Experience the Bakken oil boom through the eyes of the people affected by this modern-day "gold rush."
"Boomtowners" plunges into a modern-day "gold rush" that's attracting thousands of people from all over the country to the Bakken, a region of North Dakota. An oil boom has turned the area into the epicenter of a white-hot industrial revolution, but a rise in jobs has also led to a surge in population and living costs. Experience this phenomenon first-hand through the eyes of newcomers and longtime residents trying to make a living there in this groundbreaking new docu-series about tapping into the American dream.
"We've got a lot of really good people who have made some dumb mistakes, but they have the capability to pull themselves up and make it work."
Richland County Judge Greg Mohr maintains a grueling schedule, thanks in part to the current Bakken oil boom. His courtroom hosts a steady stream of oil workers and local residents who face charges such as driving under the influence, writing bad checks, and fighting. Arrests in his hometown of Sidney, MT, have increased by 165% over three years, and the pace in the Richland County courtroom has never been more hectic. "In February, we had 421 cases, and it was a slow month," says Mohr. "Our caseload depends on the month, the weather, even the phase of the moon." The stress of overcrowding also plays a part in the Bakken crime rate, and Mohr offers simple advice to inbound job-seekers: "This is the land of plenty, but be prepared and arrange for a place to live. We have a lot of people with $100,000 incomes who are homeless."
Although Judge Mohr has been on the bench for 29 years, his personal experience as an oil driller during the area's oil boom in the 1970s helps him understand and help the people he meets in his courtroom. "When you give them opportunities to pull themselves together and you see them succeed, that makes it all worthwhile," says Mohr. His reputation as a tough-but-fair judge seems fitting based on the advice he frequently offers to defendants: "You don't want some guy wearing a black dress controlling your life. You control it, so make decisions that take me out of the equation." If the Bakken boom continues at its current rate of growth, Judge Mohr may have an overabundance of cases for years to come.
"My favorite thing about the Bakken is that everybody's got the potential to make a substantial amount of money. It's all relative to how hard you work."
A former carpenter, Tony Miller was no stranger to hard work before he arrived in the Bakken in 2012. Like many fortune-seekers, Tony had no previous oil industry experience before the boom, but his impressive work ethic helped him find a job as an oil well operations specialist, and it keeps him exceptionally busy. Generally working no fewer than 12 hours per day, Tony operates jet pumps and endures a grueling schedule that often requires him on the job for 14 days straight with only a few days off between stretches. He estimates that he works an average of 100 hours per week, 25 days per month, which leaves little time for anything besides work. "I've made friends here, but by the time you're done with work, you go home, take care of emails, eat some dinner, and go to bed," he says. "Then, you do the same thing the following day."
Although Tony has been fortunate enough to make a place for himself in the Bakken, he bristles at the idea that the area is full of easy money. "One of the things about the Bakken is that there are a lot of misleading stories that claim that all you've got to do is make it out here and you'll be fine," he says. "That's not true. You've got to work hard, and you've got to sacrifice." The lifestyle Tony has adopted to make his living in the oil fields is a solitary one, and he occasionally seeks the comfort of home when he allows himself enough time to unwind. "When you do get a few weeks off to go home and hang out with your friends and family, the biggest challenge is packing your stuff and getting back to work," he says. "You kind of dread coming back." With no end of the oil boom in sight, the biggest question for Tony may be how long he can maintain his demanding schedule before he burns out.
"The oil industry is kind of cutthroat. People see you doing well, and then all of the sudden, they want a piece of the pie."—Hannah Dooley
There are those who benefit from the Bakken boom who aren't extracting or hauling oil. A lifelong area resident, Hannah Dooley recognized that the thriving local oil industry needed people with a variety of skills, so she started her own company specializing in welding, fabrication, and related services. Her head welder, Dan Dooley, became her husband, and now they work together to grow the business. "Since the boom, our lives have completely changed for the better. We went from renting a house to buying one, we had a baby, and got married," says Hannah. Even while they've started their own family, the Dooleys take special care to keep their employees happy and to make them feel like family. "These are guys that you can depend on no matter what. They'll do whatever needs to be done to help the company," says Dan. "I'd swim the rivers of hell for them."
