WILLISTON, N.D. — Williston’s oil boom is growing up.

It’s matured beyond the reckless teenage years of the much-talked-about boom-bust cycle and into an event that has some city officials thinking big about the future of Williston.

Tom Rolfstad, executive director of Williston Economic Development, is one who thinks the economy in northwest North Dakota is here to stay.

“This is not just a boom or bust economy,” he said in an interview last week. “We have a lot of wells to drill, and we’ll be drilling thousands of wells for the next 20 to 30 years.”

Rolfstad sees Bakken oil as an industry to drive the city in the same way steel has driven Pittsburgh and automobiles used to drive Detroit.

The rapid growth of the region caused growing pains, but it is stabilizing and oil companies have improved their drilling success rate, production and efficiency, forever altering both the American oil scene and the culture of North Dakota.

Williston’s typical boom-bust cycle appears to be headed to a boom-business model and the start of that new cycle already has started.

“This is uncharted territory,” said Williston Mayor Ward Koeser. “There’s a period of rapid growth of people and business, then at some point you reach this stage where it stabilizes. In my mind, it happened probably about last fall.”

1980s on their mind

In the mid-2000s, oil companies tentatively returned to the Williston Basin with new technology, such as hydraulic fracturing. Fracking injects water, a proppant such as sand, and chemicals into the ground to break up the hard rock beneath the North Dakota surface.

As the names Hess Co. and Halliburton filtered back to the prairie, visions of the 1980s danced in the minds of locals who had seen how ravaging a bust could be.

During the last boom, Williston grew and grew, and so did hotels, apartments, businesses and prices. When the bottom fell out, the housing market tipped over, buildings were left abandoned and the economy went back to being driven by agriculture — like it used to be.

“You would hear comments that ‘this is here forever,’ and it literally went away overnight,” Koeser said, who was not involved with city government at the time. “The boom was wonderful, the bust was terrible and you literally hang on from your fingernails to survive.”

By 2008, the global economy bottomed out and oil prices fell to $60 a barrel, which was considered the break-even price for drilling and production at the time.

Prices soon recovered as the Bakken roared to life, producing oil at a rate that would quickly allow North Dakota to pass Alaska and put the state behind only Texas and Alberta, Canada, in North American oil production.

Many who remembered the ’80s took more of a wait-and-see approach.

“Booms go up fast, busts go down even faster,” Koeser said. “Is it different now? Yes and no. We have no guarantees.”

Rig count a key

In the Williston Basin, there are nearly 9,000 producing wells drilled. Those wells are pumping out more than 800,000 barrels of crude a day and completions, according to the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, rose from 10 to 143 from April to May.

“The number of completions is above the threshold needed to maintain production,” said DMR Director Lynn Helms. “... Rig count in the Williston Basin is stable.”

The rig count, according to Koeser, is the telltale sign of the Bakken’s maturity past the boom phase. A count of around 180 to 190 indicates a steady rate of drilling.

Koeser said it appears the companies are paying more attention to quality of workers over quantity of workers.

Early in the stages of the boom, the rig count rose to more than 200 and companies were scrambling to secure leases and drill holes in time.

Most of the mineral leases are now tied up, and the rush to put drills in the ground has decreased.

“It’s not the frenzy it was a couple years ago,” he said. “A lot of it triggers back to that 180-190 rig count.”

Technology has helped provide some of that stability.

The biggest issue that oil companies faced in the 1980s was failure to strike oil. Now oil is hit more than 99 percent of the time and dry well holes are a thing of the past.

Thirty years ago, the companies would drill until finding a pool of oil, then begin to drill around the pool but would still find five to six dry wells in the process.

A successful well means permanent jobs.

“Those two things are making it more of an industry,” Koeser said of the success and permanent workforce. “If we go another year at this rate, you created another 4,000 or so jobs in the basin.”



08/10/2015 4:04am

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07/30/2017 11:54pm

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08/02/2017 7:15am

I also believe Willston Economic Development will be here to stay. We are aware that the company is facing some issues of maturity right now, but I know they’ll going to get over it. Many oil companies are rising now, but I don’t think they’ll be able to surpass Willston image and credibility in the market. Besides, all companies face problems. It’s normal that they are making some adjustments to cope up with the demand. What’s important is they are still making efforts to deliver good products and services.


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