Falling Oil Prices Have North Dakota Migrants Rethinking The Boom

Jan 14, 2015
Originally published on January 14, 2015 6:33 pm

A year ago, as part of our series on the Great Plains oil rush, we brought you the story of a 36-year-old father who had recently lost his job when one of the last major timber mills in the Northwest shut down. After several years struggling to find steady work and even after going back to school, Rory Richardson decided to commute 550 miles from his home in far western Montana, to a place where jobs are plentiful - the oil fields of North Dakota. But after a little more than a year, he and his family have decided the toll is just too great.

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Falling oil prices are leading to a slowdown in drilling in states like North Dakota. And that means workers are rethinking the long commutes they've been making for the once steady, good paying jobs there. That's the story of a man we're about to reconnect with - Rory Richardson is a 36-year-old father whom we profiled a year ago. At the time, he was commuting 550 miles one way from his home in western Montana to the oil fields of Williston, North Dakota.

RORY RICHARDSON: I tried to avoid coming over here best I could, but it's one of the only spots where it's really booming and there is opportunity over here.

BLOCK: Well, a year later the slowdown is one of the reasons Richardson decided the long commute just isn't worth it anymore. NPR's Kirk Siegler sent this update.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Rory Richardson spent this past Christmas at home near Missoula, Montana, with his wife, Jennifer, and 3-year-old, son Colton.

COLTON: Mommy, I want to watch a movie.

SIEGLER: It sure beat last year when Jennifer and Colton were here in this modest living room alone and Rory was out near Williston, North Dakota, working 18-hour days on a rig and sleeping in his freezing cold truck.

R. RICHARDSON: It's really tough to leave a fair paying job, but on the other hand you've got to put your priorities in line, figure out, you know, friends and family kind of come first and...

SIEGLER: Richardson was making about $18 an hour - sometimes a lot more with overtime, way better than anything he could find at the time around here. But he also had to pay his own way to drive or fly back and forth and for temp housing when he was there. After about a year-and-a-half, just five days at home a month, things were taking a toll on his family life.

R. RICHARDSON: Every time when I went to leave the house here Colton, he would start crying, you know, not wanting me to go to work or go to Williston, and it's pretty tough leaving him.

SIEGLER: So when the company Richardson was working for started cutting back his hours around Thanksgiving, he saw it as a good excuse to get out.

R. RICHARDSON: There has been a lot of work over there for people for the past two or three years, which is really good. But I don't know what's going to happen here over the next year.

CHRIS MEHL: There's an awareness among workforce here that if you, in a sense, pick up everything and move there now you could be taking a great risk.

SIEGLER: Chris Mehl is policy director for Headwaters Economics, which studies migration patterns and the economy in the rural West. He's also on the city council in Bozeman, Montana. Now, economists say oil prices have to be at least $80 a barrel for drilling in North Dakota to be profitable. So we should expect things to slow down there, for now anyway.

MEHL: Now what you're seeing is, in a sense, is the breathing out. The Bakken is - because of the price uncertainty of oil you're not seeing nearly as much production there, but also Montana and the Northern Rockies have recovered quite well.

SIEGLER: So commuting those great distances isn't as attractive. In cities like Missoula, where Rory Richardson lives, the unemployment rate is now hovering around 3 percent, and some of that is being fueled by a real estate boom.

R. RICHARDSON: Well, I come back and I'm starting my own construction business.

SIEGLER: That's right. Rory Richardson is applying for a business license right now. In the meantime, he's got steady work doing remodels and building new homes for a friend's company in the nearby Flathead Valley's resort towns.

R. RICHARDSON: It has picked up a little bit, yeah, this past year.

SIEGLER: Going out in his own is going to be a bit of a risk. No guarantee there will be a steady paycheck, but it's better than the commuting, plus his wife, Jennifer, now has some help with little Colton again.

JENNIFER RICHARDSON: Oh, yeah, it's nice. It's really nice. It's a little odd having an extra person around all the time now. I've been by myself for, well, a year-and-a-half.

SIEGLER: Still, Rory Richardson says he wouldn't rule out going back to North Dakota in the future if the job and hours were right and oil prices go back up again. Kirk Siegler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.