WILLISTON, N.D. – Snowflakes and tumbleweeds whip past dismantled stacks of steel that used to be hundreds of oil workers’ livelihoods.
Four massive drilling rigs, idled on the windswept prairie near the North Dakota-Montana line here, wait for oil prices to rise again. Last year, when oil was selling for $100 a barrel, each rig employed almost 200 people, directly or indirectly. Now, with oil prices cut in half, they employ Shay Hunt, the night watchman.
“Over there, that was my rig,” said Hunt, a 35-year-old father of three from Williston, who has worked the oil fields for more than 13 years.
“Rain comes, 40-below comes, lightning and tornadoes come, we keep working,” he said, facing away from the downed rigs and into the biting wind blowing in from the west. “One time a [grass] fire a came up around the rig. We kept on working.”
But there’s a new threat to the oil fields. One you can’t work through.
After a six-year epic oil boom that has transformed both the economy of North Dakota and the lives of its people — sending unemployment to record lows and development and budget surpluses to record highs — the drop in prices is beginning to alter the landscape here. Half the rigs have been idled, costing thousands of oil workers their jobs with more layoffs likely to come.
Here in Williston, the epicenter of the boom, there is little panic. Officials say they welcome the chance for their city, the fastest-growing small city in America for the past four years, to catch its breath after years of breakneck change.
“We grew so fast, so quickly,” said Shawn Wenko, economic development director for Williston, home to the nation’s highest rents, lowest unemployment rates and largest municipal rec center. “Obviously, we have some catch-up to do.”
In cities across the oil patch, residents are waiting to see whether this is a slowdown or a bust. There are still billions of barrels of oil locked tight in the shale below. Every day, a million barrels of oil still pump to the surface. In the vacuum left by downed exploration rigs, communities are counting on a continued flurry in construction, small business start-ups and — regional planners hope — manufacturing as they rush to build homes, schools, roads and sewer lines to serve the new North Dakotans who now call the oil patch home. The ones officials hope will stay.
Hunt, who has gone from rig crew foreman to night watchman, said some of his friends on the rig have scattered back to their home states, waiting for oil prices to rise again.
Oil has been entwined with Williston’s identity since the first oil strike down the road in 1951. Downtown galleries sell framed portraits of oil wells at sunset. The visitor’s bureau hawks shelves full of Pipeline Pretzels, Frack Jacks pancake mix and Drill Bits crackers. At the city line, signs welcome you to Boomtown, U.S.A.
Chuck Wilder, whose grandmothers were in Williston for its founding in 1887, has watched oil busts hollow out his hometown before — first in the 1950s and again in the 1980s. This, he said, doesn’t feel anything like a bust.
Wilder, a part-time municipal judge who owns Books on Broadway, a colorful, quirky downtown bookstore and coffee shop, said the downturn hasn’t affected sales. In fact, sales so far this year are better than a year ago, when the boom was in full swing. Up the street, construction crews hammer at a half-finished complex of mixed-use retail, office and upscale apartments. Another block down Broadway, oil workers crowd into the new sushi bar, Basil, for lunch.
The oil deposits below Williston are so rich, it’s still profitable for companies to drill here, even with oil prices cut in half.
“Yes, the [rigs] are going down around the perimeter around us, but you’re still seeing decent activity around the sweet spot,” said economic developer Wenko. The state’s rig count was down to 93 this week, half of its total a year ago. State officials estimate 3,500 oil field workers have lost their jobs so far.
But the talk these days is less about exploration and more on shoring up existing extraction operations. The city has a billion dollars’ worth of infrastructure projects on its to-do list before 2020.
Williston wants to diversify, bring in new manufacturing operations to shorten the supply chain to the Bakken oil fields. Wenko likens the current supply chain to ordering a $1.50 baggie online and paying $7.50 in shipping costs to have it delivered.
When workers in Halliburton overalls browse Wilder’s bookshelves, he said, they come with engineering degrees, looking for more from a town than some fast, easy money.
“Some have moved. Some have been laid off and gone back where they came from,” he said. “But there are still thousands of jobs available.”
‘Not a job we don’t need’
There’s still plenty of work here, for those who want it.
At Job Service North Dakota, the state employment office in Williston, there are two job openings for every job seeker.