While Hannah handles the administrative side of the business and tends to their young son, Dan puts his lifetime of experience welding to work 10-12 hours per day, six days a week. His daily responsibilities are located several hours from home, so the couple rents a house for Dan to use during the work week, and he returns home to Sidney on the weekends to spend time with his family. "It's kind of hard not having Dan working close, but that's where the work is," she says. Although they hope to build the business to a point that will enable Dan to transition to a less hands-on role, he still finds satisfaction in his career. "I enjoy my job; it's not a mundane routine," he says. "There's always something different, and it's really rewarding when you make it work." As long as there's oil in the Bakken, the Dooleys will continue to work hard while keeping their company a family affair.
"We've lost our small town and our small-town innocence."
The Bakken oil boom has plenty of fans, but lifelong area resident Sandi Beagle Angel is not among them. Although she is enjoying retirement on her quiet family farm in Sidney, MT, roughly 45 miles from Williston, Sandi laments the changes that she's witnessed since droves of oil workers began living in the region. The towns are becoming more crowded, the roadways are more dangerous, and personal safety has become a concern. "I live guarded and sometimes in fear," she says. "I have a gun and have taken extensive training for defense. I never go outside without strapping on my gun, and my house is kept constantly locked. Life is not at all the way it was before the boom."
Despite the oil companies' repeated assurances that hydraulic fracking is safe, Sandi remains unconvinced and is a vocal opponent of the technique. "I am totally anti-fracking, and I don't have to follow the national debate to know that the big oil companies lie about it," she says. Her convictions are strong enough that she foregoes potentially large payouts from oil companies by refusing to allow any oil drilling on her property. "I like what the oil is doing for the town of Sidney," Sandi says, "but it's everything that comes with it that I don't like." If the Bakken boom continues indefinitely, Sandi may one day find her hometown unrecognizable.
"Everyone knows everyone, even if you're new, and I really do like that small-town feeling." —Deanna Senior
There are those who migrate to the Bakken solo to chase their dreams, but Ray and Deanna Senior brought their whole family. Building on previous oil industry experience, Ray worked up to 14 hours a day as an oil lease operator in Williston while the rest of the family remained in Rancho Mirage, CA. Several months later, Deanna and the four Senior children relocated to join Ray in his Bakken adventure, although the children required some convincing. "Our biggest challenge was letting the kids know that what we were doing was more for their benefit than ours," says Ray. "We'll be able to afford to send our kids to college, and my job is always going to be there. If my kids wanted to get into my profession, I'd be 110% for it because they'd have job security as well."
"I feared that we were ruining our children's lives by moving to Williston, but our kids have been thriving," says Deanna. "It was the best thing we ever did. In California, we were living in a 'gilded bubble,' but it's a little more realistic here." A former interior designer, Deanna embraced the community and reinvented herself as a county project manager and elected school board member. The schedules that Deanna and Ray work can be demanding, but the financial security the family is achieving in the Bakken makes their efforts feel worthwhile. "Knowing we have money in the bank and we're saving for the kids' college and our retirement is a big weight off our shoulders," says Deanna, but she cautions people to prepare themselves for the harsh economics of the area before relocating. "We didn't realize the cost of living here would be so high. Don't come to Williston, ND, without money." Although adjusting to life in the Bakken can present significant challenges for some, the entire Senior family works together to ensure a bright future.
