WILLISTON - Corey Driver, 21, had never seen snow in his life. Back home in Jacksonville, Florida, nobody wears boots in April. When he got off the Greyhound bus at Williston, North Dakota, the epicenter of the new shale oil frenzy, the cold night had already taken hold. And he only had $30 in his pocket.
His bag was stolen during the 51-hour long trip. He had no place to sleep and the streets were covered in snow. In Williston, someone told him about the Concordia Church, the only place that provides shelter for the homeless in this little town on the verge of implosion.
Every day, hundreds of unemployed people arrive in Williston from all over the country, and you would be lucky to find a seedy motel for $130 a night. The next day, Corey Driver bought the necessary $25 pair of boots and filled out a job application at the nearest Pizza Hut. “The guy told me: ‘that won’t be necessary,’ and asked me how much I was making by the hour back home. He told me that I could start tomorrow and that I was going to earn twice as much – $15.”
Here in Williston, the black-gold rush fever has increased everything: population, wages, prices, traffic, work accidents, single men, sexual assaults and delinquency in general. This agricultural town was dying five years ago. Now it’s expanding by the day with its warehouses, prefab buildings, fast-food joints and hotels – spreading far into the huge prairie that surrounds the city, and which has been transformed into a Swiss cheese of oil wells and easy money.
International jets now fly into the city, which has absorbed the airport – that used to be just a country shed. Cereal silos are left to rust while derricks and oil drills are taking possession of what used to be a vast Sioux territory.
Today the battle is played out three kilometers below the surface, in the Bakken formation, this super deep North Dakota rock formation that is filled with oil, and that hydraulic fracturing – fracking – makes accessible. By injecting huge quantity of highly pressurized water, sand and toxic substances into the rock the “badlands” of North Dakota have been transformed into an Eldorado of shale gas potential.
This forgotten and misunderstood state has multiplied its oil production by 150 in six years – producing up to 660,000 barrels a day. In the U.S., only Texas has a bigger yield. North Dakota has the reputation of being a redneck state but it now has the country’s highest average wage – $78,000 per year, and lowest unemployment rate – 3.2%, down to 1% in Williston.
According to North Dakota Republican State Senator Kelly Armstrong, only two scenarios can threaten this prosperity: a drop in global oil prices or new environmental standards implemented by Washington. “We were isolated from the rest of the world and now people are coming to us from all over the country,” says this lawyer whose position as an elected official doesn’t prevent him from running his father’s oil company.
Two weeks after his arrival, Corey, the new pizza guy, is still sleeping in the church with about 40 other people who came here to escape the blizzard. He is still wearing the worn-out green hoodie he had when he arrived, but he smiles under his blond mustache. In Florida, he was sometimes forced to sleep out on the street. He pulls out of his pocket a piece of paper on which he has scribbled down his budget and says: “in four months – $3,630 of savings.” He has drawn little stars around the amount. It is enough to start repaying his debts and dream of a future.
Man camps and high salaries
“I have come to change my life,” says Victor Brown, 22, unemployed. He came here from Georgia. “I am not afraid of working hard,” he says. His target is to work 80 hours a week to pay back the student loans on a biology degree he wasn’t able to finish. “Everyone who arrives here has the same goal: to save their house from foreclosure, save their family, or put their past behind them and start over from scratch,” says Jay Reinke, the Lutheran pastor who provides shelter for these men. Ten days after his arrival, Victor, who is originally from the Virgin Islands, started the nightshift at Walmart, for $19 an hour. It is less than half of what he would make if he was working on an oil rig, but he is worried about accidents.
Joe Wallace, 33, has come to the Williston McDonalds for some heat. A welder from Georgia, he spent a year assembling pipelines in 2012. Twelve hours a day, seven days a week. He broke his back and broke a finger but made a lot of money, “easy money,” he says, which he has all spent. He is having a hard time renewing his contract.
On a vacant lot around Williston’s particularly depressing railway station, Joe takes a piece of plastic he got from the back of a pick-up truck, and places it on the ground. That’s his bed for now, in between the piles of dirty snow. This is the only place in the city the police doesn't chase the workers out of. Most of the men are sleeping in their cars, which are buried under the snow.
Why doesn’t Joe the welder apply for a mobile home in the many “man camps” for workers that line the roads to Williston? “I’ve spent some time in prison, I don’t want to go back.”
The man camps are surrounded by fences and protected by security guards. They look like military camps. What war are these men fighting?
Loren Kopseng, founder of United Energy says: “Every new well we open brings the U.S. closer to energy independence. The more Dakota opens itself to the oil business, the less we have to import from countries that hate us and support terrorism.”
Abel Johnson, 25 an African-American father from Missouri doesn’t care about geopolitics. He is proud of his annual salary – “in the six figures” – $115,000 in 2012, even though it comes at a high price. For more than a year he has been living near Williston, in the man camp that is located next the garage of his employer, a drilling company. He goes home once a month, at best.
His mobile home is parked in the middle of nowhere, by the highway. It can accommodate up to six workers in its three bedrooms with bunk beds. “It’s a shame to have to live here without my wife and without being able to play with my kids. It’s especially hard on days off,” he says, hardly looking away from the TV screen in front of which he had fallen asleep after his daily 15-hour shift. “My debts are paid, I have children and money on my bank account, but I can’t enjoy any of it.”
The drill floor where Johnson works is the most dangerous place of the rig: heavy pieces of steel, risks of explosions, hydrogen sulfide… “It should smell like a rotten egg. If you don’t smell anything, that’s when it gets dangerous.” He is proud of his know-how and hopes to put it to good use under the Texas sun –with his family along him this time.
Before I leave, he wants to show me something – a picture on his cellphone. It is a portrait of President Obama, with a cross in the middle – like a target. His team leader pinned it on a fence, right at the company entrance. “I have to watch this every day,” he says. Abel asked his White colleagues what they thought about it. They said: “It’s great!” – which depressed him even more.
North Dakota used to be a poor state, but now it’s sitting on a pot of gold – $1.2 billion in benefits in 2013! Where does all the money go? Apparently not into fixing the narrow and hole-riddled roads. Not in the absent public transportation system or affordable housing projects either. Most likely the money goes to the eastern part of the states – where all the voters are, but where there are no oil wells.
Pastor Reinke is worried. His own flock, the people who worship at his church, are accusing him of being too “welcoming” with the new arrivals, who sometimes pee under their windows, or even commit thefts. “Everyone talks about petty theft, but no one says that renting a room for $1,500 a month is criminal,” says the Reinke, who says his views in general are “very conservative” –he is against gay marriage and the ordination of women.
That night, about 40 people are setting up their sleeping bags in the parish hall. But the city authorities have just asked him to stop giving shelter to the homeless workers. “I can’t leave people outside,” he says. “I try to remain optimistic – when a new man arrives, I say ‘you are a gift.’ But it’s hard to see all these new changes as a gift.”