In the Land of Oil and Money
By Bill Donahue
In North Dakota, the siren call of the shale has swelled the Bakken oil fields with workers and rigs. Experiencing an unprecedented demand for goods and services, the town of Williston has become a haven for fortune hunters who left their old lives behind to find their share of the American Dream.
It was dark when I got there, and cold outside, with nary a tree to offer reprieve from the harsh midnight wind ripping across the dry plains of western North Dakota. I had nowhere to stay. All the motels in Williston were booked for the next year on account of the oil boom, which had just brought roughly twenty thousand newcomers to a once-modest town of twelve thousand.
I only had the name of a man camp with me as I drove four hours north from the airport in Bismarck. There was supposedly a single bed waiting for me for ninety dollars a night amid a warren of prefab homes otherwise rented by oil workers. But the hotelier, an old rancher-cum-entrepreneur, was a bit squirrely to deal with, eschewing credit cards and playing it close to the vest each time I pressed him to reveal the physical whereabouts of his establishment. “Just call me when you get here,” he kept saying as I wended my way up through the badlands. In the dark, on the barren plains fifteen miles or so west of Williston, I was simply unable to find the place. So now, needing shelter, I phoned another one of the myriad entrepreneurs who had flocked to the Williston area since 2008 hoping for a slice of the $2 billion that the oil industry is now pouring into western North Dakota every month, thanks to the Bakken formation, a shale-rich bed of rock that also underlies eastern Montana and southern Saskatchewan, harboring at least four billion barrels of crude.
Mike Teague, 57, isn’t a hotel guy. No, back home in Spokane, Washington he ran a video company, Suburban White Guys Productions, and broke even, more or less, making films about four-wheeling—that is, guys mashing over sagebrush and up cliffs in pick-up trucks with gargantuan black tires. In 2010, he launched another business, trying to sell insurance via instant message. He went broke, his wife left him, and then in his misery, he googled the word “boomtown.” He learned about North Dakota. He left inside of a month.
Teague had visions of a multi-tentacled empire in Williston that would cost him roughly half a million dollars to build. When I met him, he was ready to buy a two-thousand-square-foot prefab home in which he planned to live, rent out nine bedrooms, and also house his fledgling production firm, Vision First Media, which would do video and photo promotion, most of it online, for Williston-area oil field service companies—pipe suppliers, say. The house would be set on a thirteen-acre lot that Teague had picked just outside of town. The property would otherwise be devoted to a parking lot rented to oil-field trucks, as well as an eco-friendly truck wash using recycled water. Teague was trying to land a $300,000 bank loan when we met and meanwhile saving up the cash he earned by driving a grader, leveling the earth on which concrete wellheads would sit. In 2011, he worked 340 days and made $130,000. But still he was living in a crowded RV with his Vision First lieutenant, thirty-year-old Seth Wolther, a heavy-metal singer and erstwhile Vegas strip-club manager who calls Teague “Coach.” The two men have their rig parked in a wheat field, hard by three silver grain silos. Quarters are cramped, but the booth seats by the kitchen table fold down into a bed. Graciously, Teague availed this berth to me. “It’s all yours,” he yelped over the phone.
When I arrived, I found a ruddy gray-haired fellow wearing nothing but a blue terrycloth bathrobe as he hunched over a tumbler of Black Velvet whiskey. Teague’s two cats, Pretty Girl and Lover Boy, scrambled away as he rose to pump my hand with great, blowsy gusto. “Welcome to the Wild West,” he exclaimed. “Can I fix you a drink?”
The next morning, I beheld the mayhem in Williston. On the main strip, Highway 2, every third vehicle was, it seemed, a brand new Ford F350 affixed with a trailer to bring gear to the oil rigs. There were eighteen-wheelers headed that direction too. The sound of large, laboring engines was everywhere, and the bumper stickers were menacing. “Don’t Tread on Me” and “This truck protected by Smith & Wesson,” they warned. There was dust swirling about—it had been a dry winter—and on the sides of the road, at McDonald’s and Subway and Wildcat Pizzeria, job seekers filled the booths, solitary men peering hopefully into their laptops as they commiserated. They were émigrés, all of them, from weaker economies. “There was nothing in Mobile,” I heard one fellow say, “so I came up on the train.”
The Walmart parking lot, which had been a de facto campground for months, was off limits for sleeping now, but still trailers and RVs were everywhere. I talked to one weary sixty-year-old Williston local who told me that he began renting out fifteen trailer spaces in his yard after strangers knocked on his door. “And now I’m a social worker and a psychologist for these people,” he said as we sat before his large-screen TV, surrounded by campers waiting to use the shower inside his house. “I’m working 24/7 to give them a safe haven.”
At the south end of Highway 2, downtown Williston was a little scuffed by the onslaught. There was the odd broken window, and sandwich wrappers swirled about. Still, downtown shone like a pearl inside the crust of an oyster. There is no Starbucks there, and the ancient businesses, many of them with their own proud neon signs, bespeak a stolid small-town idyll. There is Gaffaney’s Stationary, Conlin’s Furniture, Pierce Steak House, and Sportsman’s Lounge. The marquis at the Grand Theatre, which is still showing movies, reads “The Screen Talks”.
Until recently, Williston was quietly dying, like the Texan small town in The Last Picture Show. But then in 2007, engineers discovered a new method for shaking petroleum out of the Bakken. Stealing a page from natural gas prospectors, who had been hydrofracking intensively for a decade, they began fracturing subterranean rock by gushing vast quantities of sand- and chemical-laden water into their wells. North Dakota oil prospecting had once been a matter of wildcatting and striking pay dirt about 20 percent of the time. Suddenly the hit rate leapt to 95 percent, and Williston exploded with pilgrims seeking their fortune. Launching a hydrofracking business costs millions of dollars, and large oil-field operators—in North Dakota, these include Hess and Halliburton—need small-timers to haul water and pipe. The support workers need amenities: restaurants, hotels, houses, gas stations, and convenience stores.
The upward thrust of Williston’s economy carries an almost pheremonal power on the streets of the town. People in Williston were giddy and bug-eyed, manic with exuberance. At Mondak Motor Sports, for instance, manager Josh Kringen told me that revenues were up 200 percent since January, when Mondak relocated from Montana. “We’ve got nineteen-year-old kids here making $100,000 a year on their first job,” Kringen said. “They’ll come in here and buy a $12,000 ATV on an impulse.”
At the Williston Mixed Martial Arts & Self Defense Center, owner and instructor Brandon “The Loose Cannon” Anderson aims to tap the same market. A reigning light-heavyweight champ in Montana, twenty-seven-year-old Anderson told me he had just settled into a cavernous twenty-five-thousand-square-foot space once home to a furniture store. His only sign was a hand-painted sandwich board perched by the roadside. He didn’t have an actual cage for cage fighting yet. The structure, bought and paid for, was being retrofitted in Montana. Still, Anderson envisioned a dazzling future. “There are hardly any women in Williston,” he reasoned. “Guys are not getting laid. They’re fighting in bars, and we’re going to channel that energy. This is going to be the fourth largest Mixed Martial Arts gym in the nation. We’re gonna do it!”
Behind all bravado, of course, is the specter of failure. Williston has boomed on oil before, most recently in the early eighties; back then, things fizzled almost overnight. In early December 1985, OPEC decided to flood the world market with oil. Prices dropped, and prospecting in Williston suddenly wasn’t worthwhile. “I didn’t see it coming,” said Ardean Aafedt, a Williston oil investor who owned a local hotel at the time. “We were booked solid, and then a couple years later we sold an empty building.” Some forty or fifty other businesses skipped town, ceding their buildings to the City of Williston and leaving the city on the hook for $25 million in unpaid sewer and water setup fees.
This boom doesn’t seem poised to end in a repeat fiasco. The price of oil isn’t likely to decline, given China’s and India’s growing consumer bases, and the multinationals working in the Bakken seem to have deep confidence in the rock’s potential. Six of them have proposed to build multi-billion-dollar pipelines linking North Dakota’s oil patches to processors in Oklahoma and Texas. Williston-area boosters believe drilling will persist on the Bakken for ten years, at least.
