Eaton reports: "Although only a small fraction of Bakken wells are in Montana, where oil production peaked in 2006, nearby oil industry development and an influx of workers have maxed out the town's water system, destroyed roads, and introduced drugs and violent crimes unheard of by generations of farmers and ranchers."
When Bakken Oil Came to Town
By Joe Eaton, National Geographic
10 July 14
At the edge of a farmer's wheat field outside the prairie town of Bainville, Montana, Justin and Mandy Tolbert's 36-foot camper sat in a rented lot. For more than 20 months, the Tolberts lived in the camper with their six children, ages 5 to 12, and Justin's adult cousin.
At night, a jumble of pillows and cushions on the floor served as sleeping space. In August, when temperatures approached 100°F, the camper cooked. In January, the temperature dipped to -20°F, freezing the pipes and leaving the family without water for days.
"The hardest part [is] winter, when they cannot get outside to play," Mandy Tolbert said about her children. "It's not like a house where they can run around."
The Tolberts are far from poor. Justin makes more than $200,000 a year as an oil pipeline welder in the Bakken oil field. The family owns a two-story home with an in-ground pool in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They drive a $50,000 four-wheel-drive van.
The Tolberts moved here in 2012 as part of a massive migration of workers chasing their fortunes in the Bakken shale, where a revolution in drilling technology led by fracking has pushed United States oil production to a 24-year high.
Like many oil boom families, the Tolberts left home to find a brighter future. They chose to live in rural Montana to avoid the bustle at the center of the oil rush 30 miles away, in Williston, North Dakota.
But the explosive growth that deterred them from Williston is spreading to small Montana border towns such as Bainville, causing severe housing shortages and growing pains.
Although only a small fraction of Bakken wells are in Montana, where oil production peaked in 2006, nearby oil industry development and an influx of workers have maxed out the town's water system, destroyed roads, and introduced drugs and violent crimes unheard of by generations of farmers and ranchers.
The Lure of Oil Salaries
"If you wish for this oil, be careful what you wish for, because life as you know it is done," said Ken Norgaard, road department supervisor for Roosevelt County, the vast and sparsely populated county of rolling farmland that includes Bainville.
County jobs were once coveted for their solid benefits and retirement plan, Norgaard said. Now, he has trouble finding workers. Norgaard advertised a road grader job as far away as Wyoming. In six months, he received two applications.
In the oil field, truck drivers make more than twice what the $17-an-hour county job pays, Norgaard said. The oil industry is also destroying the county's gravel roads, which were originally built for the earliest cars and small farm equipment. Heavy trucks hauling hundreds of gallons of fracking water have turned the country roads to washboards. When it rains, the gravel washes out and strands school buses.
"I've got plenty of equipment; what I need is manpower," Norgaard said. "I need to get my wages up to where I can compete with the oil patch."
The K-12 Bainville School faces similar challenges. The influx of oil workers has pushed rent for run-down mobile homes to upwards of $2,500 a month. Teachers, whose salaries start at $33,000, can't afford housing. At the same time, student enrollment has more than doubled to 165 since 2009.
"We have had to get creative," said school superintendent Renee Rasmussen, who graduated from the school in 1973, one of a class of ten. In the past few years, Rasmussen said, the school bought 13 homes to house many of its teachers.
Before the oil boom, the school was in danger of closing. Now classes are filled beyond capacity, and girls line up to use one of three bathroom stalls in the elementary school's bathroom.
One January afternoon, Rasmussen faced a more immediate crisis—finding a way to get the kids home from school. Rasmussen has struggled to hire school bus drivers, even after increasing wages to $24 an hour. She has recruited the school lunch cook and the janitor to drive buses. But on that day, an out-of-town basketball game left Rasmussen scrambling to find an additional driver.
Despite the problems, Rasmussen thinks development has improved the school and Bainville. But she worries that the small town flavor of Bainville, where oil millionaires dress like poor farmers and sometimes forget to cash their oil checks, may be changing.
"The big crisis is this," Rasmussen said. "How can we allow the growth to happen, welcome people here, and at the same time remain who we are?"
© 2014 Reader Supported News
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