Big Play in the Oil Patch
Rich seams of oil nearly two miles beneath the Earth’s surface are attracting the biggest oil play in the United States to western North Dakota and, in the process, creating opportunities and challenges that were unheard of only a few years ago.
A report in USA Today touts the state’s 3 percent unemployment rate and proclaims that “Help Wanted” signs dominate the streets of cities like Williston and Dickinson, where job seekers with all sorts of skills are being hired within mere hours of arriving in town.
“There’s plenty of jobs out here and room for a lot more,” says John Odermann ’06. “If you can’t find a job here, you’re not looking.”
Odermann grew up on a ranch near Belfield in the decades when empty buildings and vacant housing were daily reminders of the volatility of oil booms and busts.
“Like a lot of people back then, I didn’t have a positive opinion of the oil business,” Odermann says.
But with world oil prices around $90 a barrel, that impression is changing now with oil gushing and money flowing.
“Oh, my goodness, there’s a lot of oil,” says Williston oil producer Tom Ritter ’71. “We’re seeing wells that produce 300,000 barrels a year with an anticipated life span of 25 years, so this will be a big deal for a long time to come.”
An Economic Boom
Ritter is a 35-year veteran of the oil industry, and he’s amazed at the activity.
“The amount of money being invested is staggering, not only in oil but for all the support industries as well,” he says. “Every industry here that supports a growing population needs people. People with skills like teachers and accountants are needed just as much as carpenters and truck drivers.”
Dean Throntveit ’74 says he needed to go all the way across North Dakota to Moorhead, Minn., to find a contractor for the construction projects he’s doing in his hometown of Crosby in the northwestern corner of the state.
“This whole region is underpopulated, and we’re looking for people to hire for everything,” he says. “Any business that’s service-related needs people.”
Throntveit is responding to these needs by building a new motel, developing a large, full service truck maintenance facility that includes a trailer camp, and operating a financial services company for truckers.
The biggest need is housing, which Throntveit and Ritter say is the solution for sustaining the present growth.
“The oil companies need skilled, experienced workers right now,” Ritter says. “And most of these workers are from out of state.”
So far, the temporary solution for housing them is “man camps” that only provide basic sleeping rooms and a cafeteria.
“But these workers say they would just as soon have their families with them and live here,” he says.
Finding Unexpected Careers
Twin brothers John and Jacob Odermann ’06 followed an older brother to Concordia to play football and earn degrees in economics that they hoped would provide them with stable careers in interesting places.
After graduation, Jacob became an inventory control analyst at Cabela’s corporate headquarters in Nebraska. John returned to Dickinson as an outdoors writer and reporter for the Dickinson Press. He now contributes outdoors columns to the Bismarck Tribune.
Jacob followed his brother to Dickinson after realizing he was spoiled from growing up on a ranch.
“I like to always have a place to hunt and be outdoors,” he says.
By spring 2010, with the pace of oil development quickening and good paying jobs readily available, the Odermanns went to work in the oil patch.
“When you have an opportunity to make good money in southwestern North Dakota, you have to take it,” says John. “It’s like our economics professors always said, you go where the money is.”
John and Jacob work for Pason Systems, an international contractor specializing in the electronic monitoring of drilling rigs. Their offices are Chevy 4x4 pickup trucks fully loaded with computers and technical equipment, and their hours can be 24/7.
“We collect information on everything the drilling rig is doing,” says John. “We provide a snapshot of what’s going on with the rig so someone in Texas or Calgary can log on and make decisions about that rig.”
For each new well drilled, approximately 1,200 truckloads of equipment, supplies and water are needed during the drilling phase, and additional truckloads of oil are hauled out during the first year of production. With 2,000 new wells this year, that equates to four million trucks across roads in western North Dakota.
Conservative estimates count 500,000 truck hauls each month on deteriorating gravel roads in the oil patch.
“The truck traffic is constant and it’s just pounding our roads down,” says Throntveit. “The dust is terrible, but people are working through it.”
John Skogen ’99, who farms near Epping, is trying to co-exist with the oil industry.
“It’s pretty crazy out here,” he says. “I try to move my farm equipment down the road with semis zipping by me at 75 miles per hour. It can get scary.”
The North Dakota Petroleum Council estimates that the combination of state and oil industry expenditures combine to make the Bakken oil play the largest development and construction project in the United States right now.
The state geological survey, which has been studying the Bakken formation for years, estimates it could hold as many as four million barrels of oil per square mile. Other sources estimate as many as 24 billion barrels of recoverable oil might be in the Bakken and Three Forks formations.
“Those kinds of numbers are mind-boggling,” says John Odermann. “Growing up out here, I never dreamed this amount of activity would ever be possible. I’m hearing that Dickinson and Williston will double or triple in population.”
Dickinson attorney Bruce Howe, a former member of Concordia’s board of regents, has seen oil booms and busts come and go, but this time he thinks the Bakken is for real. He says the bulk of his legal work is now all oil-related.
“It looks like we’ll have a long period of development,” Howe says. “All the data makes this look big. But it’s still too early for us to know how big.”
Howe says Dickinson is booming like he’s never seen it before. “There’s no place to stay. We’re building new hotels and housing as fast as we can. You hear about rents doubling and tripling because of the demand. There’s money being spread all over town.”
“It’s one challenge after another, and it’s getting busier,” adds John Odermann. “This is an opportunity for western North Dakota to grow, and we can either squander it or take advantage of it. I think if these new people coming in can find affordable housing, they’ll fall in love with this place and want to stay. Western North Dakota is a great place to live.”
Putting Down Roots
Jacob Odermann is taking his brother’s wish to heart. He’s building a house and planning a wedding.
“Thanks to the oil industry, I’m building a nest egg and planning for the future,” says Jacob. “Down the road, I’m hoping to take over the ranch when Dad retires. For me, there’s no better place to raise a family or learn the value of hard work and personal responsibility. The oil industry is allowing me to live the life I like.”
Skogen hasn’t been tempted to leave farming – which he loves – for an oil field job, but he sees the opportunities for people with strong backgrounds in liberal arts.
“One thing liberal arts graduates can do is communicate with people. We can get our point across,” he says. “I can see Concordia graduates doing things like negotiating leases and land deals. There are so many jobs available out here now, I think it’s just a matter of picking one.”
The Odermanns believe their Concordia degrees help them in the oil fields.
“We can see the bigger picture. We’re flexible. We can do more things,” says Jacob, who adds that they must promote their high-tech services to each new company coming into the oil patch.
“We’re really selling our integrity and our work ethic. The liberal arts has given us a broad view rather than a narrow focus,” he says. “We’re able to approach things and solve problems from many different perspectives and communicate exactly what we can do for our customers. There are so many services that affect people in this industry. There are possibilities for anybody out here.”
Story/Photos: Sheldon Green