Still, there is no guarantee that fracking will stay legal. The Environmental Protection Agency is looking closely at the practice as the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth, among others, clamor for a nationwide ban. In December 2011, the EPA found that, in fracking for natural gas, prospectors had polluted drinking water beneath Pavillion, Wyoming. That same month, Youngstown, Ohio suffered two small earthquakes after gas frackers pumped wastewater deep into underground sandstone. Cincinnati just banned fracking. Myriad other cities—among them, Detroit, Albany, and Berkeley, California—have likewise passed anti-fracking laws, as has the state of New Jersey.
North Dakota won’t likely follow suit, but the EPA could clamp down and stymie Williston-area drilling by, for instance, setting stringent rules about how well operators must dispose of their chemical waste.
Even if fracking stays legal, entrepreneurs in North Dakota will still face an expiration-date problem: Williston’s population boom won’t last forever. Sometime over the next decade or so, drilling will stop on the Bakken. Pumps will continue sucking up oil, but running a well will require only one person, as opposed to the 120 needed for drilling. In other words, the consumer base will sharply diminish.
“I’m not saying it’s gambling, investing in Williston,” said Mark Schill, a North Dakota-based economist who writes about community development for the web publication New Geography. “The place is thriving. But you better do your homework before you go there. And you’re taking some risks, starting a business there. Everything costs more in Williston—labor and land and materials—and things are shifting so rapidly, it’s just hard to tell what will happen.”
Luckily, Mike Teague enjoys life on the edge. His closest friends are all in their thirties, and he bonded with them a little over a decade ago when Seth Wolther’s brother, Jason, was the lead singer for a Spokane cover band called Party Central. “I met Jason,” recalls Teague, who has been a heavy equipment operator since high school, “and I had this epiphany that I was going to get into the video business.”
So Suburban White Guys was born. The boxes on the videos warned, “Dangerous and often stupid automotive insanity contained inside.” The road trips to shoots were legendary. On one occasion, Wolther remembers, “Coach was standing on the breakfast bar in his underwear, playing Rock Guitar at three in the morning as we listened to REO Speedwagon.”
Eventually, Teague had a second epiphany: insurance. Sold via Facebook. He set up a war room in his basement, and with two of his Party Central chums, he began refining his scheme. “We were on fire,” he remembers. “I was doing research to see what sales words would work and what religions were more likely to buy insurance. I was giving those guys personal business coaching. We were working eighteen hours a day. I was going to be filthy rich if it worked.”
It didn’t work. His wife, ignored for months, left him. “Basically,” he says, “she fired me.”
Now, in the RV, Teague was tuned into his cats. “This one’s a huntress,” he said of Pretty Girl, “and the other one”—he gestured at Lover Boy—”he’s my attack cat. These cats can kill three mice in an hour. Even when I’m sleeping, I can hear them crunching on skulls.”
Teague had a girlfriend back in Spokane; she was thirty-five and a “professional student,” as he put it. Teague was helping to pay her tuition. But the relationship was tumultuous. After a fight, Teague dispatched Wolther to the woman’s home to repo a Jeep that he’d given her. Later, he gave the Jeep back.
By his shaving mirror, on a slip of green memo paper, Teague had written a note to himself: “I do not seek women’s approvel.” There was another note that read, “Don’t forget u r beautiful!” and also one very outdated Playboy, a 1995 issue featuring Nancy Sinatra celebrating her fiftieth birthday au naturel.
With me, Teague was guileless and sweet in his rough-and-tumble way. When I asked him, “What if the oil boom here goes bust?” he cupped his palms to his temples, as though he was being attacked from all sides, and whimpered, “I’m fucked.”
Teague planned to buy the land for his new home and business venture from the same farmer who was renting him RV space. The price was not yet set, though it would be somewhere around $70,000, Teague told me. He didn’t have a written contract, but he was confident that the farmer, whom he considered a friend, would cede him the flattest and most easily developable land on his spread. He planned to do the grading work himself with a machine borrowed from his current employer, Hexco construction. “It should be real easy,” he told me.
“Coach has common sense,” Wolther added. “You get that working with dirt.”
