Air Boomtown - Pacific Standard

Air Boomtown

Gulfstreams and Dassault Falcons crowd the skies over Williston, North Dakota.
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United and Delta airlines have added oil-rich Williston, North Dakota, to their flight routes (PHOTO: RENAE MITCHELL)

United and Delta airlines have added oil-rich Williston, North Dakota, to their flight routes (PHOTO: RENAE MITCHELL)

At the end of this summer, as I’ve done most summers for the past 25 years, I copiloted a small plane and landed at Sloulin Field International Airport in Williston, North Dakota. Sloulin Field is hunkered not far from the arid, windswept eastern border of Montana, and about 60 miles south of the Canadian border. It’s the first opportunity to clear U.S. customs following my annual family fishing trip to northern Saskatchewan. The previous summer, only the wind and the lilting song of meadowlarks disturbed the little airport’s tranquility. This year, Williston’s tarmac reverberated with the rumble of high-performance engines and the presence of multimillion-dollar corporate jets— Citations, Gulfstreams, and Dassault Falcons. Sloulin Field has no control tower, which means pilots talk to each other over the radio, coordinating who’s going where, to make sure nobody scrapes any paint. The pilot of an outbound Hawker business jet was nice enough to yield the right-of-way as our single-engine Piper taxied in.

Inside the airport’s 41-seat passenger waiting area, a space I remembered from years past as typically all but deserted, dozens of young men sporting tattoos and sweat-stained baseball caps slouched in every chair and lounged on the floor, perusing car magazines and playing video games on their smartphones while waiting for flights to Denver.

“Oil money,” explained Barry Olson, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer, after making sure that my fishing buddies and I weren’t smuggling in any weapons of mass destruction or Cuban cigars.

Williston may not be the middle of nowhere, but as the old saying goes, you can see it from there. Arguably the biggest event in the town’s history occurred more than 80 years before its founding, when Lewis and Clark paddled by along the Missouri River in their dugout canoes. That was long before geologists discovered that Williston sits atop one of the world’s richest formations of oil-bearing shale, and before hydrofracking made the extraction of that oil possible and relatively affordable.

And so the corporate jets come, ferrying in executives from Halliburton, Hess, Norway’s Statoil, and other petroleum companies eager to profit from what lies deep beneath the North Dakota prairie. I’ve been inside a few of those jets. With their rosewood paneling, supple leather club seating, and gourmet galleys, it’s safe to say that swankier surroundings would be hard to come by anywhere else in Williston.

Two years ago, Williston’s population stood at about 14,700, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. Today, by some estimates, it’s pushing 30,000. Olson, an affable North Dakota native with silver hair, steady blue eyes, and a holstered semiautomatic pistol, laid out for me much of what Williston has undergone while morphing from an agricultural whistle-stop to a petroleum boomtown.

One-bedroom apartments—assuming you’re lucky enough to find any vacant—go for $2,000 or more, while rooms in lower-end chain hotels fetch up to $300 a night. Many oil workers have resorted to sleeping on the streets in their cars and truck campers, while many local residents find themselves priced out of the housing market. Wheat and soybean farmers are having to wait interminably in their tractors to cross once-lonely county roads now traversed by convoys of oil-industry support vehicles. Local fast-food outlets are having trouble finding and retaining burger flippers despite salaries that often double the minimum wage.

“Why work at McDonald’s for $20 an hour,” Olson said, “when you can make $50 an hour on an oil rig?”

Not everyone in Williston is complaining, he noted: the town’s Chevy dealer reportedly sells more Corvettes these days than any other car lot in a four-state area; and exotic dancers at Williston’s two strip clubs are rumored to earn as much as $3,000 a night in tips.

What’s happening in Williston is reminiscent of the Gillette Syndrome, so named by social scientists after what occurred in Gillette, Wyoming, where the population ballooned by 121 percent between 1960 and 1970 amid a boom in coal production—bringing housing shortages, rising crime, and increases in domestic abuse. Williston also evokes memories of the early 1980s, when I was working as a journalist in Denver. At that time, much of the West was gripped in a construction frenzy as an initial wave of speculators sought to exploit shale-oil deposits. In communities like Rifle and Parachute, Colorado, officials literally bet the future on shale extraction, only to see their coffers dry up when petroleum prices collapsed globally and the oil companies pulled out virtually overnight. Thousands of people lost their jobs. Home prices plummeted. Schools and other facilities built to accommodate a burgeoning population were shuttered.

Marci Seamples, executive director of the Williston Area Chamber of Commerce, told me over the phone that community leaders in Williston are trying to take a more cautious approach, given the rags-to-riches-to-rags history of mining in the American West.

“They saw industry pick up the last time and leave them holding the bag,” she said. “They’d rather not go through that again.”

The folks at Williston city hall know they could use a more spacious airport terminal and beefier runways to accommodate larger jets—United and Delta airlines have both announced plans to begin regularly scheduled service to Williston. So town officials are studying whether to upgrade Sloulin Field—which would require plowing through a golf course and excavating as much as 30 million cubic yards of dirt—or to build on one of three potential thousand-acre sites outside of town. They say they’ll decide come winter.

Gazing out at the executive jets crowding the tarmac in front of his small customs office, Olson said he is pondering retiring in a few years and relocating to Maine.

“It’s becoming a rat race here,” he said.

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