WESTERN NORTH DAKOTA—I had zero cell-phone service when I landed in Bismarck. I know this state is mostly rural, but how was I supposed to know Sprint doesn’t operate here? Two hours, $183, and one new cheap smartphone later (thanks, Radio Shack!), I was on the road for an almost four-hour drive to Williston, the heart of America’s oil boom.
Everyone warned me that the 132-mile drive between Dickinson—another town booming from all the oil—and Williston was going to be longer than advertised. They were right. Trucks hauling oil, fracking material, and heavy equipment were hogging the roads and tearing them up. Construction just started to expand this small two-lane road built for sleepy farm towns to a four-lane highway so it can handle all the newfound traffic of the past four years. Like many parts of the oil-boom status quo, this construction is temporarily exacerbating the way of life here, but eventually, it will permanently benefit everyone. That is the goal, anyway.
Four hours later, I finally arrived in Williston, a town the Census Bureau bills as the fastest growing small city in the country. Its population in 2010 was 14,000; today it’s at least 26,000 and possibly as high as 33,000.
I had managed to secure a last-minute dinner with Harold Hamm, the CEO of Continental Resources, an independent oil company that had the earliest and still has the largest footprint in the Bakken oil fields of Western North Dakota. (He was also Mitt Romney’s energy adviser during the presidential election.)
We made reservations at The Williston, the fanciest restaurant in town, for 6:30. Hamm was running late but would still make it to dinner, I was told. I decided to head over to The Williston around 7 p.m. and wait at the bar. After driving my Altima rental car around potholes and construction (a scene almost more common than the oil industry itself in the oil patch), I found the restaurant and situated myself at a corner bar stool.
Forty-five minutes past. Hamm stood me up. I sighed. He was a gentleman about it, though. He called me and told me he was stuck in traffic near Watford City, an even smaller town that locals here say is really the heart of the oil boom. Isn’t that ironic: The man most responsible for the Bakken oil boom is stuck in traffic created by the Bakken oil boom. We made arrangements for breakfast the next morning at 7:30.
But in the meantime, I made the most of my time at The Williston, striking up a conversation with James Mitchell, the owner of a man camp (temporary or semipermanent housing for men working in the oil patch) in Eastern Montana.
I was then introduced to Tom Rolfstad, the executive director of economic development for Williston and one of the most sought-after guys in the oil patch. He just happened to be sitting across the bar. I told Rolfstad I was in town because Interior Secretary Sally Jewell was visiting, too. To which he replied, unimpressed, and with some laughter: “This isn’t our first Lewis and Clark expedition.” (The pioneering Americans passed this part of the state in their journey.) He noted that people all over the world, from Japan to Germany, have visited Williston to see the oil boom. I e-mailed him in the morning to connect with him again, but I got an automatic e-mail reply that said he was too busy to respond to e-mails and instead directed me elsewhere. I didn’t hear from him the rest of the week. I plan to pester him again this week.
The next day would end up being my longest of the week. Because Western North Dakota is split between Central and Mountain Time—a fact that got more annoying but no less confusing as the week went on—my Tuesday started at 7:30 a.m. and ended around 11:30 p.m. (or was it 6:30 to 10:30? I couldn’t keep track).
I didn’t notice Hamm as I scanned the breakfast room in the nondescript Holiday Inn Express Hotel that cost $250 a night and was booked solid. Wearing Carhartt jeans, a blue Continental long-sleeve shirt, and matching hat, Hamm walked up to me to introduce himself. After mulling whether to go somewhere to eat a proper breakfast, we decided to stay put. More like a true Oklahoman (he’s from and still lives there) and less like an oil magnate worth $11 billion, Hamm helped himself to biscuits and gravy. Like a gentleman again and certainly not like a billionaire, Hamm even bused our plates once we finished eating.
After my breakfast with Hamm, and after almost getting lost and then cutting off an oil truck (a bad decision, and not just in hindsight), I made it safely to Continental Resources’ Atlanta pad, which is smack in the middle of a Williston neighborhood. It was the first part of the Bakken tour for Jewell.
Throughout her tours of Continental and Statoil facilities, I tried to situate myself within earshot of her conversations. It’s a rare opportunity when a reporter is allowed to eavesdrop on conversations between government and industry officials like this.
“How is your relationship with your federal partners?” Jewell asked at one point. “How wet is your gas?” She asked at another.
Jewell flew to Theodore Roosevelt National Park for the latter half of Tuesday. Being a reporter on a budget driving and not flying, I couldn’t make it there fast enough to join her. Instead, I drove almost four hours to a field where 218 miles of pipes owned by TransCanada have been waiting since 2011 for a resolution on the Keystone XL pipeline. I toured the pipeline with Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., two of his staff, three representatives from TransCanada, and a reporter for The Dickinson Press.
