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Page 4 ■ Thursday, January 5, 2012


Oil development gives a boost to region’s businesses

By JAN FALSTAD Lee News Service

ings businesses are busy answering the calls from 350 oil companies hungry for workers, trucks, pipe and more, so they can keep pumping crude out of eastern Montana and western North Dakota. In fact, ties to the Bakken boom are

so strong in Yellowstone County, the air carrier Silver Airways, formerly called Gulfstream International, is considering adding a direct fl ight to Williston, from Billings. In early December, Billings business-

BILLINGS, Mont. — Some 50 Bill-

and natural gas. North Dakota is passing Alaska in oil

production and some in the traditionally wheat-and-cattle state dream of eventu- ally bumping Texas off the top of oil baron hill.

man Wayne Wilcox drove seven hours to Williston, the epicenter of what’s quickly becoming the largest oil play in the Unit- ed States, to sell his Big Sky ATMs and video screens that display ads. “It literally is like a gold rush,” he

said. Atop a drilling rig at a Continental

Resources well site between Sidney and Culbertson recently, a siren shrieked a rusty call, telling the roughnecks to add pipe.

around wet pipe and start the change- out, splattering drilling mud. Drillers have punched two miles straight down at what’s called the Jane well site and it’s time to start the curve. Under his fl uoroscope, geologist Dan

Neiter centers a sample of limestone dredged up from down below. “I see the color of oil, little spots of a

The workers slap the hi-tech tongs

Oklahoma’s Continental Resources is the largest single player in the Bakken — with 500 wells — and it could pos- sibly triple that number in fi ve years. Be- cause the bulk of the Bakken lies on the North Dakota side, that state enjoys the lion’s share of the drilling activity. More than 200 oil rigs are snouting around for oil across western North Dakota at a cost of $7 million well. Montana has nine rigs with more

JAMES WOODCOCK/ Lee News Service

ABOVE: Geologist Dan Neiter talks with the drilling crew atop a rig on Continental Resources’ site between Sidney, Mont., and Culbertson, Mont.

coming. Bakken production produces $1.2 billion per year for Montana and the leasing frenzy has reached west to Sc- obey and the Fort Peck Reservation. Curt Brown, Continental’s produc-

tion foreman in the Sidney area, man- ages about 170 wells. “We’re proposing to drill 400 wells

a check in the mail. Third-generation Sidney farmer and

around Richland County, so it’s going to get big,” Brown said. Oil booms look prettier when there’s

rancher John Mercer shares oil income from the family homestead with his six siblings. Most neighbors also are enjoy- ing the best paychecks in their lifetimes, he said, as oilfi eld wages drive up their pay.

glow showing oil,” he said. Finding “color” and the correct drill- ing depths prompts Neiter to tell the drillers on the rig to keep curving the bit, aiming for the heart of the Bakken oil reserve. After the 90-degree turn is made and the bit is running horizontally, the drill- ers will punch through two more miles of shale, snaking along the 10-foot thick formation so a single well pump can suck oil out along the entire run. “He can hit a basketball hoop at a

mile,” Neiter said of the driller. The refi nement of horizontal drill-

ing combined with hydraulic fractur- ing, called fracking, has made this boom possible. In fracking, drillers fi re a mil- lion gallons or more of water mixed with sand and chemicals under extreme pres- sure into the underground shale, smash- ing the rock to release the trapped oil

Richland County built a justice center, health center and social services building in Sidney and an activity center at the fairgrounds. But there are plenty of have-nots,


With two-bedroom homes renting for $3,000 or more a month, even sec- ond- and-third generation residents are forced to leave Sidney.

Travel woes

lane road from Sidney to Fairview and ran into the usual convoy of what Mercer calls “80-ton toads.” In 11 miles, he counted 155 vehicles at

night, and most of them are semi-trucks with shorter pup trailers. Mercer is pro-oil and pro-growth.

But, he said, Sidney’s sewer lagoon, sewer lines and roads were maxed out in 2010,

And driving is a nightmare. On Dec. 8, a neighbor drove the two-

Thanks to oil and natural gas taxes,

even before three more motels and 1,200 more homes are completed and hooked up. Upgrades could cost $15 million. “It’s a paradise for business, but they

are talking about Sidney going from 10,000 people, doubling in a year or year-and-a-half,” he said. “How do you plan for that?” Sidney native and mayor Bret Smelser

crashes in my lifetime than during this past year and they weren’t deer,” said Smelser, who also runs the family busi- ness, Border Steel & Recycling. Staying ahead of the crazy growth is

locals with the taxes for all the improve- ments. On top of that, the distribution of

shares Mercer’s values and concerns. “I’ve never been in so many close

cent and the county 19 percent. But the city, which has to pay for almost all the growth, receives just one-tenth of 1 per- cent. Smelser is trying to work with the

Montana’s oil and gas revenues is unfair, Smelser said. The state gets half, schools 20 per-

a mayor’s job, but during the boom, the workers have come ahead of the infra- structure. After Bainville doubled the size of its lagoon three years ago, its population of 150 quickly doubled, so sewer hook- ups are maxed out. It’s the same story with sewer and water in Culbertson and Plentywood. And some services arrive uninvited.

Prostitutes arrive Korean prostitutes parked their RV in

Bainville for a summer, Mayor Dennis Portra said. “When you have hundreds of guys making $80,000 to $100,000 a year with- out a wife or girlfriend around, of course we’re going to have problems,” he said. Scobey-based Nemont Telephone is

working on 23 building projects around Williston and has had its underground lines cut fi ve times in a single day. Despite the demand, city offi cials on both sides of the state line are thinking twice about borrowing millions to build more infrastructure. Many remember the region’s last boom 30 years ago. When crude prices dropped, oil companies fl ed, sticking the

three county commissioners to upgrade the 70-year-old lagoon, which needs to handle another 100,000 gallons of septic waste per year from new man camps in the county. “It’s critical the cowboy hats (com- missioners) and I come to some kind of agreement,” he said. “And why should western Montana get the money we need here for the boom’s impacts?” Sidney natives Linette and Greg Miller

now have up to 50 truckers calling their Millers’ Corner home. “Our fuel sales have easily more than doubled since last April,” she said. “Over- night they were here.” The truckers can eat at Millers’ tiny

cafe, but they have to walk across the street to shower in an accommodating church. Pumping $710 worth of diesel into his gumbo-splattered Freightliner, Ka- lispell transplant Ken Berosik said he and his wife, Vicki, are living in a small trailer they moved to Sidney in April. “Here, I’m earning about three times more for the same hours,” he said.

Booked rooms Some days, hotel rooms are booked

all the way back to Billings and Bismarck, so many truckers sleep in their cabs. In mid-December, Missoula developers opened a truck park southwest of Sidney Continued on next page

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