Derek Bush zips along the dirt roads around Tioga, N.D., in a black 2012 Chevy extended-cab pickup, stopping to make sure his men have the right equipment, are staying safe and keeping the oil rigs drilling.
Bush pauses amid bright orange flames burning off natural gas flares from wells in the misty North Dakota morning air, the metallic groan of an oil derrick lifting pipe out of a well and the rush of chemical-laden mud recycling through the rig site. “Every once in a while, a smell will hit me and remind me of something from Iraq,” he says.
Bush, 34, joined the Marine Corps in 1999. His gunboat team from 3rd Battalion 1st Marines – on liberty in the Seychelles Islands – was first on site in Yemen when USS Cole was bombed on Oct. 12, 2000, setting up a perimeter around the port.
With a daughter born during his second deployment, Bush planned to get out. But his service was extended in 2002-2003 and he was sent to Kuwait. His unit fought its way to Baghdad, helping to secure Sadr City and running patrols in the streets.
Bush made good on the promise to his wife to leave the Marines so he could be a family man in Riverton, Wyo. But after the adrenaline of war, he didn’t know what to do with his life. His father had been a roughneck and his brother worked in oil, like many guys do in Wyoming. So Bush got a commercial driver’s license and started driving trucks for oil and construction companies. Eight years later, he’s worked as a roughneck and in other jobs on oil rigs all over the country.
A boom of oil drilling and production on the Bakken deposit in the northwest part of North Dakota is bubbling up oil, profits and a host of employment options for Bush and thousands of others. He recently joined National Oilwell Varco (NOV) as a production manager for several rigs. The hours and pay work better for him than previous gigs.
“Oil fields are very friendly to veterans,” Bush says. “But you can’t come with a chip on your shoulder.” He says that working in the oil industry is like going back to boot camp. “You have to establish a good name for yourself” and the companies you work for, he says. That’s when oil workers start getting calls from other companies wanting to hire them at higher salaries.
‘Our clients are asking for more’ Western North Dakota and other regions are dramatically boosting oil production, giving the United States a new geopolitical cudgel in discussions with partners and enemies alike, from Latin America to the Middle East to Europe. The United States produced 2.7 billion barrels of crude oil in 2013, up 50 percent since 2008. The Bakken deposit has gone from bit player to starring role in the U.S. oil and gas industry, pumping up a million barrels a day or about 15 percent of U.S. oil production, accounting for 30 percent of the growth in U.S. energy output since 2009.
The oil boom is also putting thousands of Americans to work, including veterans, following the financial crisis and recession. They work as roughnecks on drill rigs, semi drivers and builders at construction sites. North Dakota’s economy grew by 13.4 percent in 2012 (the last year for which statistics are available) – more than any other state. As a result, there’s a need for more teachers, clerks, mechanics and other service workers.
After leaving his job as an Army paralegal in 2007, Ty Ingalls went to work for oil-field services companies as did his five brothers. Now he works in Williston as a superintendent for Golden, Colo.-based OE Construction. Several workers he’s hired came to North Dakota because they couldn’t find work in their home states. “Their whole family was unemployed,” he says. “They were taking their North Dakota paycheck back to California to support their whole family. North Dakota jobs were supporting a lot of families around the country.”
With large numbers of U.S. troops returning from Afghanistan, oil jobs in places like Texas, Pennsylvania and North Dakota are becoming a popular second act for veterans. Cindy Sanford of Williston’s job service office says that of the 4,746 jobseekers visiting her office from January to March 2014, 572 were veterans. That’s up 29 percent from the 444 veterans (of 4,835 seekers) who came in during the same time period in 2013.
She recommends that people do their research and make connections before they arrive in Williston. With no homeless shelters in town and housing scarce and expensive, just showing up doesn’t always work out.
“You kind of need a network,” Sanford says. “You gotta come with a plan.”
Veterans are some of the most sought-after workers in the oil business, she adds. They have a reputation as disciplined, reliable, safety-conscious, and accustomed to barracks-style living, deployments away from family and workplace hierarchies. They’re also unfazed by North Dakota’s frigid winters, bumpy gravel roads and limited food options.
“Our clients are asking for more,” says Anna Denton, a recruiter for staffing company Command Center in Williston. She, too, is seeing more veterans showing up in North Dakota, where they make up roughly 10 percent of the workforce – up from 2 percent a few years ago.
“They will get a preference when I hire,” says Steve Fishkin, a recruiter for Keane, a Bradford, Pa.-based oil services firm. “They make great employees.” He recently brought on 15 veterans as drivers in his 400-person company that works for bigger oil companies such as Shell, Chevron or Continental Resources. He estimates that 20 percent of his company workforce has military experience.
