HERE IS WHERE THE MAP SHOULD FOLD. HERE IS THE BOUNDARY BETWEEN EAST AND WEST. ON THE BISMARCK SIDE IT IS EASTERN LANDSCAPE, EASTERN GRASS, WITH THE LOOK AND SMELL OF EASTERN AMERICA. ACROSS THE MISSOURI ON THE MANDAN SIDE, IT IS PURE WEST, WITH BROWN GRASS AND WATER SCORING AND SMALL OUTCROPS. THE TWO SIDES OF THE RIVER MIGHT WELL BE A THOUSAND MILES APART.
– John Steinbeck,
Travels with Charlie in Search of America
As a new chapter in Western North Dakota’s history continues to unfold, it is impossible to not feel the frenzied pace of oil production throughout all areas of life. In spite of our growing pains, this is our home and people from all corners of the United States get to experience North Dakota for themselves. Welcome to Oil Country.
The sun rises over North Dakota Highway 23 marking a new day for Watford City on September 18, 2014. Likewise, it is a new era for North Dakota. As the oil boom settles in we have the privilege of being the generation that will shape our state’s future.
Pumping units raise and bow their heads methodically as they always have, but now we see them in packs of 2 or 4 or even 10. Thanks to technological advances in directional drilling, oil producers are able to maximize the use of the surface area of each location and install multiple wells on a single pad, reducing the overall footprint of oil production. Rather than create 10 pads, they’ll put 10 wells on one (slightly larger) pad.
The frenzy of oil production is seen in full force as a caravan of tanker trucks haul crude or water past four drilling rigs that drill in unison along the same lease road. The staggering sense of urgency to create producing oil wells is unique to this region but, as one local commented recently, “It’s too easy! They drill a hole in the ground and they hit oil…every time. Why wouldn’t they keep drilling?”
A herd of cattle pass an oil location as they come in from pasture. The serenity of North Dakota’s Grasslands is disappearing which is unfortunate to be sure, but bittersweet for most as they remember the economic gains that they represent. “As much as I hate the traffic and seeing the flares and pumping units everywhere, I’m thankful for the blessings it’s brought to our community,” a Watford City local shared.
The Maah Daah Hey Trail has even been effected by the oil field as drilling locations forced the re-routing of the 140 mile long single track trail. The term “shared trail” takes on new meaning as mountain bikers, hikers, campers and equestrians now cross paths with pumping units and oil field traffic as they cross gravel roads.
Housing is arguably the biggest issue on everyone’s mind. “We need to find affordable permanent housing for families” one hears over and over again from members of the community, long-time residents and transplants alike. “Affordable” and “permanent” aren’t qualities that define the current housing situation. Temporary trailer parks and man-camps are the norm for oil workers. Almost 50% of Watford City’s resident qualify as “non-permanent residents,” meaning they work here but then travel home to their state of residence during their time off. A February 2014 survey from ApartmentGuide.com found that rent prices in Williston, N.D., ranks as the highest in the country beating San Francisco, San Jose, New York City and L.A.
The population boom has created significant traffic and auto congestion on the roadways throughout the region. In 2014, the intersection of Highway 85 and Main Street in Watford City (pictured here) has seen an average of 18,625 cars per day according to the North Dakota Department of Transportation, up from 7,025 in 2011 and 2,700 in 2008…that’s an increase of almost 16,000 cars per day in just six years.
It is a 24-hour culture now. While most are sleeping the drilling rigs are active. Even some construction continues through the night. Once a location is approved to be drilled, earth-movers and heavy equipment roll in to level the ground and prepare the surface for oil production. “Open prairie” transforms into “oil pad,” complete with operation drilling rig like this one, in less than one-week’s time.
The agricultural community has adjusted to numerous unforeseen circumstances. The dust you see here isn’t grain dust, it’s dirt from the nearby road that was kicked up by oilfield traffic and re-settled back on the wheat. It takes a toll on the equipment as farmers and ranchers change fuel, oil and air filters with greater frequency and make repairs due to accelerated corrosion.
“The semi truck drivers are actually the best, they’re respectful and seem to have an idea of how tough it is to move the equipment nowadays” a farmer said recently. “It’s the pickup trucks that are the worst, trying to pass you at crazy speeds.” Farm equipment was much easier to move before the oil boom. Now, the constant traffic forces farmers to take alternate routes that strategically avoid the most heavily traveled sections of highway.
“The drilling rigs of course [are obstructions], but you used to make a nice clean sweep through a field and now you have an oil well site which has a pumper, tanks, wires and poles coming into that field. So, really, the obstructions were always there but now there’s just more of them,” Kent Taylor of Taylor Ag Services (pictured above applying fungicide to a field near County Road 12 in Watford City, N.D.) commented about the hazards of crop dusting in the age of oil production.
The rail lines are clogged with oil cars as they struggle to keep up with demand from the agricultural community. According to a recent report, BNSF has 1,016 past-due rail cars, averaging 10-days late; the Canadian Pacific Railway has over 7,500 past-due cars, averaging 13 weeks behind. What does that mean for farmers? In some cases they are still storing grain from the 2013 harvest on their land because the elevators are unable to make room, putting extraordinary strain on the industry as a whole.
The sun sets over Watford City as cars and trucks move through the late summer haze on the truck bypass south of town. While drilling rigs might be a part of the landscape for another decade or so, Western North Dakota’s decisions today will be felt for generations to come. It’s our responsibility to ensure that, when we wake up in 5, 10 or 20 years, we’re thankful that we made every possible effort to build the community that we wanted to be a part of.