Unemployed? Go To North Dakota - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

Unemployed? Go To North Dakota

USATODAY.COM - Unemployment is a national problem in the U.S., but you wouldn't know that if you travel through North Dakota.

The state's unemployment rate hovers around 3 percent, and "Help Wanted" signs litter the landscape of cities such as Williston in the same way "For Sale" signs populate the streets of Las Vegas.

"It's a zoo," said Terry Ayers, who drove into town from Spokane, Wash., slept in his truck, and found a job within hours of arrival, tripling his salary. "It's crazy what's going on out here."

The reason?

Billions of dollars are coming into the state and thousands of people are following—all because millions of barrels of oil are flowing out.

The result: A good, old-fashioned oil boom.

Here are some examples of what a boom is like in 2011.

There's no available housing, so people sleep in truck stops and Wal-Mart Stores' parking lots.

Developers have expanded plans from just a few dozen new homes and are now building hundreds of houses and thousands of apartment units.

The McDonald's in Williston is one of the busiest in the country, and they need to pay $15 an hour just to attract employees to work there.

And then, there's the trucks—thousands of them—on country roads. There's one left turn in Williston that can get so backed up with truck traffic, it can take hours to get through the intersection.

"If you're not making money now, there's a major problem," said Williston Mayor Ward Koeser, who is overwhelmed with managing the city's growth, from sewage treatment to building permits to an exponential increase in traffic violations.

As for the oil itself, it comes from a rock formation called the Bakken, which spans 14,000 square miles in North Dakota, Montana, and Canada.

The U.S. Geological Survey says there are at least 4 billion barrels of recoverable oil, but other estimates indicate that it could be four to five times that.

"Clearly, it is the largest oil field we've found in North America in the last 40 years," said Bud Brigham, founder and CEO of Brigham Exploration, which has staked the company's future on the Bakken oil business. "If it's more than 15 billion barrels, it may be the biggest oil field found in America ever."

The Bakken has been a known source of oil for decades, but only in recent years has it become feasible—and profitable—to get it out of the ground.

There are two reasons for this: oil prices and drilling technology.

Oil companies, including Brigham Continental Resources, Hess and EOG Resources, drill two miles down and two miles horizontally. Then, they use hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," to create space for oil to flow out of the rock—hundreds of thousands of barrels a day, literally, one drop at a time.

"In a couple of years, the Williston Basin (where the Bakken is located) will surpass the oil production out of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska," said Rick Muncrief, senior vice president at Continental.

Of course, that's as long as prices remain relatively high and fracking is allowed to continue.

"Where we are today, we can generate really solid returns at 65 to 70 dollars a barrel," said Bud Brigham.

As for fracking, it's the process that makes oil extraction possible in the dense rock and shale of the Bakken. Basically, equipment creates thousands of fissures in the rock and then sand, water, and even ceramics are blasted into the rock in order to prop open the fissures to allow oil to flow.

There are chemicals in the "frack water," and there has been some environmental backlash.

So far, it looks like the drilling method is safe from any bans or over-regulation, but if fracking were ever limited or disallowed, the Bakken Boom would go bust.

For now, it is full-speed ahead, and that means hiring will continue at a rapid clip. The trickle down is ubiquitous, and the money is eye-popping.

If you have a license and no criminal record, you can get a six-figure trucking job almost overnight. Real estate construction is almost as frenzied as the oil drilling, and there's even a huge business in housing the workers who don't have housing.

They're called "man camps" in the local parlance, and even though there are some women staying there, it's a lot like most people would think it is.

Trailers lined up in rows with workers either sleeping in simple single rooms, or in some cases, bunking up with others.

Food is in the cafeteria, and companies such as Halliburton and Schlumberger pay an average of $120 per person per night to safely house and feed their workers.

"We have almost 3,000 bedrooms under management, covering over hundreds of miles in the Bakken," said Brian Lash who runs Boston-based Target Logistics, the biggest "man camp" provider in the Bakken. (It likes to think of the camps as "lodges.")

Lash has dealt with booms before, and his actions indicate that the Bakken still has room to grow.

"We've got almost $100 million in buildings and underground infrastructure so far in the Bakken," he said. "We have another three projects that we're about to start."

In Williston, the "man camp" is a better place to be than the Wal-Mart parking lot or the back of a pick-up truck. But most people don't care, as long as the work continues—and the money continues to flow with the oil.

"I have a bed in the back of the camper shell," Terry Ayers said as the sun began to set on the back end of the Wal-Mart parking lot. "You just can't get back there (right now). It's still too hot. You have to wait until the sun drops.

After a little back-and-forth banter, he sums it up: "All for a job."

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