WILLISTON, NORTH DAKOTA— A relatively new drilling technology that allows oil to be extracted from the earth through a process called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," has brought a flood of development to rural towns situated on the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota and Montana. The development brings risks and rewards.
Six years ago this once dark spot of the United States in western North Dakota and eastern Montana was not noticeable from space, but it is now visible from the International Space Station, thanks to the glow of thousands of intense flames in the oil fields fueling a red hot energy boom in the United States.
“The oil and the gas industry is the 800 pound gorilla in the room," said Nancy Hodur.
New technology that allows drilling deep into shale deposits is transforming North Dakota. The oil boom has increased activity in once sleepy towns like Williston. In 2000 the state population was about 620,000. North Dakota State University Professor Nancy Hodur says that number is now closer to 730,000.
“It is a record high. It has never been bigger," she said.
And the boom continues to create jobs.
“We do not have as many people as we need to fill those jobs, and we have got high participation in the workforce," said Hodur.
And not just in the oil fields. Businesses are having a hard time filling vacancies ranging from driving trucks to making food in the growing number of restaurants.
Restaurant owner Cam Holt says there is also a shortage of homes and apartments, which has created sky-high rent prices.
“We have got to house probably 80 to 90 percent of the people that walk through the door here, looking for a job, need a place to live. At $1,500 a bedroom, even at the rates we are paying people, it is still unaffordable. It does not make sense for them," said Holt.
North Dakota has one of the lowest unemployment and fastest growing income rates in the country. But a report by the labor organization AFL-CIO says it is also one of the most dangerous places to work, with a death rate five times higher than the national average. Most of those fatalities happen in the fields of construction, mining and oil extraction.
Despite the danger, people continue to look for work in Williston, where methods used to extract oil from Bakken continue to change.
“Now we are seeing the technology is allowing us to put the wells tighter, closer together without affecting the performance of the wells. So the ecology, technology, and economics is evolving," said Dean Bangsund.
North Dakota State University economist Dean Bangsund says it is too early to determine the oil boom's economic and environmental legacy.
“This is a relatively new technology. It is being adjusted. It is undergoing through tweaks and refinements as we speak. It is dealing with a portion of geology the state has not dealt with. It is much larger and much broader in context," he said.
It appears the promise of oil extraction in North Dakota will extend into the foreseeable future and continue to drive demand for a workforce willing to accept the risks and rewards.