Wolther himself had migrated to North Dakota just a week before, after he’d failed to meet rent, freelancing as a gofer for rock bands. He was living in the RV gratis, but he nonetheless carried himself with swaggering confidence. He had led his metal band, From Sword to Sunrise, on tour throughout the lower forty-eight, and he had seen things. He had savoir faire. “Bill,” he confided to me at one point, “you meet a lot of beautiful women out on the road.”
Later, Wolther mocked me with thespian flourish. “I am a writer,” he declaimed. “I must sit in the Subway sandwich shop all alone! I must create with my pen!” When we stopped by the Williston Chamber of Commerce one day to connect to the Wi-Fi, he was showily grateful. “Thank you, ladies,” he said with a lilt.
Wolther arrived in Williston to become Vision First’s sales guy, and he met success almost immediately—with the Chamber ladies. In exchange for a membership, they enlisted him to shoot promotional photos. “And then,” Wolther told me eventually, over drinks, “I was like, ‘Okay, the last time I shot a photo was, like, in high school.’” He and Teague bought a camera for $1000 and went on a practice photo shoot. They drove north toward the Canadian border, working through a twenty-pack and a fifth of Jameson as Wolther photographed the oil rigs lining the straight, desolate gravel roads. He got several shots of Teague hanging out the car door at high speed. “That was the tutorial,” Wolther told me.
A week or so later, the Williston office of Burlington Northern, the freight company, hired Wolther and his camera for a day, at $200 an hour.
One afternoon, I met with the editor of the Williston Herald, Jacob Brooks, and asked him if there were any new businesses in town that gave him a warm feeling. Brooks gazed skyward for a second, thinking, and then talked instead about Alphabet Junction, a beloved school supplies store that had just shut down, unable to pay its rent, in a town where commercial real estate values have tripled in recent years. Later, Brooks ran an editorial beseeching readers to identify a single “feel-good business that has surfaced recently…something that makes you say ‘Hey, this is really good for the community!’ If it’s out there,” he wrote, “I’ll do a whole story on this business.” Brooks got a single online response, from a joker who nominated Heartbreakers, a Williston strip bar. “Technically,” the joker quipped, “that should be in your category of ‘feel-good’ shouldn’t it?”
The situation wasn’t that bleak, though, for I found a handful of entrepreneurs bringing conscience and care to the boom. Among them was developer Earl Westereng, a Harvard grad who’s been living back in his native North Dakota for five decades now. Westereng, seventy-two, waxed historical when we met, noting that North Dakotans had a long tradition of looking out for one another. “We’ve got the Bank of North Dakota,” he said. “Nowhere else has a state bank. And we’ve got North Dakota Mill and Elevator.”
But esprit de corps is a tricky thing in a boomtown. “It used to be that if I found someone drunk and freezing on my doorstep, I’d take him in and give him a hot shower,” Westereng said. “But now?” His voice trailed off, but then he added that he would soon turn Williston’s grand, abandoned junior high school into forty-four affordable housing units for senior citizens displaced by Williston’s skyrocketing rents. The building was once Westereng’s property. He recently sold it to Williston’s Lutheran Social Services in hopes that this agency could guide the $8.5 million renovation in ways that he couldn’t. “If you’re a private developer here,” he said, exaggerating only slightly, “the banks want you to just throw up a building with thirty-six units and rent out each one for $2,500 a month, so you can pay back your loan in three years. I’m not going to do that.”
Around the corner from the junior high, Joel Lundeen, a forty-eight-year-old transplant from South Carolina, had just bought the vacant Elk’s Lodge, a magnificent and gabled Tudor manse built in 1913. The wealthy inventor of Xclaim laundry detergent sheets, Lundeen was converting the old club into a hotel, The Williston, envisioning a “boutique experience, where you can walk in and feel the history of the place.” His daughter, a fashion designer, was decorating the nine rooms, and his son was leading the construction crews. Both of Lundeen’s grandchildren were onsite as well, crawling about on the crimson rug by the bar.
Meanwhile, an independent garbage man, Will Chamley, was going green after his business, Chamley Pipe and Salvage, got a shock last summer. “The landfill called us to tell us our trash was radioactive,” says Chamley, an amply built man who wore blue denim overalls when we met at a café. “We’d just dumped off a load of filter socks from a rig, and we went and checked it, and sure enough, those socks were hot.”
