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Blessed Be The Boomtown

This post is part of our Work Symposium. An introduction to the symposium can be found here; all of the posts written for the symposium can be found here

Sweat and Cigarette Smoke

Bakken_mapWhen we moved from our previous home in the Mountain West to our current one in the Mountain East, it was a very long and stressful drive. The best evening we spent was in Ohio, where we somehow ended up snagging a hotel room at a rustic golf resort hotel off Kayak. Our least pleasant is equally as easy to determine: Dickinson, North Dakota. Hotel rooms in Dickinson were virtually non-existent. We found a Super 8. The outside whole hotel smelled like sweat and cigarette smoke. Our room hadn’t been cleaned when we got it. Housekeeping – or somebody – stole my daughter’s Cat in the Hat book.

Dickinson is over two hours south of Williston, North Dakota, which is the focal point for the oil boom that has come to define the state. I thought that would be enough distance from all of the activity that we would be able to avoid what we weren’t.

Dickinson_NDThe previously small town of Williston has been getting a lot of national press lately due to the insanity that has followed the oil boom. There was initially some positive coverage, but it was quickly followed by a different type of article. One that stated, in effect, the economic boom is great for some, but… but… but… there’s crime, sexual harassment, housing shortages, doctor shortages, and on and on.

The problems range from annoying to serious, but the overall tone I think gets it backwards. It’s not that there’s a great things but all of these problems. It’s that there are these problems, but there is this great thing!

If The Worst Comes…

Oil_Truck_2I sacrificed my career for my wife’s. Her career needs resulted in five moves over ten years, including to places that are inhospitable to a career in IT. I made the most of every landing while I could, but each new location meant a step back from the promotions and capital I’d built at the previous. Then we landed in ruralia, and there simply were no opportunities. While there, our daughter was born and I became a stay-at-home father.

I find myself preoccupied at times with what happens to us if something happens to my wife. She’s ineligible for any sort of significant life insurance. I’m beyond mere long term unemployment. I would also have a daughter to take care of, which means that I’m not sure I would even have the breathing room to “start at the bottom” in the way that I did. Even with the recognition that I have it better than so many, it’s a sense of vulnerability I have never really experienced before.

Arnegard_ND_TallIf, heaven forbid, something did happen to her, I would not start looking for work in North Dakota. I would start in my home town, to be near my family. Or my wife’s home town, to be near her’s. I’d exhaust every personal contact that I have there and elsewhere. I’d ask former bosses and if I needed to I would move back to the Mormon West if that was where opportunity is. I’d look in Kansas. I’d look in South Dakota.

If all else failed, though, it is of enormous relief to me that there is a North Dakota. Some place that could very likely use me if I have nowhere else to go. We might be living in a repurposed FEMA trailer, but there is a place to go. I would worry about crime and specifically my daughter, but there is a place to go. Life is accepting that not everything can happen on your terms, and if North Dakota’s terms are what there are, I’m glad that they are there, to the extent that they are, for however long they are.

The North Dakota Trail

Traveling_BlockBy the time I was in high school, I had resolved never to leave the city where I grew up unless I needed to. Fortunately, it was a big city with enormous opportunity where having to leave was unlikely. I grew up there, I went to college there, and it seemed unlikely that anywhere could offer me what that city could. I wanted to be near family. I wanted to be near friends. Big city amenities with small city prices. Who could ask for more?

Then I met my wife, with her plans to go west and her need not to be in a city. Her professional training would be built around living somewhere else. So for love, and not money, I packed everything in my Ford Escort and left. Into great personal and professional uncertainty. Into a part of the country that was very much not North Dakota. Or, for that matter, the place I left. It was incredibly difficult to leave my family behind. I still lament, at times, the social network I left behind and have been completely unable to rebuild in one move after another.

Shale_ShakersWhether for love or money, leaving is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Sometimes, it’s an impossible one. It’s financially impossible when you’re underwater on your mortgage or you have a spouse who is nailed down where you are. It’s personally impossible if you have family to take care of. Moving for money is also not a broader solution to the economy. There are 20,000 jobs in North Dakota, and far more than that looking and waiting for work.

