When a boomtown goes bust: 'Sudden desertion'

@CNNMoney December 6, 2011: 10:10 AM ET

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- For the past few years, the northwestern corner of North Dakota has been viewed as a rare pocket of opportunity in an otherwise dismal national economy: oil is flowing and jobs are plentiful.

Thanks to the billions of barrels of oil estimated to be lying in the region's Bakken formation, jobs are plentiful there and many workers are earning six-figures or close to it.

Yet, there's a dark cloud hanging over this bright spot in the nation's economy. Boomtowns like Williston and Watford City, which are located at the epicenter of North Dakota's black gold rush, can fall as quickly as they rise. Any number of factors -- from a dive in crude prices, discoveries in other parts of the country or changes in energy policies -- could cause these towns to go bust.

And when America's newest boomtowns do implode, "[i]t will leave devastation behind," said Clay Jenkinson, director of the Dakota Institute. "Whenever this ends -- whether it's five years or 35 years -- everyone is going to hit the exits ... you could have the worst case of sudden desertion of an energy field in history."

America's Biggest Boomtown

From boomtown to ghost town: Greg Robson, a resident of Palisade, Colorado since 1974, has seen just how quickly a town's fortunes can change.

His town, along with the surrounding area, has gone through cycles of booms and busts for decades. Most recently, when natural gas prices nosedived right around 2008, drilling companies began fleeing the area.

Artificially high real estate prices plummeted and unemployed residents are being forced to default on their mortgages -- leading to a surge in foreclosures. And the high school graduates who skipped college to work in oilfields and earn fat paychecks are now being abandoned.

"Big energy companies don't give a rat's ass about them," said Robson. "So, there they are, our community's youth, without a higher education to fall back on, up to their eyeballs in debt, and too young to know they should have put some money away for these types of situations."

Robson, an architect, has had to lay off his one employee and move his office into his home. But at least he has work.

North Dakota's bust: 'Much more severe': When the bust rears its head in North Dakota, a similar backlash is likely to play out, but many fear it could be on a much grander scale given the enormity of Bakken oil play, Jenkinson said.

"Other places go through minor booms and minor busts along with the business cycles of the industry, but this is different ... these guys in the fields are hitting oil 100% of the time," said Jenkinson.

Locals to big oil: We want our town back!

Anywhere from 4 billion to hundreds of billions of barrels of extractable oil lies under the Bakken formation, which is enough to keep the economic flurry going for a while.

However, a collapse in world oil prices or a big oil discovery somewhere else could put a quick end to North Dakota's riches, said Jenkinson. And since North Dakota isn't as desirable as Colorado or Texas, the ramifications of a bust are likely to be much worse, he said. "The minute it's over, people are going to get the hell out," said Jenkinson.

Gene Veeder, head of job development for McKenzie County, which is located in the heart of North Dakota's oil action, said the towns make building and infrastructure decisions on the assumption that the boom will last between five to ten years. And they expect -- and hope -- that 20% to 30% of the workers there will stay to maintain wells after the boom ends.

However, Jenkinson estimates that less than 1% of the newcomers will actually stick around.

That could leave a town like Williston, N.D. looking like a virtual ghost town. If the 15,000-person town of Williston scrambles for the next five years to build up the infrastructure to accommodate the more than 35,000 people who are likely living there right now and then the boom ends, the town is going to be left with empty schools, hotels, apartment buildings, restaurants and other infrastructure that it just can't maintain.

Déjà vu: To make matters worse, this isn't the first time an oil bust has wreaked havoc on this region.

At the beginning of the oil boom in the late 1970s, local community members convinced Toby Holm's mother and father to build a 200-person trailer park to help house all of the workers flocking into the town.

Ladies of the oil boom

"It was a huge endeavor and my mother worked until her fingers literally bled," said Holm. But the money flow stopped abruptly about five years later, and the trailer court that once boasted a 200-person per trailer waiting list was down to just five trailers. What had become a lifeline for Holm's parents was repossessed.

The latest boom has only resurfaced these painful memories, as more workers enter the town looking for homes. "Now they are opening up her old [trailer park] again. I can tell this is killing her and my father." To top of page

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