After covering the politics of this pipeline for the past four years, it was striking to see the consequences of the delay: More than $200 million worth of pipe sitting in a field spanning 83 acres, waiting to be used either in the Keystone XL pipeline or, if it’s denied, possibly another TransCanada project, the representatives told me in the field.
By this time it was dusk, close to 9 p.m. Central or Mountain time (still not sure which one). Hoeven’s Western regional director, Jon Cameron, who drove us part of the way to the pipe yard, and I arrived back in Dickinson around 10 p.m., after nearly hydroplaning during an intense rain storm that seemed to materialize out of nowhere.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and I went back to her old stomping grounds to the Dakota Gasification synfuels plant in Beulah, where she spent 10 years as a director.
It was like she had never left (although her last day was in mid-December). When we arrived, all the employees knew and greeted her. She kept inadvertently saying “we” when talking about the plant. She corrected herself and laughed. “It’s like Hoeven still being governor,” Heitkamp said of her fellow senator and former North Dakota governor.
This industrial facility, which covers 450 acres, does a whole bunch of complicated chemical processes to make fertilizers, tar oil (not to be confused with tar sands), natural gas, carbon dioxide, and more. The CO2 is piped roughly 200 miles from Beulah to Canada, where companies inject it into the ground to develop oil. It’s most famous for transforming coal into natural gas. Only two such plants exist in the world that do this. The other one is in South Africa.
After a two-hour tour by plant manager Dale Johnson and Heitkamp, I felt like I had just gone through a (much more exciting) Chemistry 101 lesson.
And just like after any chemistry lesson, I needed to wind down. When planning my trip, I was told I must visit Medora, a quaint town in Theodore Roosevelt National Park 20 minutes from Dickinson. I brushed off the suggestions, assuming I wouldn’t have time. Luckily, I was wrong.
I was invited to dinner at Theodore’s, a fancy hotel restaurant in Medora, by Dennis Johnson, the mayor of Dickinson, and three of his colleagues steeped in North Dakota life and the oil boom’s effect on it.
I asked Johnson what I asked many of the locals: Is the oil boom a net benefit or not? He said yes, but that the challenges are great, including infrastructure and housing costs. Dickinson has weathered the boom better than its northern neighbor, Williston, in part because it’s not at the heart of the boom but also because Johnson and other city planners had, well, planned better and earlier.
And for the record, Medora, the surrounding badlands of the park, and the bison I had for dinner were fantastic.
After getting VIP treatment touring places with Jewell, Hoeven, and Heitkamp, I was left to my own devices for my last full day. Asking around, I managed to schedule a last-minute tour of an oil rail facility, a nexus where oil hauled by trucks is then transported via pipes to rail cars that then send it around the country and to Canada (the oil train that crashed in Quebec last month was hauling Bakken crude oil). The facility, which operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, sees up to 200 trucks a day.
“We’re just constantly under construction,” said Chris Lewis, general manager of the Bakken Oil Express facility. “We’re on phase 3 now.” Everywhere around here is under construction.
By Thursday afternoon, I’m ready for a change of scenery—and energy. I ventured out onto miles of dirt road to the Bison Wind Energy Center, a wind farm operated by Minnesota Power about an hour west of Bismarck.
The company just announced that it was expanding its production by more than 50 percent. The wind towers, which rise 428 feet into the air (more than 100 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty), were much larger up close than I had anticipated. I visited during what Todd Simmons, Minnesota Power’s general manager for wind (who gave me the tour), calls the “doldrums,” which are the summer months when the wind doesn’t blow much. The sound was minimal, like quiet ocean waves. Wind has a big footprint you may not realize. Simmons said his company had to create 50 miles of new roads to construct the wind towers.
Navigating through the dirtiest of dirt roads and wondering if my Altima will make it, I then head back to Bismarck and make a quick stop to see the world’s largest Holstein Cow (because, why not?). I have dinner with Kathleen Jones and Irvin Nodland, two longtime North Dakotans who told me stories about the state, its politics, and the oil boom. I had bison again (a specialty here), and it was delicious again.
This was the only day I had what you would call a typical interview where I go to someone’s office. I met with David Glatt, who is the state government’s top environmental officer. His energy counterpart, Lynn Helms, gets most of the attention though. (My meeting with him was moved to a telephone interview this week.)
On the way to the tiny Bismarck regional airport, I wondered what to do with my new cheap smartphone. I decided to keep it in case I come back. Everyone told me I must come back. Maybe by then the traffic will be better.