‘Industry town’ Williston sits right off the banks of the Missouri River, where explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark explored and mapped new U.S. territory from 1804 to 1806 at the request of President Thomas Jefferson. While their journals describe lots of bison, beavers and mosquitoes in the area, they couldn’t have known that billions of barrels of oil were some 2,000 feet beneath their keelboats.
In fact, no one in the oil industry or North Dakota knew about the black gold until the 20th century. And drilling the Bakken deposit was nearly impossible until horizontal drilling and fracking took off in the past decade.
Tumbleweeds blow past man camps – fenced-in groups of trailer houses, cabins and even hotel structures that house oil workers – that are scattered around western North Dakota. An old JCPenney downtown seems trapped in time. Nearby are a Wildcat Pizzeria, a work-boots superstore, trucks hauling heavy equipment through suburban intersections, and a Phil Jackson Way street sign to honor the former NBA player and coach.
In 2010, the Walmart parking lot was ground zero for activity, and dozens of people slept in their cars and big rigs in the parking lot. Now “No Trucks” signs are posted. Others stayed in parks or in campers parked in random places. In a way, they’re reminiscent of Tom Joad and other Okies in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” – Dust Bowl workers heading to California in the 1930s to make a living.
Williams County has an unemployment rate of 0.7 percent, says Tom Rolfstad, executive director of the Williston Area Economic Development Corporation. But with hundreds of positions unfilled each week, the unemployment rate is actually negative. There are more jobs than people in this part of the world. And the industry jobs often pay people $70,000 to $200,000 (depending on experience level) to work, in many cases, six months out of the year.
But word has leaked out. In the wake of a national financial crisis, housing bust and soaring unemployment, Americans from all 50 states are flocking to the region. The state estimates that the oil industry has created 50,000 high-paying jobs in drilling, fracking and production. It’s created more than 200,000 jobs if you include hotels, food services and infrastructure jobs.
City leaders such as Rolfstad are trying to lure more families to Williston, seeking stability for the small town that’s been overrun by transient oil workers. “It’s not all trucks and guns,” Rolfstad says. “There’s a town here.”
He wants to promote healthy living in a place increasingly known for grit and grease. To combat obesity and rising crime, the city plans to add more parks, urbanize the look of downtown streets, and expand schools and hospitals. In March, the city built a $70 million, 230,000-square-foot recreation center, one of the largest in the country. Rolfstad saw a boom of 800 babies born last year, a sign of new family life. He wants to remove the moniker “boom” town and be known as an “industry” town.
Houston was once the size of Williston, Rolfstad points out. “It’s hard to look in the crystal ball and see the future,” he says. “But we think this (oil boom) could be around for the long term.”
Dark side of the boom A previous boom took the population of Williston from roughly 10,000 people to 18,000 in the 1980s; in 2010, it was back down to 14,700. In recent years, estimates show the city is up to 30,000. Some think that number could jump to 100,000 in coming years; it may be near that already if you count all the temporary workers who float in and out of town. But no one knows for sure, as thousands of workers live in other states and are paid by oil companies to commute to North Dakota by plane or car for shifts that run schedules such as four weeks on, two weeks off.
The incredible surge in oil, cash and jobs has wreaked havoc with the local economy, sending housing prices soaring (rent averages $2,400 a month, higher than in Manhattan) even as retail services are a bit scarce. That’s why oil companies build man camps around the countryside, many of them makeshift trailer parks with their own buffet-style cafeterias, gyms and cable TV.
The influx of people, trains and semi trucks hauling equipment, water and oil is also causing problems for local roads and, arguably, the environment. Some trains have crashed and burst into flames while hauling the high-quality crude out east to end-market refineries.
Officials are concerned that the oil industry will use up much of the region’s water in the drilling process. Local news reports highlight companies that dispose of materials improperly, such as leaving radioactive filter socks in ditches near roads or stockpiled in empty barns. And the state is trying to find a solution to the rampant practice of “flaring” natural gas from oil wells. Roughly 30 percent of natural gas from the ground is burned off because of difficulties in capturing it.
The state of North Dakota is trying to fix these problems, but the legislature only meets once every two years. So legislators and administrators are constantly playing catch-up to the oil boom.
Meanwhile, locals complain about rising crime rates. Some moving to North Dakota are bringing meth labs, firearms, prostitution rings and criminal networks with them. The region is also seeing violent crimes surge, with rapes happening to 100 out of every 100,000 people, four times the national average. Thefts, violent crimes and DUIs are surging, too. Williams County saw only 15 DUIs in 2008 but a whopping 205 in 2012.
“We’re used to being a town where you could leave your car unlocked,” Rolfstad says. “You have to be street-smart, and we are not used to that. We used to be Mayberry.”
