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'Fracking' Changes North Dakota Landscape

An oil derrick is seen at a fracking site for extracting oil outside of Williston, North Dakota March 11, 2013.

An oil derrick is seen at a fracking site for extracting oil outside of Williston, North Dakota March 11, 2013.

A new technology has brought a lot of development to rural towns on the Bakken shale formation in the northern United States. Energy companies use the technology to remove oil from the Earth through a process called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” The development brings risks and riches.

Six years ago, astronauts in space saw only darkness when they looked at western North Dakota and eastern Montana. But the area can now be seen from the International Space Station because of thousands of intense fires. They are the oil fields fueling a “red hot” energy industry in the United States.

Fracking has brought changes to North Dakota. It enables the removal of oil from shale deposits, like the Bakken shale formation.

The search for oil deposits has increased activity in once sleepy towns like Williston, North Dakota. In 2000, the state’s population was about 620,000. North Dakota State University Professor Nancy Hodur says the population is now closer to 730,000.

“It is a record high. It has never been bigger.”

And the expansion continues to create jobs.

“We do not have as many people as we need to fill those jobs, and we got high participation in the workforce.”

And not just in the oil fields. Businesses are having a hard time filling job openings – from driving trucks…to making food in the growing number of restaurants.

Cam Holt owns a restaurant. He says there is a shortage of homes, which has caused a jump in housing prices.

“Eighty to 90 percent of the people that walked through the door here, looking for a job, need a place to live. At $1,500 a bedroom, even at the rates that we are paying people, it is still unaffordable. It does not make sense for them.”

North Dakota has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. It also has one of the fastest growing income rates. But a labor organization warns the state is also one of the most dangerous places to work. The AFL-CIO says it has a death rate five times higher than the national average. Most of those deaths happened in areas where mining and oil removal projects are taking place.

The work may be dangerous. But people continue to look for jobs in towns like Williston.

Dean Bangsund is an economist at North Dakota State University.

“Now we are seeing the technology is allowing us to put the wells closer together without affecting the performance of the wells. So the ecology, and the technology and the economics is evolving.”

He says it is too early to tell what the long-term economic and environmental effects will be.

“This is a relatively new technology. It is being adjusted. It is undergoing tweaks and refinements as we speak. It is dealing with a portion of geology the state has not traditionally dealt with. It is much larger, much broader in context.”

It appears the promise of the oil industry in North Dakota will extend and continue to drive demand for a workforce willing to accept the risks and rewards. I’m Anne Ball.

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