Photographer: Matthew Staver/Bloomberg

Boom and Bust in the Bakken Oil Fields

The discovery last decade that fossil fuels could be tapped from rock deep beneath the windswept prairies of North Dakota acted like a magnet on American working people. By the thousands they came, from as far as Texas and California, fortune-seekers in a modern-day Gold Rush. Photographs by Daniel Acker and Matthew Staver

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    The discovery last decade that fossil fuels could be tapped from deep beneath the windswept prairies of North Dakota acted like a magnet on American working people. By the thousands they came, from as far as Texas and California, fortune-seekers in a modern-day Gold Rush. Together with visionary companies like Continental Resources and industry behemoths ExxonMobil and Norway’s Statoil, they exploited a new technology called fracking — blasting the underground Bakken rock formation with sand and water and slurping up the crude that was hiding there for millennia — to increase oil output in the region 12-fold from 2006 to 2014. The bonanza helped drive the U.S. closer to energy self-sufficiency than it’s been since the 1980s.  


    The frenzied production exacted a price — oversupply was one reason the U.S. crude price took a nosedive, losing more than half its value from a June 2014 peak. The number of rigs pumping crude from the Bakken plummeted to about 70 from a high of 200, and the tide of workers began to ebb.


    The Bakken has witnessed boom and bust before. The first strike came in 1953, when thousands of workers poured in. The good times ended with a global glut in 1984. Workers fled, leaving towns buried in debt. Now the weather-beaten communities of North Dakota face the dismal prospect of another bust.

    Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

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    Fracking transformed the landscape of western North Dakota from waving wheatfields to pistoning pump jacks. Crude output mushroomed from 200,000 barrels a day in 2008 to about 1.2 million by the end of 2014.

    Photographer: Matthew Staver/Bloomberg

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    Here comes the boom: The population of Williston, the biggest town in the Bakken, swelled 54 percent to 25,000 from 2010 to 2014. During the same period, the state grew 10 percent, according to the Census Bureau.

    Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

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    Watford City didn't have much traffic before fracking came to town. In neighboring Williams County, the average annual salary grew 79 percent from 2005 to 2010. 

    Photographer: Matthew Staver/Bloomberg

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    Officials in Watford City issued 1,824 permits for apartments, duplexes and homes in the 18 months that ended in September. Compare that with the 20 years from 1980 to 2000, when three houses were built. “It’s almost an unmanageable population explosion,” said Vicky Steiner, a Republican state legislator.

    Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

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    Kenya LeBaron, 2, with her father at temporary housing for workers outside Williston. The Bakken was a contemporary Gold Rush, a magnet for people seeking a better life who journeyed hundreds of miles for relatively high-paying jobs.

    Photographer: Matthew Staver/Bloomberg

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    An Alpha Oil & Gas Services crew puts together an oil pipeline outside of Watford City. Most crude leaves the Bakken in rail cars, and in December 2014, a plan to build a pipeline that would have carried 340,000 barrels to an Oklahoma storage hub was abandoned due to falling oil prices.

    Photographer: Matthew Staver/Bloomberg

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    Trucks carrying fuel rumble through Watford City in 2012. Neighboring Mountrail County's 1,600-mile road system got so overloaded that officials ran out of “road closed” signs.

    Photographer: Matthew Staver/Bloomberg

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    Joe Jessop, a truck driver from Utah, sets his fishing pole on the frozen Missouri River in Williston. 

    Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

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    The Bakken made Harold Hamm a billionaire. His Continental Resources, based in Oklahoma, leased the rocks beneath the North Dakota prairie before anyone thought it would pay. Once fracking technology made drilling possible, Hamm's fortune climbed to $16 billion; the fall in oil prices has reduced it to $10 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. 

    Photographer: Larry Smith/Bloomberg

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    Life could get lonely for workers far from their loved ones. Even this VIP guest room at the Bear Paw Lodge in Williston, with its fluorescent lights and metal indoor walls, made home sweeter by comparison.

    Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

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    Workers who were able to get guest rooms in aluminum structures called "man camps'" are now leaving. “We're overbuilt,” said Dan Kalil, a Williams County commissioner. “I'm concerned about having hundreds of $200-a-month apartments in the future.”

    Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

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    Laborers could send home "North Dakota: Energizing America" mugs and "Rockin' the Bakken" bumperstickers.

    Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

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    As workers leave, their castoffs pile up at TJ’s Autobody & Salvage outside Alexander. More than 400 discarded vehicles crowd the lot, including souped-up pickup trucks and an RV with rotting potatoes and a dead mouse in the sink. “I wake up and RVs are in my driveway,” said owner Tom Novak. “It’s insane. There are empty campers everywhere.”

    Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

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    Angela Krohn and her daughter collecting their mail at the Rakken Arrow RV Park in Watford City. Krohn and her husband, Daniel, left Wisconsin in 2012 for North Dakota, where their daughter was born. His job was installing piping on gravel pads were oil and gas were processed. Now he's unemployed and considering a move back to Wisconsin. “I can’t afford $1,000 or more for a one-bedroom and still feed my family,” Krohn said. “I’m ready to go.”

    Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg