Human

The Gold Rush

 By Mattia Ferraresi

Trucks, tankers, pick ups, huge trucks with exceptional loads carrying other pick ups, cranes, tubes for the oil pipelines, container-home that become the refuges of the “roughnecks”, young labourers on the front line of the drilling. Mattia Ferraresi traveled across North Dakota reporting the “gold rush”, an oil migration from all over the country to a state that has only hear about the crisis on television. Of course, much will depend on the price of crude oil, and there is much murmuring about the recent fall leading to a slowdown also in investment. “To tell you the truth, this slowdown will help us to take stock of what we need in terms of building, safety and services, and, in the long run, I think it will be good for business”, the mayor says. Oil revenues have also made it possible for the state’s eleven public universities to drastically lower their fees in order to attract more students, with special attention to the those who want to study oil engineering and remain in the sector…

“Where are you headed?”, asked the woman with a maternal smile from behind the counter. “Williston,” I reply. “I thought so. Take care, now. There’s always a lot of traffic on the road. Years ago it was news when a car passed by, but now…” And she made a series of gestures with her hands to better suggest the great movement.

The people of St. Demetrius, a small town of Ukrainian immigrants in North Dakota, have still not got used to living along the main route of the new gold rush, but if you look closely also this bar, four red wood walls with the word “café” roughly written with a paint roller, lives off the caravanserai heading north in search of  fortune. Trucks, tankers, pick ups, huge trucks with exceptional loads carrying other pick ups, cranes, tubes for the oil pipelines, container-home that become the refuges of the “roughnecks”, young labourers on the front line of the drilling. They come from all over the country to a state that has only hear about the crisis on television. I am in the middle of the final segment of the North Dakota oil migration route, 230 miles that connect the capital Bismarck to Williston, the town at the centre of the oil well of the Bakken field, 11 billion barrels of oil, trapped in the rock and just waiting to be extracted. And there is more, much more, but currently available technology can’t reach it, even if those who are really look ahead are developing strategies based on that kind of progress that today we can’t even imagine. The oil front extends further north, beyond the border with Canada where place-names of Norwegian origin are replaced by Indian and French names. But the Mecca of American oil is here in this semi-desert state, drawn by a ruler, which is now the driver of the American dream of energy independence. It may sound strange, but a large part of global geopolitics passes through this place.

I insist on paying for my coffee (“You only had the one cup, sugar, you don’t owe me anything.”) and set off again, heading north under the tepid August sun, an explosion of well-threshed life in a place where the average January temperature is minus 12°. The radio is tuned to Big Rig, a local station that only plays New Country and bluegrass classics. Somewhere between the towns of Dickinson and Belfield there is an invisible space-time door that links a farming civilisation to the post-industrial world, leaping over the intermediate stages. It’s a bit like flicking through an elementary school primer. In the middle of fields and on the tops of rolling hills covered in wheat, appear oil pumps. Rudimentary tractors share the old red mule tracks with trucks transporting goods up and down Dakota. The farmers wok side by side with workers in pick ups moving from one pump to another.

I have a credible excuse ready when a maintenance man comes threateningly towards me in a lay-by as I take some photographs of the machinery.. “So, you came to take some photographs, eh…,” “Yes, but you se, it’s not that…,” I stutter. “If you drive for a mile in that direction there’s a field of sunflowers with a pump right in the middle; very beautiful.” The  worker with an artistic sensibility wishes me good luck and raises two finger to his cap in salute. Crossing the Missouri over a steel bridge close to Williston, there really is traffic, and you realise you’re in another dimension as the average time between the light turning green and the first vehicle that sounds its horn is drastically reduced. In terms of population, this has been the fastest growing city in the United States over the last six years. And along the sides of the roads “mancamps” begin to appear, enormous expanses of containers for workers as the construction industry can’t keep up with pace of population growth.

The economic impact of the oil industry is enormous, and the allied industries are growing despite the slowdown caused by crude prices. In terms of employment it means that a sector that directly employs around 55,000 people, has been the driver for at least another 26,000 jobs

For some workers a roof over their heads is a contractual benefit, others have to pay for their accommodation out of their own pockets. But it’s worth it, even if rents are comparable to those in Manhattan and San Francisco. A small, two-room apartment, if you can find one available. will cost you $2,500 a month. A room in a mancamp costs $500 a week, and if you want to spend less, well there are large areas of campers on the edge of town, but in the winter months it can be tough.

The hotel starts serving breakfast at 4 in the morning: apart from some gaunt visitors with cars too small to be true, all the others are workers on the oil rig. At five the hotel car park is already empty. It’s easy to understand that the “No Camping” signs situated at all lay-bys and parking areas are not an exaggeration. Howard Klug, Williston’s mayor,  explains to me that “the population has tripled in the last four years,” from 12,500 to 36,000 people. But no one believes, not even the mayor, the official figures, that only take account of those who have formally registered as residents and not the thousands of others whose work in Dakota helps to support families all over the US, and to whom they return whenever they can. Everyone in Williston has their own personal estimate of the number of inhabitants, and obviously, others have got it all wrong.

The oil boom has brought unimaginable wealth to the town. “The average salary, and that includes everyone –from managers to bar-tenders and garbage collectors – is $76,000 a year,” the mayor tells me. “But a roughneck, with very little experience can ear between $80 and $100 thousand.” These are figures comparable to the nice areas of the big cities on the coasts: the per capita income is 30% above the national average and while state unemployment is running at 3.1%, in Williston unemployment doesn’t exist.

