Fracking for shale gas may be relatively new to our shores, but in America the same process has kickstarted a new oil rush that has seen North Dakota become the second-largest oil-producing state after Texas.
There are two clubs close to each other on Main Street in Williston, North Dakota: the town’s original strip club, called Whispers, and right next door to it a second, called Heartbreakers, which likes to call itself a gentleman’s club. It is here that a stripper named Elly, 24, plies her trade dressed – to start with at least – in a halter top and pants coloured a patriotic red, white and blue. Some strippers claim they can earn up to $1,000 a night in Williston, and while Elly makes no specific claims, she is making good money.
Unskilled labourers are Elly’s favourite clients. ‘They didn’t grow up around money, and they aren’t used to having it,’ she says. ‘Now that they’re earning so much, they spend it like water on strippers like me.’ She calls them ‘money egos’. ‘It makes them proud to show everyone they have money.’ She laughs. ‘Not a problem for me, obviously.’ It is oil that has brought Elly and her clients to Williston and transformed the prairie town – or rather it is fracking, the relatively new technique for harvesting the oil buried under the town.
Five years ago the town’s population was 12,000 and anyone looking for a job usually had to leave town. Now the population is up to 25,000 and the unemployment rate is about one per cent. At the turn of the century North Dakota was so deserted that some argued that the vast prairie should be given back to Mother Nature. Their argument ran: if people didn’t want to live there, let the buffalo have the land. Back then no one imagined that North Dakota would be hit by an oil rush. Every month, 185 new wells are drilled in the state, which now produces more than 900,000 barrels of crude oil per day and is soon expected to top one million barrels a day. Only Texas produces more oil. Fracking is transforming America: last year it overtook Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest producer of oil and gas.
North Dakota, in particular the north-western region, has been turned from poverty-stricken farming country into an economic miracle.
Williston has experienced mini oilbooms before, first in the 1950s, when oil was discovered in the area, and then again for a brief period in the 1980s on the back of booming oil prices, but nothing like this. The influx of oil workers to this small town is entering its fourth year and it is not about to stop. Last year the estimate of the amount of recoverable oil in the shale rock that stretches from North Dakota up into Montana and neighbouring parts of Canada almost doubled to 7.4 billion barrels, and the population of Williston is expected to double too.
But what has been the cost? Some of the town’s old-timers may have grown rich on the oil but they have not grown happy. Bob Thompson, in his spotless white hat, cowboy boots shining, the creases freshly ironed in his jeans, sits in Lonnie’s Roadhouse, his favourite bar.
Oil has made Bob Thompson rich, like so many others in Williston. Depending on how much oil is pumped out of his land, Thompson’s bank account grows by up to $18,000 each month, as do those of his nine brothers and sisters, co-owners of the land. Yet Thompson is unhappy with the changes to his hometown. It used to be quiet here; you could walk into a bar and recognise everyone. Now Thompson says Williston has become a city, and its new residents are primarily men. Thompson no longer recognises anyone when he walks into a restaurant. ‘They come from every corner of the country,’ he says. ‘We’ve lost our community.’ Inspecting number plates on the street, he sometimes counts 35 different states. The outer shell of the city is a mishmash of businesses, homes and shops. The regional airport runs straight through it all. Motorhomes dot the land on nearly every farm just outside the city. Previously deserted roads are now so heavily travelled by pickup trucks and 18-wheelers that the asphalt is cracked and worn in places.
The police department too has become severely overtaxed, Jake Manuel, the deputy sheriff, says. Cells, with space for just over 100 people, are full almost every night. ‘You only arrest someone when it’s really serious,’ he says. ‘You have to give people the benefit of the doubt.’ It is not only the rising population that has contributed to the crime figures but also the changing ratio of women to men in the town. Some women say they don’t feel safe when they go out, and there has been an increase in crimes against women, including domestic and sexual assaults.
Many of the new workers who come to Williston leave their wives and children behind in their home states, uncertain how long their stay will last. Visiting the town we see men with food-filled trolleys queuing at the supermarket; men doing their own laundry; men stirring pots on the stoves in their motorhomes.
One of the few women to have accompanied their partners is 20-year-old Sydné McKinney. She does not know the exact ratio of women to men but she says, ‘Whether it’s one in 20 or one in 50, it’s a few versus a lot.’ McKinney and her boyfriend, Vyper Unnerstall, 20, have lived in Williston for a little more than a year having arrived there from Rockford, Illinois, two hours west of Chicago. Last spring they moved into an apartment complex hastily thrown up on the edge of town. Every morning at 6am, Unnerstall and his fellow workers ride out into the vast prairie. He works five or six days a week on one of the oil rigs. As the youngest floorhand, it is his job to help get the oil pipe out of the ground when things get clogged or broken. He hangs from a metal box 30ft in the air so he can grab the oil pipe as soon as it comes out of the hole. He always wears a flame-resistant suit, which is too hot in summer, too cold in winter, but it keeps the oil from staining his body. His hands and face are covered in oil when he comes home every day. It is hard and dangerous work, but like all jobs in the oilfield, it pays particularly well. Unnerstall earns $26 per hour, $36 if he works overtime. He rarely works fewer than 12 hours a day, and earns $8,000 every month, which is a lot for a young man without a high school diploma.
