A North Dakotan oil-boom city softens

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WILLISTON IS LOOKING good these days. On the back of oil fracking, wages are soaring. Firms are fighting to invest there. The traffic jams and rutted roads of recent years have gone, replaced by gleaming tarmac. Efforts to draw in more youngsters have been slow, but new brew-pubs and decent coffee bars are helping. Costly living still deters some, but prices have fallen from their previous Manhattan levels.

There are still problems to solve, though. Take the fire brigade. Before North Dakota’s oil boom brought a gush of wealth and population, volunteers had to put out fires in the sprawling, low-rise city. Then its footprint grew threefold between 2009 and 2016, and the number of public employees increased from 75 to 315. Williston chose to get a new fire station with professional staff, but keeping them has proved hard. A firefighter’s annual pay of around $62,000 badly lags behind that of a skilled oil worker. “They get trained in safety, then take a better paid job on an oilfield,” grumbles David Tuan, the city administrator.

It is a similar tale for other public-sector jobs. No sooner does the city train a fork-lift driver, say, than an oil firm scoops him up. Perhaps as many as 2,000 jobs, public and private, are vacant in a city of just 26,000. Service-focused firms are most stretched. Supermarkets want to expand but cannot fill shifts. Starting wages in local shops are a hefty $17 an hour.

Williston’s challenge is to manage abundance. The city is in a remote spot near the Badlands national park. It has seen booms before, and knows they can go wrong. A rush for oil in the early 1980s ended with a bust—“It was catastrophic, very painful,” says a resident—as jobs went and an indebted city struggled with a falling population. The current fracking expansion also saw a two-year, localised slowdown that ended in 2017.

Most investors, city officials and others nonetheless bet on good times lasting, helped by ever-better extraction techniques. Williston sits on a huge reserve, the Bakken, with billions of barrels of recoverable oil that will take decades to tap. So much gas is flared from oil rigs in the vicinity that the sky glows orange at night, blurring the stars. Gradually more of that gas is being trapped, liquefied, piped and sold.

The city’s difficulty, environmental damage aside, is how to take long-term advantage. Early this decade Williston won an ugly reputation as a Wild West sort of place. It was the main hub for transient, cash-rich young men who toiled on oil rigs, drove lorries and bunked in Portacabin mancamps. Inevitably it also drew sex workers and drug dealers, and saw a spate of crime, including shootings, especially in bars. “The town was kinda rough,” says James Hammon, an engineer from Utah who moved in, with his family, in 2013.

That image threatened to put off non-oil business and also to deter female migrants. So the city is trying hard to rebrand from Wild to Mild West. Residents remain young and rich, with a median age of 31 and average household income of $90,900. But the strip clubs are gone—instead a trampoline park is a much-hyped popular attraction. Mancamps have been banished beyond city limits (to the fury of firms that invested in them) and new hotels have popped up. Williston’s outskirts are getting new housing; downtown is getting restaurants, schools, shops and parks. City officials dream of attracting big brand retailers, tapping hydropower from the Missouri river to run data centres, or using natural gas to power manufacturing plants.

Almost everything, however, is a bet on oil. The city is paying $240m for a new airport next year to cope with the flow of oil workers. The present terminal, built in 2005, anticipated 7,000 passengers a year. That number now travel every month, says its manager, Anthony Dudas. (He adds that it was tricky to lay down the new runway between the oil rigs in the fields nearby.) City officials have paid over $100m for a new sewerage system and landfills as the population grows towards 50,000 people.

The result, however, is that public debts are soaring again. Mr Tuan says he worries about servicing them. His sums add up if oil sells for $50 a barrel or more—and so far this year it has been comfortably above that. But there is fragility in relying so heavily on a single industry. Oil pumps nod in almost every field nearby. And for hours, as you drive on through North Dakota at night, rigs dazzle like bases on the moon.

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