Office manager Cindy Sanford flips through five pages of oil industry job listings: roustabouts, truck drivers, electricians, technicians, mechanics, drilling engineers. The list of job vacancies outside the industry is even longer: construction workers, cashiers, diesel mechanics, painters, teachers, a helicopter pilot, a cake decorator.
The office added 70 new job listings the Friday before and 60 more on Monday. A new Menards opens soon that will need 300 workers and a sporting goods warehouse that will need 189 more.
“If you know any civil engineers, I need 10,” Sanford said, looking around at the dozen or so job seekers hunched over computers. “There’s not a job we don’t need.”
Still, it’s a very different employment picture than the heady, hectic days of the boom, when almost anyone could step off a bus and into a six-figure job in the oil industry. Around town, they joked that oil companies would hire anything with a pulse.
Newcomers are still walking into Sanford’s office every day, straight from the bus stop or airport. But the jobs they’re finding no longer offer six-figure salaries and benefits. These days, employers are looking for workers with training, skills and a solid work ethic. Just like employers back home.
Many laid-off workers have jumped to jobs in the still-booming construction industry. Some started companies of their own.
“You can almost smell the entrepreneurship in the air,” Sanford said.
On Main Street, California transplant Kelsey Thorne is getting ready to open Williston’s first Italian restaurant. Starting a business here — a community full of potential investors, with plenty of unmet needs — has been easier than it would have been back home, said the Cordon Bleu-trained chef who will manage the eatery. “We see Williston as a land of opportunity, for sure.”
Homes out of hayfields
Four years ago, Kendra Hill moved to Williston with a few suitcases and a husband who’d just found work in the oil fields. She’s watched the city transform around her from a crowded land of man-camps and overpriced, subpar housing to a city where she and her friends can meet for lattes and plan fundraisers to build a new swing set at their neighborhood playground.
The oil slump might have cut into overtime and perks, but the family is putting down roots. At the end of February, they and their two Williston-born children moved into a brand-new three-bedroom, two-bath home on the west side of town. Boxes unpacked, she spooned lunch into 6-month-old Donny while 2½-year-old Hannah proudly showed off the explosion of pink, purple and toys in her new room.
Next door, another brand-new house is for sale. The next house down has already sold, and beyond that is an open field and a vista of half-finished apartment complexes and single-family homes. The new Williston High School is under construction a few blocks away, and Hill is already picturing the day when Hannah and Donny can walk to school. After four years in the oil patch, the family jumped at a chance to get into a real home, not even waiting for sod to go in the front yard.
“This was a hayfield. It was dirt roads and pheasants,” said her friend Shaleena Layton, visiting with her 9½-month old daughter, Katie. “Now there’s a whole community down there.”
Williston now has a health food store, a dog park, a sushi restaurant, golf courses, a brew pub and a string of upscale coffeehouses. The birthrate has more than doubled — local hospitals welcomed 804 newborns last year. Minivans weave between the oil trucks and pickup trucks on crowded roads. Rents that used to be higher than Manhattan are getting cheaper as more options spring up, though house hunters still face rents north of $2,000 a month.
The new $75 million recreation center is open, the largest city-owned complex of its kind in the nation, complete with an indoor lazy river that rolls past a brightly colored play oil derrick that sprays water on giggling children as they float by.
The new normal
The drop in oil prices cost Michael Teague his job. But not for long.
For a while, after he was laid off from his job as a heavy equipment operator in the oil fields, Teague took time off to revel in his first real break since he sold everything he owned and moved to Williston four years ago.
“It was crazy. Never have I worked so hard in my life,” he said. “I liked the work so much, but physically it was starting to wear on me.”
He’s now working on the railroad, part of crews laboring to expand rail services between Bakken oil fields and their markets. The pay is lower, but the job is satisfying and comes with perks like a modest 40-hour workweek, health benefits and vacation time. Teague still lives in an RV parked on the prairie, saving his money from all those oil jobs and their overtime and spending his new downtime ice fishing and pheasant hunting. He recently bought 12 acres of commercial property as an investment.
“I’m 60 years old and I’m thinking this is probably the last job I’m ever going to have,” he said. “I really like it here. This is a great time.”