For some, though, it represents a fantastic opportunity. A friend of mine from out west has hit a dead end, career-wise, and is considering getting a commercial drivers license and heading east. It would mean being away from his wife and step-children for six months of the year, but in that time he can earn more than he earns year around where he currently lives. People like myself who need reintroduction into the workforce when all else fails. Kids just getting started in need of experience and job skills.

Arnegard_ND_POWhen I was substitute teaching in a decaying Mountain Western town, I was always depressed at the dim prospects of a lot of the students I saw over. Many of the best and brightest would leave for the bright lights of Denver, Seattle, or Salt Lake City. But the rest? What of the rest? Towards the end of the year I would start getting more high school assignments and I heard a lot of them talking about what they planned to do next. College, for some. Others talked about going east to the oil fields.

The New York Times published a piece on young people in Montana going straight to the fields out of high school. The piece had a somber tone, but for a lot of the kids it truly is a great opportunity straight out of the gate. There are opportunities for people just graduating college as well, as the South Dakota School of Mines at least temporarily passed Harvard for graduate incomes. Obviously, that’s major-dependent, but opportunities abound.

Man-campI don’t begrudge those who look at North Dakota and think about living in a trailer (or worse) and living amidst the chaos, and simply want no piece of it. I don’t blame those who don’t want to leave family behind. I know that a lot of people can’t. I also know that the life calculations are going to be different for everybody. Ten years ago, North Dakota would have been a lot less unattractive to me than it is now, and ten years from now it will likely be more unattractive, and that’s despite holding a lot of the “me” of the equation constant.

I don’t blame those who don’t want to take the journey. I can’t blame those who can’t. I am not unsympathetic to those who don’t want to. But I wholeheartedly celebrate those who can and do.

Glorious Chaos

Arnegard_ND_FlareBeneath the weeds, through all of the chaos, lies opportunity. The vast majority of the chaos caused by that very opportunity. It’s the bad that comes with the good. They are all textures of an unspeakably beautiful painting. When you attract the good, you attract the bad. Rapid growth is by its nature chaotic, but with it lies opportunity. Beautiful, scary, wonderful, chaotic, glorious opportunity.

While it’s not for everybody, and it’s not a universal solution, but for those of whom it is an opportunity? I’m giddy and elated that it’s there.

As time passes, it too will eventually pass. Hopefully it will be because we have made innovations in renewables that render such resource exploitation unnecessary. Or else, eventually that particular well will run dry. Perhaps to be replaced by another somewhere else, or perhaps not. Maybe replaced by some new wizbang technology that will allow us to turn the entirety of northern Nevada into a power generator for the entire country. Hopefully, some new industry will come along somewhere and put us to work.

If something else does come along, it will likely cause chaos wherever it occurs. And it will be beautiful.

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43 thoughts on “Blessed Be The Boomtown

  1. If there is a significant concern about boomtowns its that they to often, in the west, have been manic scrambles for money, where the already rich, bar owners and pimps made most of the money and leaving a giant environmental mess behind. Of course that is more old west or alaska gold rush story but there have been shades of that in the 20th century.

    We need energy but the lure of bucks is likely to mean enviro concerns get pushed aside for people in the future to clean up the mess. That long standing towns might not develop from people moving there doesn’t really bother me. I think people have felt cheated by booms in the past because the towns that built up around them didn’t last. However people love to forget that the west is a harsh place and not every town is destined to last for centuries. Some places are too remote and hard to support much of town. However lots of people feel that if a boom doesn’t leave a nice town behind it failed.

    Finding booms in ND or oil in other places only leads to many people wanting to ignore renewables. Waiting until we hear the sound of the straw gargling up nothing from the bottom of the well is too late. We should have been pushing on renewables since the 70’s when energy became an issue. We should be driving hard to build up renewables since that is the obvious future and will make the oil we have last longer. The strategic silliness of using our oil as fast as we can and NOW is just stunning. We are going to use all our oil, it is to useful and hard to replace to not use it all. But we should be working at making it last for as long as we can.


    • Significant contamination of the Ohio coming out of the fracking up here.
      And we ought to know better.