McKinney works in the local nursing home. Her salary is lower and she can’t work as many hours as her boyfriend does. ‘I always hope he’ll be home early, but at the end of the month I start hoping he’s worked a lot of overtime,’ she says.
She is always worried. A year ago Unnerstall broke his hip in three places, when he was squeezed between a metal platform and the ground. He spent three months at home recuperating. McKinney remembers the moment when she heard about her boyfriend’s accident as the worst of her life. Yet she doesn’t want him to look for a different job. She likes the lifestyle the oil money brings. Her fear that something will happen to her partner is an accepted part of the deal. Oil lets them live the way they want to live, she says. They can eat out whenever they like, they pay the rent, and she can complete her journalism degree – and even then, they have some money left over. When we met her she was dreaming of a wedding and her own house in Williston: in January they were married. At the moment they pay $2,500 per month for their two-bedroom apartment because the influx of newcomers has created a housing shortage and a steep rise in rents. Those who can, bring their homes with them.
Holly Kuchenbecker, who is 60, manages the Fox Run RV Park, the largest motorhome park in Williston. A pitch here costs a steep $800 per month yet there is still a waiting list, Kuchenbecker says. ‘Every day, new folks come in and ask for a spot.’ Kuchenbecker lives on-site. At 60 she didn’t expect to be living in a motorhome – especially one on a windy hill just outside Williston with more than 400 miles between her and her five children and 13 grandchildren. Everything she owns now fits into 300 sq ft in a desolate field right beside the highway. But she and her husband were facing eviction from their home in South Dakota after their property company went bankrupt leaving them with debts of $43,000. And so she makes her daily rounds past the 300 motorhomes parked in neat rows. Has anyone sneaked on to the lot overnight? Has anyone stolen away without paying? She rarely encounters people in the park.
The residents are primarily men, either out working on an oil rig or sleeping after work. There is little else to do. You can tell from the motorhomes who has just arrived. Those who have lived through a winter have sealed and insulated every inch of their vehicles. Unmodified RVs are not built to withstand the icy North Dakota winter, when temperatures routinely drop below -20C. ‘Your pipes can freeze and burst in 10 minutes if you don’t take steps to protect them,’ Kuchenbecker says. ‘RVs aren’t made for permanent living. You have to adapt them.’
Oil-industry work may pay well, but it is monotonous. The days are long; family and friends are often far away. As a result, residents frequently entrust their life stories to Kuchenbecker’s listening ear and gentle personality. ‘I hear a whole lot of things,’ she says. ‘Most people who come here are carrying baggage.’ That baggage might be anything, but the common thread running through the men’s tales is the struggle to find work in their home states. Some have managed to keep their homes; others have only a mountain of debts and a dilapidated RV. According to Kuchenbecker, there is a major difference between older people like her and her husband and the younger ones who have come to try their luck in the oilfields. ‘The older folks are trying to reclaim their lives,’ she says. It frustrates her to see some of the younger men squander their money. ‘You couldn’t pay me enough to leave my family and then not even save a penny.’ If she and her husband keep working at the same rate, they will be able to return to South Dakota in five years.
The motorhomes – if you can find a space to park one – offer independence but not much in the way of long-term comfort. Rather more comfortable are the man camps, put up by logistics companies, which now house thousands of men. They are usually no-frills barracks with bunk beds and a shared living room, the same type used in Iraq and Afghanistan to house soldiers. The rent can be more than $100 a day, which includes food, laundry, cleaning and other extras and is often paid for by the oil companies. Carrier Morrell, 31, lives in a mini man camp, which he says is less than ideal, despite being only a five-minute drive from the oil rig where he works. ‘You’re packed like sardines and there’s nothing to do,’ he says.
Morrell has a degree in economics but could not find work in his home state of Montana. A year ago he was hired to clean platforms. In oilfield jargon, he was the worm, the last man to join the team. But even the worm has a sixfigure salary. ‘The work isn’t rocket science, but not everyone can do it,’ he says. Morrell works 12-hour shifts for two weeks in a row, then spends two weeks with his wife, his two-year-old daughter and his seven-year-old stepdaughter. ‘It’s an emotional rollercoaster. Every two weeks your heart breaks as you drive away from your family. Two weeks later, you jump for joy when you see them again.’ It may sound like a rather desolate life but it is a life that many are willing to lead. The giant new billboard outside the town shouts welcome to williston nd, boomtown, usa, and while the oil is there the town will keep booming, whatever the cost.