The sand that frackers use, Chamley learned, contains small amounts of radioactive minerals, enabling the drillers to trace where a rock is cracking. After drilling, the radioactive water is run through filters.
“We started checking the dumpsters with Geiger counters and, yup, they were sneaking those hot socks into the dumpsters—they were there in about one out of every seventy dumpsters.” Chamley began calling violators, asking them to stay legal. “A week later we’d call back and they’d say, ‘That radioactive stuff’s all gone now.’ It was scary—we didn’t know where they’d put it.”
Eventually, Chamley discovered that his clients were sneaking garbage bags full of hot socks into competitors’ dumpsters, or just taking them to the Williston dump. “I live two miles from the landfill,” he said. “My water well is only twenty-eight feet deep, and I have to drink the water here for the rest of my life.”
A few months ago, Chamley connected with Emerald Services, a Seattle-based waste management firm, to propose that they jointly build North Dakota’s first hazardous material facility in Williston. Together, Chamley and Emerald are now searching for $6 million in financing. “The place should be up and running next year,” Chamley told me, “There’ll be a big concrete floor, and we’ll just dump on that and sort. That way, if there’s any of those hot socks in there, we’ll know. And then we’ll haul them to the hazardous waste facility in Colorado.”
Stepping outside into the grinding noise of the traffic in Williston, I could feel a sick, rapacious hunger in the air. But the truth is that most of the people I talked to were decent and amiable and not quite at ease with the fracas around them. At a diner called Lonnie’s Roadhouse, I met Shelly Wright and Danny Dugan, a fiftyish couple who are the impresarios behind Doin’ It Right Trucking, which hauls sand and gravel to the oil fields. They had migrated to Williston from Idaho fifteen months before amid financial troubles. Back home in Hayden Lake, Doin’ It Right’s workload was so thin that Wright had to put the title to her pick up truck into hock. They arrived in Williston in January 2011 and spent that first winter, one of the coldest in North Dakota history, living in the cab of their eighteen-wheeler in Lonnie’s parking lot and sleeping, along with Wright’s ten-year-old daughter, Kayla, on a mattress behind the cockpit.
“We ate bologna sandwiches from Walmart, and we used the free shower at the community center,” says Wright. When nature called, they relied on the restrooms at Lonnie’s, where they were parking their truck for a hundred dollars a month. One night, when Wright ventured out in a snowstorm at around 2:30 a.m., she got lost on the fifty-yard hike back to the rig and was out in the cold for forty-five minutes.
A siege mentality prevailed. “Walmart couldn’t keep the shelves stocked, it was so crowded here,” Dugan remembers, “and for three days after one blizzard, the power shut down all over Williston. You couldn’t get gas. You couldn’t get a loaf of bread. We worried that the truck would freeze up and that we’d lose our heat and die.”
With life so unstable, Wright kept her daughter Kayla at her side and homeschooled her in the truck. “She was a girl of the trucks,” remembers Dugan. “All the guys at the rigs gave her candy.”
Still, stress levels were high. Once, when Wright and Dugan went to Hollen Auto Body, just across Highway 2 from Lonnie’s, they got in a spat over a repair estimate with the owner, Mark Hollen. It was not a wise move. As Dugan tells it, Hollen got angry. He shouted, “You’re not from here, so get the fuck out of here!” He shoved Dugan three times, bending his eyeglasses. Meanwhile, Hollen’s wife and co-owner, Sheila, went after Wright. She pushed Wright to the ground, according to a police report, and Wright bruised her hip and twisted her ankle. When the case went to court, only Mark Hollen faced charges.
A disorderly conduct conviction seemed likely, so he settled.
“I kept telling Danny I wanted to leave North Dakota and go home,” Wright says. “Everything in this town is chaotic.” But almost from the start, Doin’ It Right was flooded with work. They hauled a dozen or so loads of gravel a day their first winter, mostly to well pads under construction. And when their first paychecks finally came in—truckers are paid on sixty- or ninety-day terms, generally—they were for large five-figure sums.
