Be Careful What You Wish For

Long ago, practically in a previous life, we lived in North Dakota. We lived for a while, in fact, on the eastern edge of the Bakken oil field, and then later, further east off of its eastern edge.

But that first year, we lived in Plaza, ND, a town–if it could indeed be called that–that was no more than about seven blocks wide and maybe five deep (though the Google Maps view seems to charitably assign road indices to what pass for alleys in town). The stated population was 150, though I frequently thought that was being overly charitable.

The town had a gas station, a bank branch (usually just staffed by one lone person), a post office that really was not much larger than a two-car garage, and a “mall,” which simply housed a small grocery store, a small hardware store, and a small cafe.

Then there came us. Two twenty-somethings, setting up shop in our rented five-bedroom house. There were no street addresses, in fact, no marked street names. So we made up our own street address (occasionally not the same one) for the UPS guy to use for deliveries. But truth be told, he knew where we lived and complained once that our doors were locked so he couldn’t stick our delivery in the entry for us.

But more than once, we were asked about the status of baby making, for purposes of keeping their school funded. You see, back then, in the mid- to late-1990s, North Dakota was slowly, quietly dying, bleeding out population. And we swam upstream to move into the state. And it wasn’t just that town, it was others, and other people from across the state who I came into contact with, who said that they really wished the state could grow a bit.

Then, sometime last decade, it finally became technically and financially feasible to mine the Bakken for oil. And the boom was on, with thousands of people moving in to run the mines to suck–or more appropriately with fracking, push–out the oil. The exodus stopped. The fortunes reversed. North Dakota is growing again.

They got their wish. But they never thought about the cost.

Just today, a news story hit saying that Williston, ND, a town that had no more than 10,000 people living within its borders when we were out there, now has the highest rents in the nation. The city, practically in the center of the Bakken, is now estimated to have 30,000 people living there, and that has made housing so scarce that a 700 square foot apartment will run you nearly $2400 a month, more than New York, Los Angeles, and Boston.

The glut of six-figure salaries is largely to blame, though the lack of housing is another cause. But in a recent series on NPR, it was almost sad to hear people who almost certainly were lamenting the slow death of cities like Williston just 15 years ago, now saying that they don’t even recognize what the city and state have become.

But it’s what they wanted, right? It was the dying wish of a dying state to have fortunes beyond measure come to them. But they never thought about the downside: the cost, crime, overcrowding, lack of infrastructure, or even, as shown in a recent satellite photo, the constant bright light of hundreds of wells burning off excess natural gas.

Sure, it isn’t all their fault–there have been wells out there hopelessly pumping low-grade crude for decades. But they didn’t do anything to slow down the rush by drillers to get in there once the technology was available to get the oil out of the flaky rock deep below cities like Williston. So now it’s becoming almost impossible for the people who were there first to live in homes and apartments they had been in for years.

This is the progress North Dakota wanted.

See you tomorrow.