Unable to keep up with the boom in crime, small-town police forces have been forced to triage arrests. There’s not enough room in their jails to house the criminals, so they haul some to neighboring cities and let others go.
“My wife packs a loaded .380 in her diaper bag,” says a local man, noting that recent kidnappings and murders have alarmed her. “We all carry pistols up here.”
Veterans service officer Grant Carns mans a counter at the Williams County Courthouse in downtown Williston, where veterans stop in and ask about housing loans, health benefits and retirement plans. He sees Vietnam-era veterans, mostly. But that’s changing. “We are seeing younger vets now.”
Roughly 2,000 veterans lived in the area in 2012, not including those from other states or counties working on rigs, Carns says. He estimates that between 3,000 and 4,000 veterans now live in the oil-producing region of Williams, McKenzie and Divide counties.
Some people who move to Williston are unemployable – veterans included – because of bad credit, drug test failures and criminal histories. Carns has bailed four or five veterans out of jail who didn’t have prior arrest records, and helped them get home to their families.
“If you are drinking and using drugs, don’t come up here,” he says. “This environment is not conducive to that.”
Local auto mechanic Gary Hansen stops by and tells a shocking story about a homeless veteran who was living in a minivan on the outskirts of town. Last October, he noticed piles of human feces and pop bottles full of urine in the vehicle. “There was poop this high!” Hansen says, turning red in the face and holding his hand at his waist.
Hansen showed up at night with a stun gun and flashlight. Seeing a man sleeping in the car, Hansen cinched a strap around the van, trapping the man inside, and called the police.
Cops showed up in three minutes and arrested the gaunt 38-year-old, who showed up again in February. Hansen evicted him once more and told him not to come back. “He’s still in town somewhere,” he says. “All he wants is a six-figure income.” Last he heard, the man was working at temp jobs in the area and arrested for sleeping in apartment buildings.
“If he comes back, try to get a hold of me,” Carns tell Hansen.
Entrepreneurship and opportunity While some veterans struggle to gain a foothold in the Bakken region, others are succeeding and even prospering. Tom Coons, an American Legion member and adjutant of Matthew Brew Post 3 in Dickinson, is a vice president of Raven Drilling, which is owned by San Antonio-based Abraxas Petroleum Corp. The company, led by oilman Robert L.G. Watson since 1977, owns thousands of acres of drilling possibilities in Texas and North Dakota.
Driving to his company’s lone rig a few miles from Watford City, Coons describes the ups, downs and sideways jolts he’s experienced as an entrepreneur in the roller-coaster oil patch. “I went broke in 2010,” he says. “The industry in 2009 was pretty rough.”
Coons, 61, worked as a roughneck after high school in Montana and joined the Air Force as a mechanic and crew chief on jet engines in the ’70s. He returned to the oil industry after his service, working nearly every job on a rig and eventually founding Wyoming-based Krobar Drilling in 2005.
He financed a rig for $5.5 million and tried to drill wells in Wyoming, Utah and Texas. But when the financial crisis hit in 2009, oil demand dropped and Coons was forced to sell his rig at a loss. He consulted for other companies in recent years and, in 2012, hooked up with Abraxas to buy a $20 million rig for Raven Drilling that Abraxas could use to drill its wells in North Dakota.
After a couple of years, Coons says he’s nearly paid off the note for his failed company. Besides making money and operating a safe rig for his new company, he’s ardent about supporting veterans and helping the Dickinson American Legion post grow, hosting meetings at his office there.
Meanwhile, back in Tioga, Derek Bush is talking with NOV employee Ryan Campbell, who is monitoring mechanical equipment on the ground as workers soaked in oil are up on the deck of the rig “tripping out” the two miles of drill pipe. They use equipment to haul up 32-foot joints, 500-pound sections at a time, and stack them on the stand of
When the wind is 60 degrees below zero, working on a rig is no leisure job. “It felt like getting pepper sprayed,” says Campbell, 26, describing the coldest day that year. “My eyes watered and that water froze to my face.”
Bush noticed recently that Campbell’s sunglasses weren’t up to the safety standards, so Campbell now wears plastic safety goggles over his eyeglasses. “It’s not very comfortable,” he says.
Working in the oil patch is dangerous. Death by vehicle accidents on the strained roads may be the most common way to die in this region, but Bush has also lost friends crushed to death by pipe. His new role of helping employees stay safe and productive is fulfilling for him, a leadership role he’s familiar with from his Marine Corps days.
“I’d like to go to work overseas with National Oilwell Varco or someone else,” he says. “I’d like to keep moving up.
Paul Glader is an associate professor of journalism at The King’s College in New York City and a frequent contributor to The American Legion Magazine.