North Dakota's oil boomtowns are facing an uncertain future -- here's what it's like to live there

Andrew Burton/Getty ImagesNorth Dakota towns …
  • North Dakota towns exploded in size as part of the state’s oil boom.
  • But the end of the boom spelled economic disaster for many of the new residents in towns such as Williston and Watford City.
  • Now, the towns are facing an uncertain future.

The discovery of oil in northwestern North Dakota turned several small towns into unexpected boomtowns from 2006 to 2014.

In places like Williston and Watford City, town populations more than doubled as lucrative jobs in the oil industry attracted workers from all over the world.

By 2016, the price of oil plummeted from more than $US100 a barrel to $US30, sending the same towns into an economic tailspin. Now, with fewer jobs to go around and local schools and police departments straining, their residents are facing an uncertain future.

Here’s what it’s like to live in North Dakota’s oil boomtowns.


The North Dakota oil boom peaked in 2012, six years after oil was discovered in the northwest corner of the state.


In 2014, North Dakota was producing 1.2 million barrels of oil every day.

Source: Star Tribune


During the boom, thousands of people flocked to small towns like Williston and Watford City as lucrative jobs in the oil industry became readily available.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Source: Billings Gazette


The population surge created an immediate need for housing. Workers found it wherever they could, including trailer parks …

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Source: Business Insider


… brand-new housing developments …

Source: Business Insider


… and even their cars.

Source: Business Insider


Williston’s population mushroomed from around 12,000 in 2007 to 30,000 today. Watford City has grown from less than 2,000 people to more than 7,000 a year ago.

Source: USA Today and Billings Gazette


The influx of jobs led North Dakota to become the state with the highest share of millennials in the country, with the group comprising 27.5 of the statewide population.

Source: Brookings Institute


North Dakota’s unemployment rate also fell to as low as 2.6% — the best rate in the nation.

Source: Bureau of Labour Statistics


However, North Dakota’s oil boom hit an abrupt roadblock in 2014 and 2015, when the price of oil plunged from more than $US100 a barrel to about $US30.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Source: Macro Trends


Suddenly, oil output in North Dakota slowed down, workers’ hours were cut back, and many were laid off.

Source: The New York Times


While many transient workers packed up and left the region, others remained, trying to find work by frequenting staffing agencies and job fairs.

Source: Associated Press


Williston’s job service office is filled with people like Kennedy Mugemuzi, who moved to Williston from the Congo in 2015 and is working two full-time jobs to support his family.

Source: Associated Press


The town’s population has started to dip in the past two years as uncertainty about its future grows. Yvonne Niess and her daughter, pictured below, left Williston for Atlanta, Georgia, in 2016.

Source: Associated Press


“We have too many hotel rooms, too many apartments, too many restaurants,” Williston businessman Marcus Jundt told The New York Times. “People are going to go broke. People are going to lose their jobs. It’s going to be painful.”

Source: The New York Times


In an effort to escape the boom-and-bust oil cycle, Williston and Watford City have continued to invest in new roads, businesses, and expansions to their airports and fire departments.

Source: Bloomberg


Meanwhile, local police are struggling to keep up with the surge in population. Many towns have seen a rise in crime, car accidents, and drug trafficking in recent years.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Source: Bismarck Tribune


“We’re so used to trying to maintain that small-town attitude where you always wave at your neighbour and everybody’s always your friend,” Watford City police chief Art Walgren told the Associated Press. “Now, there are more people that you don’t know than those that you do.”

Source: Associated Press


Schools in these towns have become unexpected melting pots, as people from all over the world continue to move to North Dakota hoping to be there for the next oil boom.

Source: Associated Press


Those days could be coming back sooner than expected. The price of oil is already back up to more than $US60 a barrel since the bust years, and North Dakota is on track to break its own oil production records this year.

Source: Star Tribune


Time will tell if these towns can complete the transition “from boomtown to hometown,” as the Los Angeles Times wrote.

Source: The Los Angeles Times

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