WILLISTON, North Dakota—What would a commercial mining colony on Mars look like? The workers, desperate men who went to the frontier because that's where the jobs were, would survive the hostile environment by living in temperature-controlled pods, only going outside when absolutely necessary. Services and amusements would be few, getting back home would be hard, and culture for these thousands of new arrivals wouldn't exist. That's how things are today in the Bakken oil boomtowns of North Dakota.
Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracking into these subterranean oil deposits have made this boom possible. The Bakken formation was identified six decades ago, but only in the last five years could the oil companies get to the riches below. The estimates of "recoverable barrels" are wild, from 3 billion to 7 billion to 24 billion. It's so much oil that this side of North Dakota, bordering Montana and Saskatchewan, is suddenly a center of the oil business. It's second only to Texas in U.S. oil production.
Like most booms, the one centered in the western North Dakota town of Williston is insane. North Dakota is not Mars, but it has long cold winters with months of below-freezing temperatures, night and day. In the arid western part of the state, where the great Bakken formation lies below what survives of the prairie, even the summers are harsh. People come here for work, chasing mostly mythological $100,000 salaries.
Regardless of their actual hourly rate, they will need shelter. On the job-search website Indeed.com, 226 of the current Bakken listings are in the $30,000 range, followed by 112 in the $50,000 range and 62 in the $70,000 range. The higher paying positions are for skilled and certified workers, like the $75,000-$100,000 opening for a physician assistant.
Williston doesn't have much in the way of houses or apartments. The 2010 census found 14,716 people and 6,190 households in the city, just as the Bakken started drawing a crowd. Now there are between 30,000 and 40,000 residents in and around Williston. Not even a major city could absorb double or triple its population without trouble.
The town had to clamp down on the thousands of people living in their cars on the streets and in residential areas. Walmart finally kicked out the RVs used as homes by the oil workers who formed a village in the Williston parking lot. Locals with a few acres to spare started turning their rural properties into RV slums without any sewer hookups, at $700 or $800 per camper.
The Fox Run RV Park is a lot better than camping on the streets, even though it looked horrific. I wandered around this vast semi-apocalyptic place on Wednesday, to a muffled roar of barking dogs within the hundreds of RVs and beat-up campers and trailers stretching for nearly a mile on a scraped-dirt mesa overlooking the highway. There are reportedly sewer hookups at this place, and two small structures at either end with showers and a few laundry machines.
As I drove away, a snaking line of pickups and "independent operator" truckers was moving into camp. This part of North Dakota is a traffic nightmare. Most of these oil wells aren't yet attached to pipelines, either to bring in the fracking water or to send out the oil. Tanker trucks are the current solution. Trucks are everywhere. The two-lane blacktops in and out of Williston are being hastily expanded into four-lane divided highways. The construction only adds to the miles-long traffic jams.
Under pressure to provide more humane housing for these many thousands of workers, the bigger oil companies have hired logistics companies to build "man camps," often modular housing moved here from other harsh environments. These sprawling complexes include dining rooms and game rooms and lots of tiny single-occupancy cells with a bed, TV and sink. Toilets and showers are communal. Alcohol, pets, girlfriends and children are strictly forbidden.
The more fortunate stay in the kind of modern-day frontage-road motel contained within a single four-story stucco building in a sea of parking spaces. I'm at the "Best Western Plus," directly across from that Walmart and its detached liquor store with its lines of tired and grubby oil workers with huge cartons of canned beer.
On Wednesday night, as I bought my supplies at this retail outlet, the middle-aged guy in front of me paid for his "suitcase" of beer and then stood in the doorway while he called a buddy for a ride home.
"I don't know the name of my road," he said. Maybe it didn't have a name, yet.