Tales from the Oil Patch – Part I

Photo: Sarah Christianson Drilling rig at night, near Charbonneau, N.D.

Photo: Sarah Christianson
Drilling rig at night, near Charbonneau, N.D.

Larrie Wanberg

Feature Editor

The deep truths of the “Opportunities and Challenges” of the Bakken Oil Development in the Williston Basin of North Dakota were the topics of discussion at the Bakken Oil Workers & Oil Service Expo in Minot on August 20 – 23. The tagline on the program read, “Bonding for Success.”

This article will set the stage for opportunities outlined in facts presented during the Expo. Next issue, the article in this column will explore the obstacles and quality-of-life issues raised during discussions in the seminars. Two more features will follow during September.

The “Bakken Boom” is creating wealth for the Norwegian-American descendents of the immigrant families that put down roots – seemingly deeper than the wells themselves – three generations ago. Farm names where wells operate often sound like place names of farms lining the fjords of Norway.

The first well to discover oil in N.D. was the Clarence Iverson #1 south of Tioga, which began drilling in August 1950 and struck oil on April 4th, 1951. The Henry O. Bakken well began drilling on July 13, 1951 and hit oil on September 5th of that year, but production did not begin until April 1952.

The Bakken well drilled into deeper formations, which now carries the name of the entire oil field. The technologies to extract the oil had not been developed until “fracturing,” whereby deep vertical wells at great depths could be angled horizontally to follow induced fractures in the shale formations.

Photo: Sarah Christianson Natural gas flare, near Fairview, MT

Photo: Sarah Christianson
Natural gas flare, near Fairview, Mont.

Norway experienced an oil boom in the 1970s with North Sea Oil Development, which has developed continuously since. Much of the technologies gained from Norway and Texas are now instrumental in the development of the Bakken field.

Deeper still in history is the prime land of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation on the Ft. Berthold Reservation, where the first refinery is being built in the United States since 1975. American Indians are known to have inhabited this land for 11,000 years.

Tom Rolfstad, Executive Director of the Williston Economic Development Corporation, gave an eye-opening presentation on the opportunities and challenges in Williston, the fastest growing “Micropolitan” community in the Nation for the second year.

Tom is a third generation Norwegian American. His father was the attorney for the Henry O. Bakken family to negotiate the lease for oil royalties. He essentially represents “all of Norway” in his genealogy: paternal grandfather (PGF) from Prestfoss, (PGM) from Lista, (MGF) from Lillehammer, and (MFM) from Gudbransdalen.

The original ancestral family name was Torgersen, but at immigration, the neighboring farm name was adopted, which is still in the family in the Sigdal Valley, as Tom’s great grandfather was the only one of ten children to emigrate from Norway to America.

“The Bakken field is not a boom like in the past,” he said, “It’s a booming industry that will produce for 30 – 40 years. It was ninth in the country four years ago. Now it is ranked second in production.”

“New job growth is at 35,000 today,” he said, “with the expectation of reaching 50,000 when the growth is expected to stabilize and carry forward through 2050. Jobs will progressively transition into careers in energy,” he said.

“Job multipliers for spin-off jobs are rated at 2.633 in the community. Over 400 oilfield businesses are currently located in Williston, which is the ‘home’ of the top ten International Oilfield Service companies.”

Photo: Sarah Christianson Eco-Pad well site, near Watford City, N.D.

Photo: Sarah Christianson
Eco-Pad well site, near Watford City, N.D.

“About 6,000 jobs are available to be filled in the area. We’re probably the only place in the country where our unemployment rate is consistently at 0%,” Tom reported. “Currently, 7,000 wells are operating. Over 2,000 wells are drilled every year. Expectations are that the field will stabilize at 50,000 wells.”

The Bakken Oil Basin represents boom, bustle and new business over a wide range of land, stretching from portions of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, spreading across a large section of western N.D., skirting a corner of Wyoming, and dipping into South Dakota. The basin is shaped like a bowl where oil is most heavily concentrated near Williston and diminishing to the edges of the bowl’s rim.

The Expo was held at the State Fairgrounds in Minot. A stream of 2,500 attendees wandered the corridors over three days, viewing and interconnecting with the 280 vendors who occupied the booths. Turquoise balloons floating by a string tied to a booth indicated that the vendor is hiring and seeking employees. From the mezzanine’s bird’s eye view of the exhibit floor, the colorful balloons bobbed like fishermen’s corks on a non-so-quiet pond, hoping to attract employees.

Although job opportunities are plentiful in area towns and in the Bakken field, the high paying jobs are largely in crews and often in harsh working conditions, while jobs for spouses (often living in RVs or campers) seem to be in the lower spectrum of employment, often without benefits, such as health care and perks. Truck drivers, after a seven-day training course for licensing and certificates, can earn $90,000.

At a reception mixer on Wednesday evening, the mezzanine was jammed with people, busily networking or rehashing episodes from the “field” or from the exhibit floor.

Pages of seminars were listed in the expo booklet, highlighting the 47 learning opportunities to sit-in for an hour and listen to the “scoop” from an expert.

The seminars were where the nitty-gritty issues of “Quality of Life” were discussed from the point-of-view of community development, protection of the environment and its resources, and the wellbeing of people.

Where discussion seemed “muddy” was in the definition of “Quality of Life” by participants, or in the concept of “wellbeing” stemming from the oil development in regional towns, especially in smaller rural towns without much infrastructure in place.

N.D. has a $2 billion surplus in the State-owned Bank of N.D. One-third of oil revenues go into a trust fund. Farm families get 11.5% of every barrel produced. Of every 18 wells, the taxpayers of the State of North Dakota own a producing well.  Three-year leases for land run as high as $2,000 per acre in prime areas.

Tom summed it up. “N.D. can help build a Nation…significantly reduce our dependency on foreign oil…impact deficits…and the technologies of today that increases production will improve as time goes on. It’s a booming industry.”

See next week’s issue for the next part of this Bakken Oil Field series!

This article originally appeared in the September 6, 2013 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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Larrie Wanberg

Larrie Wanberg, 1920–2021, contributed features to The Norwegian American for many years, drawing on eight decades of life experience highlighted by three career recognitions: as a researcher through a Fulbright Scholarship to Norway in 1957; as a health care provider in behavioral science through a 27-year military career and awarded upon retirement in 1981 the highest non-combat medal, the Legion of Merit medal; as an educator, through a 50-year career in college education, culminating in the 2010 Public Scholar award at the UND Center for Community Engagement. Wanberg passed away in May, 2021.