Low oil prices are causing a drop in new drilling and exploration in North Dakota, but not as much as you might expect.
Take the boom town of Watford City, over in the northwestern corner of the state and in the heart of the Bakken oil patch. Its population has tripled since 2010, and today, continues to climb.
When I visited a year ago for our series on the Great Plains Oil Rush, the price of oil was above $100 a barrel. When I went back recently — with the headlines warning of a crash coming fresh in my mind — it was below $50; a 50 percent decrease in a year. I figured I'd come upon empty hotels, the skeletons of half-built condos and people out of work ...
Yeah, not so much.
My hotel room still cost about $200 a night. The Cashwise grocery store was still packed with roustabout men hauling out cases of Red Bull and boxes of Hungry Jack pancake mix (just about every state in the nation was represented via the license plates in the parking lot). And outside town, the drill rigs were still lighting up the frozen prairie like Christmas trees.
If there's a slowdown in North Dakota, it isn't really being felt in Watford City.
"I think it's still growing," said Ashley Bones. "There are still people buying homes and a lot of people coming in here still looking for jobs."
I met Bones, 28, in the airy lobby of a local bank where she works as a loan officer. She told me that she moved to Watford City from Wyoming two years ago to be closer to her dad. Well, that, and the promise of good jobs.
"They're still hiring," she said. "There are still signs for $14 an hour, $17 an hour at Wal-Mart."
Most nights Bones also helps out with the bookkeeping for an oil field services company where her husband works. The two met here a year ago. He came from Oregon. And one telltale sign that the oil boom is still cruising along here is that the couple rent a trailer for $2,000 a month. And they consider that a deal.
"It's about a thousand dollars a room right now [in town], it's been like that ever since I got here," Bones said. "It's not going down any, in fact, some are going up."
Make no mistake, you definitely still detect some anxiety in Watford City about what might happen in the next few months if oil prices stay where they are, or drop further. There are stories about layoffs and some businesses in town closing.
After all, the number of active drilling rigs — the "rig count" as the industry tracks it — has dropped by 40 percent compared to this time last year in North Dakota. But you have to remember that last year set records. And the most oil-rich parts of the Bakken formation happen to lie beneath Watford City. That's why production is actually increasing, despite the low oil prices, and it's why the situation over at the schools seems unchanged in the year since I last visited.
At the elementary school, the friendly assistant principal, Kerry Stansfield, showed me a crowded gym — students were having recess inside because the wind chill was below minus 10. Next it was a quick peek at modular homes that many of the teachers have to live in. Then it was over to see four portable classrooms the third grades are packed into.
"We've had to remodel this several times," Stansfield told me.
Like Watford City's population, the school district's enrollment has tripled in five years. And they're planning for it to grow another 50 percent in the next five years. Last spring, voters approved a plan to build a new high school. It was a big relief around here.
"We're going to be moving," Stansfield said. "High school is going to the new high school, middle school is going to stay at the old high school."
A Slowdown Ahead?
One thing that has changed with oil prices being more volatile is that teachers and staff are seeing more of what they call "boomerang kids." That is, those that are here for five or six weeks at a time, then their parent heads to another oil field down south, then they're back.
Sometimes teachers like Pam Moen only get one or two days' notice.
"It's a challenge," she says. "A lot of spots, spottiness, with what they've learned and where we're at."
Moen is a North Dakota native who moved to Watford City after spending more than a decade teaching in the Las Vegas area. She taught through the housing boom, then bust, there. Like a lot of people, she doesn't see a bust happening around here.
"We're not really seeing the slowdown here, necessarily, in Mackenzie County," Moen said. "I think we still have 50 plus rigs drilling right now, it's just busy where I live."
Busy and still growing, that definitely sums up life in Watford City right now. But at the same time, it's easy to see why people like Moen maybe wouldn't mind a bit of a slowdown. It would give them a chance to breathe a little, to catch up.
