From the looks of it, the nation’s boomtown is still booming. Big rigs, cement mixers and oil tankers still clog streets built for lighter loads. The air still smells like diesel fuel and looks like a dust bowl— all that traffic — and natural gas flares, wasted byproducts of the oil wells, still glare out at the night sky like bonfires.
Not to mention that Walmart, still the main game in town, can’t seem to get a handle on its very long lines and half empty shelves.
But life at the center of the country’s largest hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, boom has definitely changed. The jobs that brought thousands of recession-weary employment-seekers to this once peaceful corner of western North Dakota over the last five years have been drying up, even as the unemployed keep coming.
Downtown, clutches of men pass their time at the Salvation Army, watching movies or trolling Craigslist ads on desktop computers. The main branch of the public library is full, all day, every day, with unemployed men in cubbyholes. And when the Command Center, a private temporary jobs agency, opens every morning at 6am, between two and three dozen people are waiting to get in the door.
Some of these job seekers are sleeping in their trucks, in utility sheds, behind piles of garbage by the railroad tracks, wherever they can curl up.
Only a year ago, Williston’s shale oil explosion was still gushing jobs. From 2010 to 2014, thanks to the Bakken shale oil patch, it was the fastest growing small city in the nation. Williston nearly tripled in size, from 12,000 to 35,000 people. But the number of active rigs used to drill new wells in the Bakken dropped to 111 in March, the lowest number since April 2010, according to state figures. Low oil prices have prompted drilling to slow down, and companies big and small have been laying off workers and cutting hours.
City officials paint a rosy picture. They cite North Dakota Job Service reports that maintain there are 116 jobs in Williston for every 100 residents, point to North Dakota’s ranking among oil-producing states (number two, after Texas), call the oil production slowdown a blip and say the oil patch is still growing.