The budget presented by Governor Jack Dalrymple for 2015-17 foresees a surplus of hundreds of millions of dollars, despite a 14% increase in public expenditure, because the state absolutely needs to enhance the infrastructure in order to manage the growth in the economy and the population.

Of course, much will depend on the price of crude oil, and there is much murmuring about the recent fall leading to a slowdown also in investment. “To tell you the truth, this slowdown will help us to take stock of what we need in terms of building, safety and services, and, in the long run, I think it will be good for business. The serious companies with a long-term strategy will continue to make profits, and those who came to make a quick buck will be swept away,” the mayor says. In terms of long-term investment, the state hopes that over the next two years production will rise from 1.3 to 1.4 million barrels a day.

This is not the first oil boom in North Dakota. In the seventies and eighties, when the Bakken field was already well known, a number of companies came to explore but the returns were not guaranteed. Tessa Sandstrom, communications director for the North Dakota Petroleum Council, explained that “in the eighties, the companies that were drilling in Bakken had a 30% chance of striking oil, today 99%.” This is what has unleashed this new black gold rush and, in a knock-on effect, attracted professionals from all sectors, squeezed by the crisis, to come looking for a new start. People like Jeff Colburn and his wife Constance, who, two years ago, (though he points out that it would be more correct to say “three winters ago”, as that’s how they see things here) left there jobs in San Francisco to open the Gogo Café, a bar in the centre of town that serves sandwiches, soups and donuts. A sophisticated chicken sandwich with pine nuts, toasted almonds and the house’s addictive sweet & sour sauce rapidly banished the promise of junk food written into the constitution of rural America. “This town needs to be a bit sophisticated, and we are trying to make our contribution,”  says Jeff. “We came here for the same reason as everyone else, the possibility of earning good money and living quietly And business is going really well.”

The economic impact of the oil industry is enormous, and the allied industries are growing despite the slowdown caused by crude prices. The Petroleum Council estimates that the sector moves around $43 billion inside the state, around half of the state’s total business revenues. In terms of employment it means that a sector that directly employs around 55,000 people, has been the driver for at least another 26,000 jobs. Oil revenues have also made it possible for the state’s eleven public universities to drastically lower their fees in order to attract more students, with special attention to the those who want to study oil engineering and remain in the sector. And those who come form out of state, also have additional reductions. Studying in North Dakota costs half the average of universities across the rest of the country, and schools like Williston State College offer academic courses entirely for free to attract new students.

North Dakota has already won the energy challenge, but is still working on the social and existential impact. For us, the Bakken reserve is a blessing, we have to learn how to live with this revolution, without being overwhelmed by it

At the Four Mile Bar, a much-loved dive among workers who after a long day want nothing so much as a couple of beers and  a Chicken Alfredo frozen pizza, Williston’s cold statistics taken on a human face. Leroy runs a small hydraulic pumps company and is working for the local council on a project to expand the water supply. His family lives in Montana and he goes once a month to his wife and sixteen-year-old son, of whom he talks with evident pride. He has his face tattooed on his forearm. “I don’t work in oil & gas,” he say, but is immediately interrupted by a portly and affable man doing business with yet another Bud Light: “If people hadn’t arrived here in such numbers in recent years, there wouldn’t be any need to expand the water supply, and you and I wouldn’t be here. The truth is we all work in the sector here.” Everyone present nods in agreement with John, known as Elwood, a commuter from South Dakota (with great emphasis on the word “South”, underlining a certain rivalry between the two bordering states) and a partner in a company that handles high-voltage electricity connections for the extraction sector. There is a roar of laugher when Elwood exclaims: “He’s writing an article in Italian! Maybe the Pope is going to read it!”

An unknown benefactor offers everyone another drink. There are very young men and others whose faces show the signs of time, white and black, they come from the city and the country, solitary adventurers and fathers of families, descendants of the Norwegian colonisation and native Americans who have lost their tribal traditions. A man with a cutting sense of humour enters the bar, claiming to be the “only Russian Jew in North Dakota”. Walter, a truck driver from Mississippi with tough skin and an immaculate southern accent, transports water hydraulic fracturing. He’s been in the same job for forty years, chasing every new boom, every new gold rush, each new promising sector. He’s been in Williston since 2008, which practically makes him a first wave pioneer. And he says that business is doing well, “but clearly something is changing with the price of crude oil so low. But it’s my feeling that there will be a bounce back within the next year or so.” As the sun sets and the surrounding hills are marked by the flickering flames from the gas flares, he continues an animated discussion on business prospects with T.J. in the bar’s backyard.

T.J. was brought up here, in a family of the Chippewa tribe, and since she was a little girl she has dreamed of moving to Italy. “I guess in the end I’ll never get there, but I want my ashes to be scattered there when I’m gone. My family think I’m joking.” Having long wanted to leave North Dakota, she suddenly found herself on the right side of the recent economic migration and now works in the accounting department of an energy company. For her and her community, it wasn’t easy to deal with the gold rush, which has brought wealth to this corner of America, but has also brought big-city problems that no one round here ever thought they would have to face. North Dakota has already won the energy challenge, but is still working on the social and existential impact. “For us, the Bakken reserve,” T.J. concludes, “ is a blessing, I know that, but from time to time I long for the life we had before, when what you saw, and excuse my French, was our shit, and nobody wanted to come here. we have to learn how to live with this revolution, without being overwhelmed by it.”

 

North Dakota on the road (photos by Mattia Ferraresi)

about the author
Mattia Ferraresi
New York correspondent @IlFoglio_it