      Isn’t it hilarious that we get the Department of the Navy to help out renewables? They’ve got money to fucking burn!

      Any chemist will tell you that burning oil is the stupidest thing since someone invented a toilet seat without a hole.


    • We’re still where we are. Many of environmentalists’ preferred policies, such as the carbon tax and the like, could well have the effect of keeping the oil in the ground by virtue of making it unprofitable. Supply and demand curves and all that, with positive environmental results (though I have my concerns there, too, to be posted next week probably). I’m more sympathetic to that than I am to simply blocking drilling with hopes of starving the beast. Not that you advocated that, but it seems to be the endpoint of a lot of (but far from all) criticism of drilling.

      Anyhow, I was focusing primarily on the jobs aspect. Like I said towards the end, if we can turn Nevada into a solar power supply for the rest of the country and people go out there by the busload to get it built, then all the better.


      • I think it is the mostly the fringe enviros who want to stop using oil yesterday and start riding eco-horses to work. We are going to use all our oil, the question is how long we make it last and do we prepare for not having it. There is certainly a visceral distaste for drilling in some of the enviro side. However, as often gets tossed up in AGW debates, even enviro’s still drive and fly. The obvious take from that is driving and flying are still good things and are oil based so we are still going to use them. Very few people are really for ending all that now.


      • I wasn’t referring to “stop using oil yesterday” so much as the “Keep finding reasons to get more.” I think that’s more common*, though still nowhere near the drivers’ seat policy-wise.

        * – This came up a while back around here. I ended up perusing the Sierra Club’s website. They want to replace much of fossil fuels with renewables, which is to be expected. But seemed to oppose everything that would close that gap (including nuclear). While I don’t think it’s their position that “We’ll just have to use 33% less total energy” it sure came across to me as that would be the result of their suite of preferences.


  2. “If all else failed, though, it is of enormous relief to me that there is a North Dakota. Some place that could very likely use me if I have nowhere else to go. We might be living in a repurposed FEMA trailer, but there is a place to go. I would worry about crime and specifically my daughter, but there is a place to go. Life is accepting that not everything can happen on your terms, and if North Dakota’s terms are what there are, I’m glad that they are there, to the extent that they are, for however long they are.”

    Read Krugman. The boom is tiny, in absolute numbers. It shows up in ND stats because the labor force is small.

    And seconding greginak – in gold rushes, don’t expect the miners to make money.


  3. I am going to sign on with what greginak states.

    Boomtowns are great for very brief moments in times but tend to become ghost towns sooner rather than later. There are cities that spring up and remain because of gold rushes and other boom towns like San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle though. It would be interesting to see if any towns can become permanently bigger because of the oil boom in North Dakota or diversify their economies enough to survive.

    My guy feeling is that once this boom ends (and it might take a while), the towns will dry up.


    • My guy feeling is that once this boom ends (and it might take a while), the towns will dry up.

      “As time passes, it too will eventually pass.”


      Having it for now is better than not having it, even if it isn’t replaced by something else where I hope it is.


    • I wouldn’t, and I don’t think Will would, argue with that.

      But like Will, I’m glad that opportunity exists. Not because I expect any town to become “permanently bigger”, but because its nice to have options, to know other people do. Because as bad as that option may be, in this world we live in, its necessarily better than the next-best.


      • This. It’s also worth noting that the “brief moments” here can and do last years and decades. My sense, if I were to end up in North Dakota, is that I would try to get out well before the tap has run dry. But opportunities don’t have to be thirty-years-and-a-pension to be opportunities.


    • While there is a sad element to seeing a town dry up and blow away I don’t think it is a terrible thing. It may speak to poor development, maybe, or that the hopes of the settlers were misplaced but the West can’t actually support all the people that might want to live there. Throughout our history settling and building a town was the pinnacle of civilizations, a show of character and proof the was the US was a dream world of hope for the down trodden. But lots of those towns were always going to be ephemeral. Hell there is ruins of town, Rhyolite i think, in Death Valley. DV is beautiful and fun to visit but a hellish place to try to settle. That the town failed is just life.

