North Dakota’s oil-rich Bakken region: boom, busts and trouble – by Richard Warnica (Maclean’s Magazine – May 21, 2012)

 Maclean’s is the largest circulation weekly news magazine in Canada, reporting on Canadian issues such as politics, pop culture, and current events.

Cross-border crime is only one of the issues affecting ‘the Fort McMurray of the U.S.’s north’

The strip clubs in Williston, N.D., are the rowdiest that Tatiana, an exotic dancer who has performed in Las Vegas and New York, has ever seen. Oil workers coming off the nearby rigs pack the city’s two clubs, Whispers and Heartbreakers, every night. They smell like work. They wear dirty T-shirts. They fall asleep face first on the bar. And then there are the prostitutes. Tatiana, who asked that her real name not be used, noticed them wandering though the crowd looking for customers on her first night in North Dakota. “They’re not in there to tip the dancers,” she says with a laugh.
Williston is the heart of Bakken oil country, the Fort McMurray of the U.S.’s north, for all the good, and bad, that brings. There are at least 3.1 billion barrels of recoverable oil trapped in the Bakken shale, a teardrop-shaped formation spread between North Dakota, eastern Montana and Saskatchewan, and likely many billions more. In recent years, new technology and high prices have made that oil both easier to get at and more valuable to sell. Today the race to pump it out—via a complex process known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”—is running at an Olympic pace.
As a result, North Dakota’s economy is the hottest in the U.S. Unemployment there was just three per cent in March, the lowest in the country. In neighbouring Montana, where oil exploration has been far more modest, the jobless rate stands at six per cent, well shy of the national average of nine per cent. All those jobs have served to make the Bakken region a magnet for newcomers. As many as 30,000 job hunters are expected to flood the area in the coming years, either to work for oil companies directly or, like Tatiana, to sell things to those who do.
Mostly, the people of the Bakken region have done very well because of the boom. But all that new money and all those new people have brought problems, too, much like those Alberta suffered when oil sands fever was at its peak. Builders around Williston can’t keep up with the need for new housing. The rental market in the entire area is out of control. In Estevan, Sask., just over the border, you can’t find a one-bedroom apartment for less than $1,200 a month, says Mayor Gary St. Onge, a price that would have been unheard of even three years ago. To keep up, oil companies are lodging workers in temporary “man camps”—dormitories or clusters of trailers where they sleep between 12-hour shifts.
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