Sandstorm of Business: The Bakken Boom - WQOW TV: Eau Claire, WI NEWS18 News, Weather, and Sports

Sandstorm of Business: The Bakken Boom


Western North Dakota (WQOW) - Frac sand is a hot topic with many layers, but you don't get a true appreciation for the demand until you visit North Dakota, where much of western Wisconsin's sand ends up.

(WQOW News 18 tracked western Wisconsin's frac sand to North Dakota.  This is the first in a series of reports.)

"We were famous for being not famous," said John Heiser, a Badlands naturalist, a traditional cattle rancher and a fourth-generation North Dakotan.

The state of North Dakota is known for its wind, wheat and cattle set against the breathtaking backdrop of the Badlands.  Some have said that this is the land God forgot, but one day, it could be remembered for the oil wells that now dot the landscape like flags marking development.  Many people who were raised in western North Dakota are not ready to carry these flags.  "My mission is Mother Earth, that's my life mission," said Heiser, who calls the rapid oil development an extreme disruption.  "You name it, every species is going to be affected by the oil well pads, by the proliferation of roads, by the degradation of habitat.  You're going to lose the land itself.  I do not mind some oil development here.  It's the magnitude of it."

"Right now, I think we're second in the state as far as production.  We produce right at 80,000 barrels of oil a day," said Blaine Hoffmann, superintendent for Whiting Oil & Gas.  Hoffmann represents an industry that now produces 700,000 barrels of oil per day in North Dakota.  That rate has doubled in less than two years.

Much of it comes from the Bakken, which is a rock formation covering 200,000 square miles in parts of western North Dakota, Montana and Canada.  Oil was discovered there long ago, but it wasn't until recently that advancements in technology allowed drillers to efficiently tap into the huge reservoir of oil and natural gas using sand from western Wisconsin.

"Greed breeds stupidity and this is pretty much being led with no wisdom," said Nikki McAlpin, a rancher.  There are three oil wells on government land surrounding her property.  "Our place became like a major highway," said McAlpin.  The more wells drilled, the more concerned she becomes.  "Our lifestyles are being annihilated over oil," said McAlpin.  She claims the fracturing underground affected their water.  "After just about two years, not quite two years, our well was completely dry.  As they say, 'You can't prove that we did that.'  Well, no... I can't go down two miles under ground and show you where you fractured it, but our homestead is over 100 years old.  We live on natural grasslands, nothing is allowed to happen out here.  It's all protected and preserved.  The only change that happened in the ground was the oil drilling," said McAlpin.

That word "change" isn't limited to farms and ranches.  Not by a long shot.

Williston, North Dakota has been called "America's Boomtown."  You could also call it "A town under construction."  According to the last U.S. Census, the population of Williston resembled that of Menomonie, but take one drive through town and you will realize, the population is probably closer to that of Eau Claire.

"(I) don't like it," said Pat Dahl, who has lived in Williston for more than 40 years.  "When we moved here, it was just a nice, quiet farm community.  Everybody knew everybody.  (Now) the whole environment has changed," said Dahl.

It certainly has.  For example: jobs.  The oil industry needs excavators, rig workers, truck drivers, title lawyers... you name it, there's a job to be filled.  "A lot of the guys are already making between $80,000 and $100,000 a year," said Hoffmann.  People are coming from all over the country because of it.  "Forty to 50,000 people from out of state, and that's just a guess on my part," said Hoffmann.

If you do an online search within 10 miles of Williston, you'll find more than 500 jobs posted.  "Right now, the biggest need is housing construction," said Hoffmann.  There's not enough housing to go around.  That's why you see man camps set up for workers.  If you need a more permanent place, good luck.  Rent for a two-bedroom apartment is around $1,800 a month.

"Many people call us, 'The G & G community: Greed and Gouging," said Dahl.  "I'm not going to say there's gouging out there, but they are certainly taking advantage of the situation.  It's like any other time you have when times are good, people are going to try to take advantage of that and it has nothing to do with the oil companies.  It has to do with the local property managers and people trying to make a living," said Hoffmann.

Once the workers get paid, other businesses are reaping the benefits.  Recently, on the front page of the local newspaper, The Dickinson Press, there was a story about how revenue from taxable sales and purchases is up 55% locally, almost 42% statewide.

Traffic is another impact.  You see truck after truck after truck.  "People like to go for Sunday drives.  Well, you know... you're on the highway, nobody's going for a Sunday drive anymore unless you have a death wish," said Dahl.

There are hopes the oil boom won't have another impact, another kind of boom.  In September, there was a small earthquake, a magnitude 3.3, southeast of Williston.  McAlpin said, "Ok, we've never had an earthquake so you have to ask yourself, 'All this fracking, blasting two miles under the ground, how much is it taking away the stability of our grounds?"  "It is not fracking related.  We have a history of small tremors in North Dakota and especially in the Williston area, they've been recorded there," said Hoffmann.

Going back to 1900, there have been nine other recorded earthquakes in the state:  two of those in the Williston area with the most recent in 1946.  The state said it does not have the equipment capable to detect earthquakes so it relies on Montana.  The North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources said, "...based on the information we have received from (Montana) Mines and Geology, we have no reason to believe the earthquake that occurred a few weeks ago had anything to do with hydraulic fracturing or the use of underground injection wells."  A representative from the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology told WQOW News 18 that they would defer to North Dakota, but said they don't have the evidence to support or rule out the cause.

As the landscape changes in North Dakota, John Heiser keeps coming back to the picture of the state that he prefers.  "We like our neighbors when they're a mile or so away.  We like that."

"It's change and a lot of people don't like change," said Hoffmann.  "You're destroying western North Dakota and apparently, a good portion of Wisconsin" said Heiser.  "This is good for North Dakota," countered Hoffmann.

Western Wisconsin is crucial to the oil boom.  "The sand itself is the key that kind of unlocks all of this stuff," said Hoffmann.  That's not the only local connection WQOW News 18 found in the North Dakota oil patch.  "I was actually born in Eau Claire at Luther Hospital," said a local man who's working in the oil fields.

That's where WQOW News 18 will pick up the story Monday night... by hearing from him.  We'll also hear a lot more about the use of western Wisconsin's frac sand in North Dakota.  Watch Sandstorm of Business Monday night at 10 p.m. on WQOW News 18.

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