Bakken Shale happiness, oodles of oil and help wanted, please

If there was one trait that characterized this year’s Williston Basin Petroleum Conference, it was unabashed pride.

Mostly the pride stemmed from North Dakota’s achievement in the last decade after moving from a relatively low amount of oil production (79,000 b/d in early 2004) to approaching 1 million b/d currently, making it the second-largest producing state behind Texas.

The oil–Lynn Helms, director of North Dakota’s Oil and Gas Division, claimed the resource could be as much as 300 billion barrels–has brought an unimaginable bounty to the state: low unemployment (averaging 3% state-wide), hordes of job openings (Governor Jack Dalrymple claimed 25,000 positions are available) and pots of oil-derived money in a legacy fund not quite three years old (it is reported to be on the verge of $2 billion).

Some of the pride didn’t even directly relate to oil production.

In addressing the conference, a beaming Dalrymple said recent surveys have found North Dakota is the happiest state in the nation.

“We finally surpassed Hawaii,” Dalrymple said. “And marijuana has not been legalized here,” he added, an obvious reference to nearby Colorado where the sale and use of cannabis was recently legalized. “We’re happiest even without that,” he said.

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Dalrymple’s and other speakers’ remarks spread the gospel of innovation as the key to economic prosperity.  It didn’t hurt that Nature placed a giant cache of oil underneath North Dakota’s fertile soil.

But the conference boosters described the Bakken Shale–the US’ first major oil field to benefit from unconventional production techniques–as a sort of prosperity machine that drops seeds far and wide.  For example, the guvnah noted that the city of Fargo, in the eastern part of his state, 300 miles away from the nearest oil well, has 2.5% unemployment.

“We have 25,000 jobs openings right now,” Dalrymple said. “Talk about STEM job growth(in science, technology, engineering and mathematics); we’re number one in the nation in job growth in those areas.”

Jobs keep people coming. Fargo and also Bismarck, North Dakota’s state capital, are not themselves oil-producing regions, but they each gained 3,000-4,000 people between 2010 and 2012, according to the US Census Bureau. Dickinson, located near the Bakken with an estimated 20,000 people, grew by about 2,000 or nearly 11% in the same period, while Williston, a town of about 18,500 and the namesake of the oil basin, grew by nearly 4,000 people or 26% in the same two years.

Dalrymple claims North Dakota’s population was at an all-time high last year, after 80 years of losing residents; although he didn’t specify a figure, Wikipedia, citing the US Census Bureau, lists the state’s population as 723,393 on July 1, 2013.

Also on display at the conference was some good-natured ribbing of Texas, the number one oil producing state in the US with 2.9 million b/d as of February, the most recent month reported to the US’ Energy Information Administration. “Last year, we had to snuff out Texas in economic growth, but someone has to be second,” Dalrymple said. “They have a nice growth rate too–a third of ours.”

But he acknowledged there are problems that accompany mounting oil wealth and even dark sides, although Dalrymple sidestepped the specifics. The state is grappling with issues such as gas flaring, critical needs for better roads to accommodate mega-increases in truck and other traffic in and out of the Bakken, a need for more midstream oil and gas infrastructure, and more low-income housing.

Alongside that, crime and drugs, which often accompany expanding population and rising affluence, are unwanted by-products of Bakken growth, well-documented in multiple news accounts.

One sheriff in Williams County–a large oil producing county, accounting for about 141,000 b/d–was cited by an Associated Press article last month as saying he rated the problem of meth, heroin and other drugs that have invaded the county as 7 on a scale of 10.  The article added that the number of police calls for service in Watford City, about 30 miles south of Williston, was 41 in 2006; in 2011 it was nearly 4,000. Calls in Williston itself quadrupled from 2005 to 2011 to almost 16,000. Dalrymple said the state is sending out 15 new highway officers this month alone, mostly to western oil-producing areas.

“It’s not easy to be the fastest-growing state in the US,” he said. “Many challenges we have aren’t faced by any other state.”

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