N.D. oil boom highlights price of prosperity

(CBS News) North Dakota just became America's No. 2 oil-producing state, behind Texas.

The oil boom is redrawing North Dakota's landscape and creating opportunity for thousands of unemployed Americans. But, that prosperity has a price.

Unemployment in North Dakota is currently at three percent. There are Help Wanted signs there at every street corner, but there is no easy way to handle a boom quite like this.

Known for the broad-shouldered beauty of its great plains and the brutish nature of its winters, North Dakota has long been the least populated state in the country. But North Dakota is changing. Every day, people, mostly men, pour in from across the nation.

Men like Stephan Reisinger from Kalispell, Mont., where unemployment is 13 percent. He said, "I heard about all this big money, so I thought I could get a little piece of that pie, I suppose."

(For more on the workers who come to work in the oil boom, watch the video in the player below.)

In North Dakota now, a job on an oil rig can pay $100,000 a year. Even truck drivers can earn six figures. And in northwest North Dakota, oil is the new gold.

Author and Great Plains scholar Clay Jenkinson says this gold rush could be around for more than 20 years. "Someone driving a water truck now who's 19 years old can make $85,000, $100,000, $120,000 a year, plus get a vehicle and fuel," he says.

In North Dakota, there are 7,000 active wells, and 211 rigs are extracting oil from them. Just two years ago, there were only 126 rigs.

But for all the enthusiasm, there's still a "but" in the room.

Jenkinson said, "It depends on the individual. I mean, I - the 'but' in the room is there are people living in the impacted communities whose quality of life has gone up and down at the same time. Suddenly, there's prosperity and there's rural renewal, but there's traffic. There's dust. There's strain."

Melissa Meyer feels that strain. "Life has changed," she said, ... (and) not for the better, I don't feel."

Meyer and her family grew up in Williston, N.D., the epicenter of the oil boom, where the population has more than doubled in two years. She says there's a downside to the prosperity. "We're a small town. We just aren't equipped to have 25 to 30,000 people here, and now they are expecting 60 (thousand) is what that long range could be. We just aren't equipped for that many people to be here."

She says that's the price of prosperity. "A couple of months ago, we got something about our house values raising again, so there's increases in our prosperity tax."

Man camps have sprung up to house people who have come to work. Jenkinson explained, "A man camp is a place where you - you level it off and put in sewer and water and electricity. They're often FEMA trailers. But you put up 200 or 500 or 1,000 in a place outside of one of these communities."

Those individuals who are able to land consistent work with one of the oil companies and a place to stay are considered the lucky ones. Gregg Zart came from Seattle to Williston and spent his first six months in his van. Now he's upgraded to a trailer.

Then there are those newcomers who run out of options and take refuge in their cars or RVs, public camp sites, or at Wal-Mart for the night.

Williston Rev. Jay Reinke says he can't ignore the need for housing. He says, "I've got floor space. What does it cost to put someone on the floor? Really? We've got cots, but I can't just ignore that, you know."

(For more with Rev. Jay Reinke, watch the web extra in the video below.)

But the skyrocketing mortgages, rents and lack of housing aren't all. Williston now deals with a 200 percent increase in crime that overwhelms local law enforcement.

From 2009 to 2011, DUI arrests in Williston increased 40 percent, criminal complaints 31 percent.

Meyer said she just wants things to be back the way it used to be. "I mean, not to be mean, but I'd like these people to leave," she said.

When asked if she's been told to get over it, Meyer said, "Many people have said that. And many of the locals think this is great, have opened up their houses to the strangers. But, I mean, like I said, I've got two small, young kids. I worry about them."

North Dakota is now the envy of the country. Jenkinson said, "We're going to be the richest state per capita shortly. We have an endless amount of money in our treasury. We have full employment and opportunity in a way that other states would beg to have. You know, the question is what do we do with it? And do we survive it? And do we manage it properly?"

For more on this story, watch Byron Pitts' full report in the video above.

Editor's note: The train route featured in Pitts' piece was along Amtrak's Empire Builder route.

  • Byron Pitts

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