Bismarck, N.D. — For many years, North Dakota has been the least visited state in the Union. There are no real tourist attractions here; Mount Rushmore is in South Dakota. The late newsman Eric Sevareid, who was born in North Dakota, called his native state “a large, rectangular blank spot in the nation’s mind.” But reporters from all over the world have been coming here lately, because North Dakota boasts one of the most interesting and exciting stories in the country: an honest-to-goodness boom.
The state has the lowest unemployment rate in the country, at 3.1 percent. Some wonder who could be out of work, given all the “Help Wanted” signs. North Dakota is No. 1 in job growth and No. 1 in income growth. At the heart of this prosperity is the Bakken formation, located in the northwestern part of the state. It’s a vast pot of oil. “Bakken,” incidentally, rhymes with “rockin’.” They have a bumper sticker here: “Rockin’ the Bakken.”
Oil was discovered in this area in 1951, but the trick was extracting it. Then, not long ago, came a marriage of two techniques — one older, one newer. The older one was “hydraulic fracturing,” or “fracking,” for short. This is the method by which oil or natural gas is forced from rock. The newer technique was horizontal drilling. A combination of the two proved a bonanza. Earlier this year, North Dakota passed California as the third-greatest oil-producing state. Before the year is out, they should pass Alaska, trailing only Texas.
People from the other 49 states are coming to North Dakota to participate in this boom. Entrepreneurs in and around the Bakken are having a field day. The common comparison is to the Gold Rush, and that comparison is apt. North Dakota’s government is flush in money, and they are both investing in infrastructure and cutting taxes. Not every state has a Bakken, obviously — this goose laying golden eggs. Still, other states can learn from North Dakota, and so can Washington, D.C.
“There are 8 million stories in the naked city,” goes an old movie line. There are almost as many in the Bakken. Gary Emineth, an entrepreneur and politico, is in the burrito business. For the Bakken, he had a special burrito made: big, manly, meal-like. He has done more business in 13 stores in the Bakken than in 450 stores elsewhere. In the town of Williston, the McDonald’s had to close in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon. They had run out of food. The Williston Walmart does not really bother stocking the shelves anymore. First, who wants to work as a stockboy when you can make a bundle in the oil patch? Second, the goods would not stay on the shelves long. The store just sets the pallets in the aisles, and the customers grab the goods and go right to the register.
Someone says to me, “Do you mind if I tell you something blue?” I’m all ears. “From what I hear,” he says, “the strippers are making more per night in Williston than they do in Las Vegas.”
The best stories, of course, are those involving men and women whose lives have been renewed by work found in this state. The nation has been down and ailing. North Dakota has been a godsend for many thousands — maybe as many as 50,000, so far (and the state has fewer than 700,000). Next door in Minnesota, the Star Tribune ran an article that began, “There’s no keeping up with North Dakota’s surging economy, but at least they’re hiring some of us to do chores.” Hearing stories in North Dakota, I recall something I heard an Egyptian say at a Middle East conference. He was talking about unemployment in Egypt and other Arab countries. Young people were having to go to the Persian Gulf, in order to find work. He was sorry that they couldn’t stay in their home countries. But “thank God there is a Gulf. It has served as a safety valve for the whole region.”
In the Bakken, the greatest need is for truck drivers, to haul materials to and from drilling sites. They earn between $80,000 and $120,000 a year, with generous benefits. Dennis Lindahl, a councilman in Stanley, tells me about a family who lost their home in California. They came to the Bakken with one truck, which they ran 24 hours a day. Soon they had three trucks and five drivers, and bought a new home here — with cash. Many workers are paying off their mortgages back home, or buying land back home, or saving for a business they’ve always dreamed of. Many are simply sending cash back home, to family members who need it. If these workers get a per diem, they try to spend as little of it as possible. In a Mexican or Cuban context, we would use the word “remittances.”