Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

North Dakota oilpatch booming

Town struggles to cope with influx of workers

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WILLISTON, N.D. -- In the overheated Williston, N.D., oilpatch, no one asks where you live.

Instead, they ask, "Where are you staying?" and then, "Where are you from?"

That's because the thousands of new residents in what was a sleepy little agricultural town of 12,000 or so three years ago don't usually have a permanent place to live -- they spend their off-time during two weeks of 12-hour workdays in "man-camps" or in RVs or company-owned condos, then leave for the next 14 days to their real homes in Texas or Louisiana or Wisconsin.

The Fort McMurray-style greetings are heard time after time while touring around Williston with Brett Williamson, the North Dakota director of operations for Calgary-based environmental-services company Tervita Corp.

And, time after time, Williamson hears amazement when he says he lives in Williston and, more incredible, he was born there, back in 1963.

Williamson was living in the western North Dakota town in the late '70s, early '80s, when the last oil-fuelled boom blossomed and died as world crude prices shrivelled.

"But there's been nothing like this Bakken (formation) boom," he said, braking to allow a transport truck to enter the highway.

"This is the most people ever in this area."

And, despite the pressures, he says Williston is still a good place to live.

"It's real what's going on here. There are struggles, but there are everywhere. This is the modern-day Hoover Dam. This is the national project of our time."

The boom is driven by an unquenchable thirst for light oil from the Bakken and associated tight underground formations such as the Three Forks, accessible thanks to horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.

The U.S. Census Bureau recently declared Williston the fastest-growing small city in the United States, adding 8.8 per cent to the population from April 2010 to July 2011.

The bureau figures there are 24,400 permanent residents in Williams County, of which about 20,000 live in Williston itself. But it doesn't count the estimated 7,000 temporary camp residents and another 2,000 or so living in RVs or campers.

Last year, there were 1,300 housing units built in the city, more than double the 600 built the year before.

There are plenty of Calgary-based companies in Williston, but not a lot of Albertans -- they are too busy working their own shale-oil plays in Western Canada.

But the signs are, literally, everywhere.

"Precision Drilling is looking for Toughnecks," blares one billboard on Highway 2, the main east-west artery. "Join our Williston Team -- Calfrac -- Careers driven by Horsepower," reads another.

North Dakota's oil output in January surged to 546,000 barrels per day, up nearly 60 per cent from a year earlier, as it beat out California to become the third-largest oil producing state behind Texas and Alaska.

A dry winter has allowed the industry to get off to an even more frantic start this year than last -- the state estimates production hit a record high of 558,000 bpd in February as the number of producing wells rose to a record 6,726. A fleet of about 220,209 rigs were hard at work in the second week of April.

There are people from every corner of the United States working here, driven by factors including the decline in drilling in the Gulf of Mexico following the 2010 BP Macondo rig disaster.

James LaCombe, the manager on a Precision Drilling Corp. rig working for Hess Corp. just north of Williston, said he's still getting used to the cold -- eight months ago, he left a 20-year career as an offshore rig manager in the Gulf.

"I was still working but, for my career, the oil business was booming up here and Precision was one of the best companies," he said, shouting to be heard above the roar of rig motors on the drilling floor.

"After the spill in the Gulf, it was really getting hard to know if you have a job or not."

He lives in a trailer on the rig site for two weeks, then returns to his family crawfish farm in Louisiana for two weeks.

LaCombe doesn't go into Williston very often. Too noisy, too crowded, too much traffic, he said.

That's the way Donn Campbell, a field superintendent working for Calgary-based Baytex Energy Corp., sees it, too.

"There's no such thing as customer service. If you don't like it, there's someone else waiting in line," he said, leaning on his truck near a windswept well site close to Crosby, 100 kilometres north of Williston.

Campbell said he spends his time in camp or at the rigs, returning to his Tulsa, Okla., home on his days off.

"It's chaotic," agreed Stephen Bosley, 28, the plant supervisor at Tervita's oil field waste-disposal and recycling centre at Alexander, 40 kilometres south of Williston.

When he came to North Dakota to work in 2008, he rented a house on a quarter-acre for $350 a month. Now, he said, he's paying $1,525 a month for a three-bedroom apartment shared with two roommates.

There's not much for young singles to do in Williston, he said. The bars are crowded and fights are frequent. He has a motorcycle but he doesn't ride it much -- the roads are so beat up and crowded with heavy trucks, it's just not safe.

Williamson is as surprised as anyone to be back in Williston.

He set out as a young man to get a degree in social work, but summer oil-field jobs turned into a career and he eventually started his own company in Fort Worth, Texas.

His service firm grew to employ 85 workers running 15 specialized "closed-loop" units that go to the well site and spin, shake, skim and screen contaminated drilling mud to separate the water, oil, chemicals and cuttings for reuse or disposal.

But the gas-price collapse brought Williamson and his wife, also from Williston, back home.

"We were in the Barnett shale natural gas play when the price went from $14 (per thousand cubic feet) to $3 in what seemed like a week in 2008," he said.

"We had to move to where it was wet -- that means oil."

He sold his five remaining units to Crude Processing Inc. of Williston and accepted a job there. Tervita bought CPI in September 2010 to enter the play, since buying two other companies to offer services including transportation, frac fluid heating and service rigs.

Tervita has 22 closed-loop units in North Dakota and plans to expand to 84 by year-end, creating the need for at least another 200 employees on top of the 500 it has already in the area.

The company's products are in demand in part because of a new state regulation that prohibits dumping liquid drilling wastes into open pits. Some 30 pits overflowed during unusually heavy spring flooding last year, resulting in $3 million in fines against 19 companies.

Tervita, which pays employees $1,000 a month as a housing/transportation allowance, has contracted to lease all 42 units in an apartment building under construction in Williston. The plan will allow Chance Sherrod, 26, a team manager on one of the closed-loop systems, to move his wife and three children from Fort Worth to Williston this summer.

"Even getting across town at five or six o'clock now takes forever, there are so many people," he said. "We work out every night, we play basketball. That's pretty much it."

Sherrod now lives in a company-owned house behind Tervita's main shop on Highway 2. The company uses the building for visitors and VIPs -- getting a hotel room in Williston is almost impossible.

Williamson said things are gradually improving.

As producers explore the outer edges of the oil play, the people pressure is subsiding and the city is catching up, fixing roads and installing signs. There's also a plan to build a ring road to get heavy trucks out of town.

The city moved last October to ban the parking of eighteen-wheelers on city streets and more recently passed a ban on people living in campers in city limits. A short-term result: Just east of town, dozens of vacuum trucks and flatbeds have sprouted in a farmer's stubble field and, the next field over, dozens of RVs nose up to recently built gravel roads, each with a pickup truck in front.

Not everyone in Williston can handle the pace.

A rig worker loves to tell the story of waiting to be served in a crowded pizza joint on a recent weeknight when he realized the overstressed staff -- every one of them -- had disappeared, leaving the customers to fend for themselves.

Apparently, they had just had enough boom.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 28, 2012 B4

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