. So where do you put everyone? You have to be creative. Companies like Exxon Mobil have created massive 'man camps', very similar to communist housing I saw in Hungary. They are comprised of miles of pods, containing two twin beds, a sink and shower and dresser, each housing two full grown men. There is no alcohol allowed on site, the mess halls are enormous, and they are impeccably, remarkably clean.

Other solutions have been to purchase hotels, campgrounds, and apartment buildings in the area. The hotels are usually reserved for traveling executives, but they are now privately owned buildings, operated by contract, and closed to the public. Campgrounds are not open to public either, rather they have become shanty towns of permanent campers. The average rent for one of the two bedroom apartments in buildings that have been purchased can exceed $2500/month, higher than San Francisco.

As mentioned, besides the traffic, one if the reasons for redirecting cyclists south was the lack of accommodations anywhere near Williston. The town used to have a large elderly population, but since land value has more than doubled, and landlords can charge what they like for rent, many have been forced out due to living on a fixed income. There is nowhere to stay for under $200/night, anywhere, period.

The town is beyond its carrying capacity with workers staying Mon-Fri and often returning to their families on the weekends which leaves another issue, many idle hands. Makeshift strip clubs have appeared, with strippers flying in to make $2000-3000/night, more than most weekends in Vegas. There are confirmed reports of an active sex trade as the gender imbalance is beyond unhealthy. Six men were arrested recently for sexually assaulting another man at a bar in town. I was at a bar in Cut Bank, eastern Montana, when some patrons were joking that the bartender would be 'snatched up' if she stepped foot in Williston.

One could look at the surface of the situation as well, unemployment for example is a record low for nearly anywhere in the country. McDonalds pays starting wages of around $18/hour for a cook. A hardware store (can't recall the name) is opening a branch in Williston shortly, and they will bus in their workers from their headquarters to work in week on, week off shifts in order to staff the store. Home values in the area have also increased dramatically, if one is ever on the market for more than a day.

At what cost does this all come? Having toured many an abandoned communist work camp in Hungary, I cannot help but draw comparisons between the cattle-like 'work makes free' conditions in the two areas, and seeing what the work camps look like today seems an accurate flash forward 50 years in Williston.

The conditions have driven cyclists from the area, but we are an insignificant source of business for an oil town like Williston. I am very proud to say that we have become well known on our redirected path to the south; no one is ever surprised, but always pleased to see my bike pull up, as we bring good business consistently throughout the summer. Many a small business proprietor has told me of the great conversations he has had with touring cyclists, and we are always generous tippers.

That about sums up my rant. I would like to have seen Williston with my own eyes to appreciate the conditions first hand, but when my endless firsthand recounts, the Huffington Post, and ABC News all sing the same song, there must be some truth to the rumors of change. One thing is certainly true, I'm not paying for gas this summer.
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Joel and Sasha Mayer on

It is as wild as they say. Only now is Dickinson kind of catching up with housing. Rent is still high, but people don't have to live in their cars anymore. For a while no matter how much money you had you still couldn't get a bed.

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