While the cool kids have been playing with windmills and solar arrays, the adults have been changing the nation’s energy equation.
…Two years ago, America was importing about two thirds of its oil. Today, according to the Energy Information Administration, it imports less than half. And by 2017, investment bank Goldman Sachs predicts the US could be poised to pass Saudi Arabia and overtake Russia as the world’s largest oil producer.
Places like Williston are the reason why.
“For many years, they knew that there was oil in that area, but the technology wasn’t available to get it out,” the town’s mayor, Ward Koeser, tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz.
But in the last few years, advances in such technologies as “fracking” and horizontal drilling have made, by some estimates, as much as 11 billion barrels of oil available in the Bakken formation under North Dakota and Montana.
“There’s oil companies coming from all over the country now.” Koeser says.
Williston has skipped the recession entirely. Unemployment there is less than 2 percent. The population, the mayor estimates, has grown from 12,000 to 20,000 in the last four years.
“We actually have probably between 2,000 and 3,000 job openings in Williston right now,” Koeser says.
Oil workers like Jake Featheringill are fueling Williston’s population growth. He’s working as a shophand for Baker Hughes, making enough to support his wife and three children. But with such a sudden population increase, Williston’s infrastructure can’t keep up.
“When we came up here, we were told housing was tough but not impossible,” Featheringill says. He and his wife got lucky and borrowed an RV from a family friend. “We got lucky again and got to park the RV in a place where we were rent-free. Most of the RV spots around here run $1,000 to $1,200.”
That’s $1,000 a month, just for a parking space. “Is that not amazing?” Featheringill says. “And that’s in a 70-mile radius. Just to park your RV.”
“It’s the old boom-town syndrome,” says Charles Groat says, professor of energy and mineral resources at the University of Texas in Austin.
A small town like Williston, he says, can be burdened by a sudden oil boom.Ben Shaw hangs from an oil derrick outside Williston, ND, in July 2011. Williston’s mayor, Ward Koeser, estimates that the town has between 2,000 and 3,000 job openings for oil workers.
“All the workers. And then you have roads and trucks and pipelines. And then you have all the community services that have to be provided — law enforcement, education. So it turns into a real bonanza in terms of income, but it becomes an environmental effect that people aren’t used to experiencing.”
In Williston, many workers forgo prices as high as $2,000 a month to rent a small apartment and instead live in “man camps,” massive group-housing provided by their companies.
“Just a little room with a bed and a TV,” Mayor Ward Koeser explains. “And then they have recreation areas.”
The boom in Williston, Charles Groat says, is happening in spots across America. New drilling technology is also fueling boom towns in Texas, Louisiana, and Colorado. New drilling technologies mean companies can extract oil and natural gas from shale rock that was previously thought unreachable.
“Horizontal drilling — accessing a huge area of reservoir — and then the fracking process, which props opens those cracks, and allows the liquid or gas to flow to the well,” Groat says. “That’s what’s made shale gas and shale oil such a viable resource.” (more…)