"When I rolled into town, it was still a really small community and things were just ramping up. But now it's big business." —Sean Banks
Most people who migrate to the Bakken are focused on working in the oil fields and saving money, but evangelical preacher Sean Banks also dedicates a significant portion of his time to spreading the word of God. Sean works several days each week as an environmental management technician, testing oil sites for dangerous hydrogen sulfide gas, but he tries to limit his time in the field in order to offer spiritual counseling to the people of the Bakken. He has been known to take his message to the streets, preaching one-on-one to anyone who will listen at local events, but he's making efforts to engage the faithful of North Dakota in a more permanent way. With the support of his wife, Brooke, and his son, Sean runs a small ministry in the Providence Church of Williston, and balancing his time between family, work, and faith can be stressful. "I don't like spending 60-90 hours a week away from my family just trying to get rich; that's not my deal," says Sean. "The only way I want to work so many hours is for Jesus."
With dreams of earning enough to pay off his student loan debt, Sean more than quadrupled his annual earnings by moving to the Bakken, even without any previous experience in the oil industry. "When you're taking home sometimes more than $9,000 in two weeks, that's significant," says Sean, though he's quick to point out it's not easy money. "It's not a get-rich-quick scheme. You're going to have to work extremely hard for the money you get. It's a great opportunity, but it's not an easy living." Facing diminishing financial support from his religious congregation in a land of inflated prices, Sean may be forced to make some difficult decisions about his role in the Bakken to enable his family to remain in Williston.
"The two of us have had to grow up since we moved here." —Phoebe Moorhead
Self-described "gypsy souls and free spirits," Ben and Phoebe Moorhead are always looking for the next big thing in their lives. For now, the opportunities of the Bakken oil boom have convinced them to settle down with their two boys in the small town of Sidney, MT, about 45 miles from overcrowded Williston. Ben, an oil hauler who works long hours on the road by himself driving a large tanker truck, makes sure to set aside time for Phoebe and his sons; he dedicates the rest of his waking hours to earning a comfortable living for his family. "There have been a whole lot of pioneers here, but not a whole lot of settlers," says Ben. "You come here and make your cash, and then you go back and do whatever it was that you needed cash for. It's fantastic money." For this family man, Sidney is a comfortable place to call home and the Bakken is a great place to get rich, but it can be hard to resist the desire to move on to the next adventure.
While Ben hauls oil, Phoebe manages the family's affairs and works as a court reporter, so she has a different view of the small town life. "I see all these criminals coming into court, and then I see them the very next day at the grocery store," she says. "It can be very uncomfortable. It takes some getting used to." Still, despite their exhausting schedules and the high cost of living in the Bakken, the Moorhead family doesn't plan to leave anytime soon, although they never rule anything out. "It's worth it; otherwise we wouldn't be here," says Phoebe. "There's nothing you can do here without making a ton of money." Whether they choose to put down permanent roots in Sidney or build up their bank accounts before moving on, Ben, Phoebe, and their boys plan to make the most of their time in the Bakken.
"Whatever you want, it's within your grasp. It's just, 'How hard do you want to work?'" —Haley Mindt
Lifelong Sidney, MT, residents, Haley Mindt and her fiancee Larysa Hurst take care of each other while working to grow their new trucking company. In the Bakken, men outnumber women by a considerable margin, so Haley and Larysa would be noticeable even if they weren't a couple. "A lot of people were shocked that Larysa and I were together," says Haley, "and then it just steamed out and was done and over with."
Business is booming in the Bakken, and trucking services, like many other oil-related industries, are in high demand. There is serious money to be made by entrepreneurs who are willing to work hard, make sacrifices, and take risks, but success is far from guaranteed. Haley recognized the financial opportunities that the Bakken oil boom presents and made the bold decision to start a trucking company with herself behind the wheel. Larysa left her job to become Haley's full-time partner, overseeing the company's finances. "I know a lot of people have come out here on a whim," says Larysa, "but it's not for everyone. You really have to have the right mindset to work here and to make it." Considering the high cost of living in Sidney, their company's significant operating expenses, and clients who may take months to pay for services rendered, Haley and Larysa may be gambling with their future, but these women are betting big on themselves.
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