DON GONYEA, HOST:
Low oil prices have meant a drop in new drilling and exploration in North Dakota. But things haven't totally slowed down. NPR's Kirk Siegler found that in many parts of the state's Bakken oil patch, drilling and production are churning right along, even increasing. Kirk sent this report from the boom town of Watford City, N.D.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: About a year ago, when I first traveled to Watford City, the price of oil was above a hundred bucks a barrel. When I came back recently, it was below $50 a barrel - a 50 percent slide in a year. So I figured I'd find empty hotels, the skeletons of half-built condos, people out of work.
(SOUNDBITE OF DIESEL RIG)
SIEGLER: But here again are the armies of big diesel rigs idling at the truck stops, the roustabout men walking out of Cashwise grocery with armloads of Red Bull and boxes of Henry Jack pancake mix. At night, the drill rig's still lighting up the frozen prairie like Christmas trees. And over and over I hear a slowdown - yeah, not really.
ASHLEY BONES: I think it's still growing. There's still people buying homes and a lot of people coming in here still looking for jobs.
SIEGLER: This is Ashley Bones. She's 28. She moved to Watford City from Wyoming two years ago to be closer to her dad. Well, that and the promise of of jobs.
BONES: They're still hiring. There's still hire signs for $14 an hour - $17 at Wal-Mart, you know?
SIEGLER: Bones has a job as a loan officer here at the First International Bank on Watford's Main Street. At night she also does bookkeeping for the oilfield services company her husband works at. The couple met here a year ago. He came from Oregon. And get this - they pay $2,000 a month to rent a trailer, and that's considered a deal.
BONES: You know, it's about a thousand dollars a room right now. It's been like that ever since I got here. It's not going down any - in fact, some are going up.
SIEGLER: Now, you definitely still detect some anxiety about what might happen in a few more months if oil prices stay where they are or drop further.
(SOUNDBITE OF DRILL RIG)
SIEGLER: The number of active drill rigs like this one has dropped in North Dakota by 40 percent in the past year. But you have to remember last year set records and Watford City, at least, is the epicenter of the Bakken. The most oil-rich parts of the formation lie beneath here, so production is actually increasing despite the low oil prices. This is why the situation over at the school seems unchanged in the year since I last visited.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Logan, show me what you can do.
SIEGLER: The elementary kids are having recess in the gym today. It's below minus 10 wind chill outside. That's the threshold in North Dakota for keeping students inside. The Assistant Principal Kerry Stansfield says enrollment here is still going up and up.
KERRY STANSFIELD: We've had to remodel it several times, and if you go out we have four portables right now.
SIEGLER: That's right, I remember visiting last time.
Last spring, voters approved a plan to build a new high school. It was a big relief for around here. See, district enrollment has tripled since 2010. And they're planning to grow another 50 percent over the next five years.
STANSFIELD: We're going to be moving. The high school's going to the new high school, middle school is going to - going to stay at the old high school. We're going to be moving fourth and fifth.
SIEGLER: Now, one thing that has changed with oil prices being more volatile is that teachers and staff are seeing more of what they call boomerang kids. Those that are here for five or six weeks at a time then their parent heads to another oil field then they're back, maybe with only a day's notice. Well, this is Pam Moen's world.
PAM MOEN: Oh, jeez. I have Louisiana - let's see - Michigan, Washington, Idaho.
SIEGLER: Moen is one of six kindergarten teachers here.
MOEN: A lot of spots - spottiness with what they've learned and where we're at, so it's a challenge. I had this challenge when I lived in Nevada, though, so it's - I'm used to it.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Can I use the restroom?
MOEN: Yep, you may.
SIEGLER: You may be able to tell Moen is from North Dakota, but she just moved home a couple years ago from Las Vegas. She taught there during that city's housing boom then crash. But she thinks Watford City's going to keep growing. Oil prices will come back - no bust here.
MOEN: We're not really seeing the slowdown here, necessarily, in McKenzie County. Other areas - outlying areas - I think we still have, like, 50-plus rigs drilling right now. And around my area it's just busy, like, where I live.
SIEGLER: Busy and still growing. That's life in Watford City. But people like Moen aren't afraid to admit that a slowdown - maybe it wouldn't be such a bad thing. It would give everyone a chance to breathe a little, to catch up. Kirk Siegler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.