      I think it is the expectations of people that get in the way a bit. If people can build their life by moving to ND then that is good. However it may not last in building up ND and the people who live there long term may suffer some long term consequences from riding the bust side of the cycle and they may have to clean up or cough up the enviro problems. Quick bucks may cost some people a lot in the long term. That doesn’t mean the quick bucks don’t help some people get out of debt or buy a house and build a life.


    • There are reasons to believe that it’s a very fragile boom as well. We have a pretty good handle on the production expenses now — if oil prices were to approach $80 per barrel, the drilling stops. If ND were to adopt gas-flaring rules like those used in Texas, drilling slows drastically and production costs go up. ND’s state forecasts for production incorporate, in my analysis, a “then a miracle occurs” change in well behavior 20 years out. No one is even considering building a pipeline into the region — Keystone XL is all about moving synthetic crude from the Canadian oil sands to the US Gulf Coast where it can be exported.

      I agree with your gut. Western ND is one of the fossil-fuel-driven anomalies in the overall Great Plains pattern of population collapse. When the boom ends, they’ll return to the 80-year trend, quickly.


    • I don’t see San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle as true boomtowns even though all three of them grew very fast from village to city. The reason why they aren’t boomtowns is that all three developed as service areas for natural resource extraction businesses by providing financial, legal, transportation, and other services. This gave them tremendous advantages in diversifying their economies during and after the boom. All three quickly became industrial and port cities to. True boomtowns are basically places where you keep, feed, and entertainment the workers while they aren’t in the mine, forest, or oilfield.


  4. Good article Will. I think context is important so let’s look at numbers here: http://m.thefiscaltimes.com/fiscaltimes/#!/entry/10-highestpaying-jobs-in-north-dakotas-oil-boom,52794afa025312186c7a3302

    That article was last year but the range starts about a quarter million per year down to over $100K for relatively entry level work. Therefore I’d say the “miners” ain’t doing too badly. I worked my own way through college being a roughneck on drilling rigs. Back then (late 70’s) I was making serious bank, enough that I paid all my college and living expenses for the year from a few months work.

    As to boom town, who cares? Inhospitable places don’t attract long term tenants, and it doesn’t get more inhospitable than ND, especially in winter. Been there lived that.


    • I’ve heard from anecdotal sources that even burger slingers at McDonald’s are making upwards of $20 an hour because labor is in such short supply in the ND boom towns.


      • Not just anecdotal Cnbc backs you up Michelle. My friend is one of those drilling consultants, except he makes well north of $350k per year ($235k was only the average). He told me of going into fast food restaurants and hiring guys serving them on the spot – after their meal of course.


      • I wouldn’t be surprised, but I’ve also seen horror stories about how much it costs to time-share a bed in a miserable trailer. $20/hr might be subsistence wages.


      • It’s expensive, but if it were that expensive the NYT wouldn’t be so worried about kids skipping college to go out there. As critical as the NYT etc are of the whole thing, even they concede that the pay is good.


  5. My only experience with North Dakota was driving through it on Route 94 on our way from Seattle to Philly. That is one huge, desolate state with a whole lot of nothin’ between road stops. We spent the night at a Motel 6 in Bismarck with our two cats, pug, and cockatiel; ate breakfast at the local Denny’s; and then headed out for Minnesota at breakneck speed. At which point, we got pulled over by the North Dakota highway patrol for clocking somewhere north of 90.

    The guy who pulled us over took one look at the backseat of our car, filled with crates holding various beasts, and had mercy, despite the fact that our insurance card had expired and The Russian’s Washington state driver’s license didn’t come up on the computer, which showed him still having a California license. He let us off with a $20 ticket. G-d bless.

    I can see where the economic opportunity would be appealing, but I don’t imagine a lot of people will hang around once the boom goes bust. It’s a lonely place.


  6. Will Truman:

    “With any luck for them, this will ultimately turn into growth for Fargo and the eastern rim as people explore their options.”

    ‘Rain follows the plow’.


  7. Great article, Will. I really enjoy this and agree completely with your commentary. In the broader perspective, Boomtowns like this are an essential part of a healthy and dynamic economy.


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