Property4peanuts — Towns such as Williston, Watford City and Dickinson are at the heart of the new American oil boom in the Bakken area. As a result, people are flocking to these small towns like it’s a modern day gold rush.
Take Barbara Hylick as an example. Hylick was working at an Orlando truck stop when a customer gave her a different sort of tip.
“A gentleman that worked up here as a truck driver told me, ‘Barb, you need to come and check out what’s going on in Williston.’ And I said — what’s going on in Williston?”
Williston is one of the towns at the epicenter of the Bakken oil boom in North Dakota. The state is one of the least populated in America however it is at the start of a big population boom with tens of thousands of workers on their way there in 2013 in the search of high paying oil related jobs.
“It’s just very, very intense,” says Mayor Ward Koeser. “We thought it would get busy. But I don’t think anybody realized how busy it would get, how many people would actually come.”
This surge in population comes after years of steady decline in Williston. However over the past couple of years the town’s population has boomed from 12,000 residents to 33,000. Many people expect it to reach 60,000 residents by the time the boom ends.
It’s no wonder people like Barbara are flocking here. Williston has an unemployment rate of less than 1%, one of the lowest in America, and the minimum wage is one of the highest in the country.
“I don’t think ‘minimum wage’ exists in Williston,” says Koeser. “Minimum wage here is probably $15 an hour. If you don’t pay $15 an hour, you can’t get anyone.”
Williston has been a magnet for Floridians who have been drawn to Williston to reverse their luck after the credit crunch wiped out the housing market.
Take Ivan Guerrero, a former Ft. Lauderdale mortgage broker that saw his business collapse in the recession.
Guerrero describes the economic downturn as a “nightmare” for him and his family, where he spent his entire life savings. “I went through everything, and I ended up with nothing. Then real problems started; not having money to pay basic bills.”
Like thousands of others in a similar situation, Guerrero decided to join the exodus to North Dakota, the location of one of the world’s largest oil reserves.
Previously inaccessible, Bakken oil that is located two miles below the surface, is being extracted by a process called fracking. Fracking involves shattering the rock with a high pressure blast of sand and water. The oil then flows from the broken rocks and is pumped to the surface. One oil well outside Watford City is pumping out an incredible 5,000 barrels a day from this process.
The Bakken oil reserves are massive, estimated to hold between 4 and 24 billion barrels. And most observers think the supply will last another ten to 20 years.
However, this amazing discovery which is expected to have a major impact on America’s economy and to reverse their energy troubles, comes at a price for Williston and similar towns like it.
There are regular traffic jams, long queues in supermarkets but the most pressure is felt within the housing market.
As ex Florida native Barbara Hylick says, when you decide to move to North Dakota “you basically choose to be homesless.”
When Hylick first started looking for a place to live in Williston, she found a studio apartment for $3,000 per month. After research, Hylick says “I realized that was cheap!”.
Hylick was lucky to snap up a place and many are not so fortunate. To park a camper van just north of Williston costs $800 per month and utilities are added on top of that. Residents have to insulate their camper vans from the cold and even with the freezing winter temperatures, the camper van parks are full.
The park manager, Beth Bartel, says that they regularly get camper vans that house entire families. “All living in a trailer. It makes it difficult.”
Despite the cramped conditions, Bartel has to turn away people regularly.
“I’ve had women come here and plead with me. They have three kids and are living in a field with no water, electricity or sewer because there are no vacancies anywhere.”
Many oil workers live in “man camps” which offer basic room and board to oil workers that work 12 hour shifts, seven days a week.
Rooms at man camps are usually paid for by the oil companies in need of workers. And for some, particularly the young men who make up the majority of residents, it’s a great set up.
Troy Mickler originally from Jacksonville, Florida, a cook at a nearby lodge says “I now make twice the money, literally twice, that I could make doing what I do there.”
Like many employees at the man camps, Troy works for 84 hours per week for six weeks in a row. This is followed by two weeks off. This arrangement allows him to save the majority of what he earns. On top of that “I have no bills here whatsoever. They pay for all of my lodging. They pay for all of my food. God, we eat steaks all the time. We literally eat whatever we want to eat, do whatever we want to do. And I bank 90, 95 percent of what I make, I bank.”
Another ex-Floridian from St.Petersburg, Charles Blust, put in 5,000 working hours in 2012. This is about 2 and half times a normal full time job. But he’s made good money after arriving in Williston with no money in his pocket. In the past year working in Williston he has managed to save $20,000.
Blust says that focusing on only the money is not a good idea. “The rate of turnover is quite high because that’s all they think about is the money,” he says. “They come up here and they don’t realize the work you have to put into it.”
For Blust, 46, the long shifts and bitter weather have proven too much. In December, he decided to leave Williston and return home to St. Petersburg.
“It’s cold up here,” he admits. “I’m from Florida, a real hot state. Come up here to frozen tundra, you know, it’s difficult.”