Politicians are quick to extol the virtues of domestic oil drilling while ignoring the tradeoffs. Here in Sydney, Mont., in the fast-developing Western oil patch, the gritty side of America's new oil boom is on display with rising crime, a slain schoolteacher, rents that have tripled and public resources stretched thin.
That's just the half of it. Some area high schools are at historic low attendance levels, students dropping out to work the oilfields. Menial service jobs go unfilled despite high wages, and most everyone worries that the boom is transforming small-town values into something new and unpredictable.
"It's just happened so fast, and many small communities just didn't have time to plan," said Mike Coryell, executive director of the Area Economic Development Council of Miles City, Mont., a town just south of the oil boom that struggles with spillover effects. "The impacts hit, but you don't have the resources to attack it."
Deep below the surface of the Earth here are large quantities of crude oil trapped under rock that could make the United States less dependent on foreign oil if extracted. The Bakken formation, some 200,000 square miles of it, stretches across North Dakota, Montana, Native American reservations and parts of Canada's Saskatchewan province.
The area saw a short-lived boom in the 1980s, but technology back then allowed only vertical drilling. Breakthroughs in horizontal drilling, known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," have unleashed a new boom that many expect to last decades.
Signs of the boom abound. Natural gas is flared in the middle of sugar-beet farms and on prairie ranches that look like the set of old TV Westerns. Just across the North Dakota line, oil rigs dot a landscape where President Theodore Roosevelt lived out his final years, and where explorers Lewis and Clark famously rendezvoused at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers.
"We're glad we have an area that's booming ... but it has totally ruined the quality of life around here," said Kerry Finsaas, 60, walking her land, which abuts an expanded rail terminal near Trenton, N.D. "I'd say life as we knew it here is gone."
After 34 years on her land, Finsaas and her husband, Darrell, today look out the kitchen window at a natural gas flare a few hundred feet away. Crude oil is pumped into rail tank cars that stretch in front of their house almost as far as the eye can see. Nearby irrigation ditches adjacent to a new open-air disposal pond reek of sewage.
"We don't need a night light," Finsaas said sarcastically.
From Miles City, where Coryell struggles to keep pace with growth, it's almost 50 miles to Sidney, Montana's oil hub, and roughly 120 miles to Williston, N.D., the heart of the region's oil boom. Rents have risen so high in both places that workers now commute there from, and displaced families migrate to, Miles City.
Coryell's office is helping to secure funding for a new jail. That's not the traditional work of economic development officials, but Miles City, like other area small towns, is burdened by rising crime. Parts of its current jail date to 1904.
"We need them to find oil in Custer County, that's what we need," said Coryell, referring to the revenues such a strike would bring to towns in the region. "I don't think people understand the impacts on a rural area, the small towns that are used to having a quiet lifestyle."
Most Popular Stories
- Apple Wants Samsung to Pay $22M for Patent Dispute Legal Bills
- Twitter Coming to Phones Without Internet
- NASA Fellowships, Scholarships Bring Diversity to Workforce
- Dish Network Leads 2013 Top 50 Advertisers List
- Networks Vie for U.S. Hispanic TV Viewers
- Ad Counts Rise in 2013 for Hispanic Magazines
- Entravision Initiates Quarterly Cash Dividend
- Jobs Report Brings Cheer As Unemployment Drops to Five-year Low
- Warner Bros. Unleashes 'Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug' Merchandise
- Shanghai Smog Forces Factory Shutdowns