From boom to bust, big changes in ND oil

North Dakota Oil: Boom to bust

WILLISTON, N.D. - When North Dakota oil was booming, the city of Williston was catering.

Tim Ritter, jeweler and life-long resident, sold everything from oil-themed belt bling to diamond-studded neckwear by the hundreds to oil field workers who walked in with paychecks bigger than the custom belt buckles they wore out of the store.

"You know, the guys come up here from out of state – they want to take something back home," said Ritter, owner of Ritter Brothers Diamond Cutters.

Most of those guys have now gone back home with no plans on returning soon.

"I think everybody understands and realizes the economy and the boom won't ever be back like it was," Ritter said.

In the last two years, Williston has gone from overcrowded boomtown back to quiet hometown.

They're still pumping oil. But the number of rigs actively drilling, the state's barometer for the industry, has fallen from 218 at its peak in 2012 to just 26 this week.

The major oil companies blame the price of crude, which is now lower than their break-even point as oil nations overseas refuse to slow down.

And as the sun sets on the Bakken Formation oil boom, its remnants cope.

"I took a gamble, came up, got a job immediately. In the oil field. And then the bust came," said Matt Bell, who left a teaching job in Florida to come work on the Bakken.

Now he spends early mornings at the Command Center, a day-labor staffing agency with more clients than jobs to hand out.

"The oil market is up and down, so I kind of had an idea. But I didn't know it was going to hit rock bottom as fast as it did," Bell said.

Those here reminisce about better times over the last five years.

"In 2012, pretty much as long as you had a pulse, they were willing to try you out for a position," said Kyle Tennessen, branch manager of the Williston Command Center.

"Ever since I moved out here, I made more money than I did ever, in my whole life, in California," said Sean Coons, as he put together a puzzle awaiting a potential job call.

But a sense of desperation hangs over the room, as many wonder, out-loud, how much longer they can do this.

"The people who could afford it, packed up and left home. There's a lot of people that got  stranded here too. Still living in vehicles," Bell said.

There are no homeless shelters in the city of Williston. So, instead, the Salvation Army is giving one-way bus tickets to people who are out of work and have no place to stay to help them get home.

"We're glad that we're kind of getting our town back," said Williston Mayor Howard Klug.

Klug speaks for Williston natives relieved the chaos of the boom has passed.

He also points to what the city reaped from the boom: a $77 million rec center and $57 million high school set to open this fall. Both are marks of a prospering community.

But there are clear signs across the region that housing and infrastructure built during the boom is now at risk of sitting unused.

"Everybody's trying to figure out what's it going to take to keep them afloat," said Dave Rousher, manager of ND Indoor RV Park, which was built by a Minnesotan near Watford City.

At its peak, ND Indoor RV Park was overflowing with a waiting list. But now, Rousher believes they are doing better than most at just 38 percent full.

"The people who came and built things around here, they're depressed. They have bills to pay. And a loan to pay. So they're depressed," Rousher said.

Temporary dorm-like housing for workers, known as "man camps," are now less than half full.

Williston city leaders have ordered them closed by July, hoping workers move into permanent apartments and homes, many of which are still being built. But housing numbers show there aren't even enough workers to fill the empty homes.

Those lucky enough to still work on the oil patch.. know there is new normal on the Bakken.

"My pay got lowered. Just so I can keep my job," said oil worker Stephen Johnson.

They hope the price of oil rebounds.

Others hope the jobs come back.

While Williston natives just hope the region stabilizes and sustains. 

As the Bakken oil boom, once a part of North Dakota life, takes its place in North Dakota history.


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