Oil boom remakes North Dakota county with fastest growth in U.S. | News
F.First came the robbers and other oil field workers, almost exclusively men.
Lured by constant wages as the nation emerged from the Great Recession, they filled McKenzie County’s few motel rooms and then began sleeping in cars, tents, and trailers – all to hide from the cold winds that hit the prairie swept from North Dakota. Once empty dirt roads were suddenly clogged with tankers. The crime rates rose.
Soon everything changed again: the spouses and children of the workers came. The classrooms swelled up. Residential houses appeared next to oil rigs. And the newcomers embraced this Northern Plains community.
That growth made McKenzie the fastest growing county in the nation over the past decade, according to the Census Bureau. It swept through like a writhing dust devil, shaking the rural innocence of a region known for inhospitable winters and long summer days perfect for growing crops. But it also brought youth, diversity and better wages – and breathed new life into sleepy cities that had lost population since the 1930s.
Dana Amon, who grew up in a double-wide trailer on a farm on the outskirts of Watford City, recalls riding her horse across fields now dotted with humble apartment buildings, torched nearby at night Oil wells are illuminated.
“Our little town is blown at the seams,” she said.
Since the boom began in 2010, McKenzie County’s jobs have come and gone with the changing fortunes of oil. Crude oil prices peaked at more than $ 130 a barrel for the past decade, fell below $ 40, and then rebounded before falling again with the coronavirus pandemic.
McKenzie just kept growing.
Watford City – perched on a cliff, the skyline of which is defined by two grain elevators – extended onto the surrounding farmland. The flat, largely barren landscape of Amon’s childhood today offers miles of labor camps, shopping centers, subdivisions, hotels, truck yards and warehouses.
When fights broke out in bars along Main Street and deadly wrecks were the order of the day on the freeways, people like Amon began to lock their doors at night.
Ten years later the frenzy has subsided. The caution that locals and newcomers held for one another waned. Along the way, life was sewn together through school events, church services, and on the sidelines of youth soccer games.
“I tell the locals, ‘If you kick me out, I won’t go. It’s my town, ‘”said Yolanda Rojas, a native of Tucson, Arizona, who followed her husband to McKenzie County with their five children a year after he got a job in the oil fields.
From 2010 to 2014, the amount of crude oil produced in the district rose by 1,800 percent. By the end of the decade, the population has more than doubled to 14,704 inhabitants, according to censuses.
Rojas and her husband Ruben Vega saved enough money to open a Mexican restaurant in March 2020 – just as the pandemic hit. Business wavered from failure when Rojas reached out to the community on social media. People in Watford City gathered to help and regularly ordered takeout to keep the family afloat.
Many of the customers were unknown to Hispanic and Rojas. It wasn’t until the census data came out that she learned that the number of Hispanics had increased tenfold over the decade, a major cultural shift for a community long dominated by farmers of Northern European descent.
Oil was first discovered in McKenzie County in the 1950s, but it was the industry’s fracking revolution that tapped once inaccessible crude oil reserves and turned North Dakota into a global energy company. The government estimates that tens of billions of barrels of oil remain to be tapped, and new wells are continually being drilled.
County officials say the growth is far from over. The number of school attendances has tripled in the last ten years and is expected to double again by 2030.
Pump jacks that pull oil from the ground shape the landscape for the 2,860 square miles of the district. McKenzie is bordered by the Yellowstone River to the north, Lake Sakakawea to the east, and Montana to the west, and has a larger land mass than Delaware.
Howdy Lawlar, chairman of the McKenzie County Commission and whose family has grown wheat and raised cattle northwest of Watford City for five generations, recalled the widespread frustration among farmers when thousands of oil trucks clogged roads that were not designed for such traffic .
Lawlar left his farm and tried to turn left into Watford City and was able to wait an hour for a traffic gap.
To reduce the traffic jam, bypass roads were built. Pipelines were used to replace tank trucks. At the height of the boom, nearly 4,000 trucks crawled through Watford City every day. Recent censuses showed just over 320 trucks a day.
More police officers were hired to keep order and new schools built to get students out of makeshift trailers.
“I have the feeling that we are going to be one big extended family,” said Lawlar. “It’s a good thing.”
But while most families are getting older, this one is younger, with an average age of 30 compared to 39 in 2010. It’s also more affluent, with the median household income rising 61 percent to nearly $ 78,000, according to census data.
Despite the drastic changes over the past decade, the open countryside around Watford City retains a sense of seclusion.
Charlie Lewis came for oilfield work and then took a job as a farmhand with Lawlar, the district commissioner’s chairman, during a downturn in crude oil prices. He plans to make this place his home and raise a family.
“People come for work and stay for the community,” said Lewis. “The only time I think of going back is when it’s 40 below.”