All around them, other truckers were going crazy with their money—partying, going to strip bars. But there was no way Wright was going to let that happen. Instead, she borrowed several hundred thousand dollars to buy equipment. Doin’ It Right now makes payments on seven eighteen-wheelers, most of which are driven by subcontractors. “I’d say we have three-quarters of a million dollars’ worth of iron setting out in that parking lot right now,” Dugan told me as we ate lunch at Lonnie’s. “Or she does. On paper, everything is hers because of my bad credit and my divorce.”
Dugan’s eyes sparkled for a second and he quipped, “She’s so rich, I should just marry her right now.” But then he settled back into his default demeanor, dire and aggrieved, and admitted that they were still cash-poor. “You got a hell of an overhead, running trucks,” he said. “If we don’t bring in $120,000 a month, we’re done. We’re upside down.”
We finished eating and walked outside. Dugan lamented that the hourly rates paid to Williston truckers had dropped over the past year, from $130 to $105, on account of competition. “Half of that money is gone right away, for fuel,” he said. “We’re hardly making anything.” It was Easter weekend when we met, and all seven of Doin’ It Right’s trucks were idle. Eventually, I asked Dugan why he and Wright didn’t take Kayla away for a little vacation. “We can’t afford to get out of town,” he said, “and you never know—we might get called for a job.”
Over the course of my five-day visit, I talked to very few people who were eager to stay in Williston amid the throes of the oil boom. Mike Teague had hopes of leaving in a few years to retire in Costa Rica. When I went out for breakfast with Seth Wolther one morning, he intimated that he felt a bit guilty, being there on the oil patch. “To be honest with you,” he said, “the karma of making money off oil may be detrimental. When you frack, it destroys the earth.”
Wolther suggested that the bad karma shaped Williston’s social dynamics. “People here are disconnected from one another,” he said. A distracted waitress came around to take our order, and after she left, he said, “See? No connection. I’ve gotta have human interaction, bro.” His plan was to keep living with his girlfriend in Spokane and commute into Williston periodically.
In fact, the vast majority of Williston’s boom workforce seems unlikely to settle down there for good. As Mark Schill, the economist, sees it, “Right now, there’s a Deadwood mentality there. It’s almost inhospitable.”
The city fathers of Williston are trying to stop the town’s drift toward chaos. The Williston council has banned tent camping, and the Economic Development Office is currently on a campaign to bring five thousand new homes to town over the next year. Bumper stickers read, “Build Baby Build!” Meanwhile, Williston’s mayor, Ward Koeser, is negotiating with several chain restaurants—Chili’s, for instance—in hopes of improving local eating options.
Will Williston spruce up and thrive? Or is it just another dusty Wild West ghost town in the making? For now, all that’s clear is that hordes of people are there, trying to get rich, often in rather mercenary fashion.
On my last night in town, over drinks at a nightclub called DK’s Lounge, Seth Wolther told me that he was changing Vision First’s business model, having just read a biography of Al Capone. “From now on,” he said, “we’re going by gangster rules.”
“That’s right,” said Teague, who wore a proud paternal grin as he listened to Wolther. “Gangster rules.”
“The way things are around here,” said Wolther, “you have to be a dick to get your way in business. You have to be assertive.” He related how he’d done just that recently, cold-calling a Williston company to pitch Vision First’s website design services. As Wolther told it, the chief of marketing brushed him off, so he took his campaign upstairs, to her supervisor. “Listen, dude,” he said he told this gentleman, “your marketing lady has no idea of what’s going on—no fucking clue. I’m gonna meet with you. When’s that gonna happen?”
The tactic would prove eerily effective: Over the next three months, Vision First would gross over $18,000, landing a contract with Granite Peaks Development, among others. Mike Teague, meanwhile, would convince his farmer friend to give him the choice piece of land he wanted, and he would also secure a bank loan. He plans to break ground in September.
Still, that night at DK’s, I wasn’t up for a primer in gangster management. I was tired, so I went back to the RV early, and alone. When my two roomies got in a half hour later, at midnight, they jumped onto my bed. “Bill!” they cried, wrestling me as I leapt up. “The writer!” I believe they were intent on giving me a noogie, but I fought back, and soon they relented. We slipped, all three of us, into our separate beds.
“Good night,” said Wolther, into the darkness.
“Good night, John Boy,” said Teague.
Outside between the grain silos, the wind whined away.