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The Forgotten Shale Boom Towns

The Forgotten Shale Boom Towns

2008 was a bad year. The economic recession was the worst since the Great Depression, and many people thought it would take the economy a decade or more to recover. It hasn’t. The US economy has come back faster than nearly anyone thought it could in the days after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, a firm that had been around for more than 150 years and survived the Civil War, two world wars, and the original Great Depression.

Today, US economic growth may not be at the same level it was in the halcyon days of the 80’s and 90’s, but compared to the rest of the world, the US is a model of economic performance. Nearly every other major economy on the planet is either slowing down hard, or standing still. The US economy isn’t. And one major reason for that is North Dakota… and Texas… and Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and the rest of the states that were behind the renewal of the onshore oil industry in the US. The truth of the matter is that the US owes a great debt to shale oil and fracking. Related: Oil Industry On Edge As Political Turmoil In Brazil Rages On

Without the economic outperformance of shale oil and gas from the Bakken to the Marcellus, the US would be in much worse shape than it is today. Unfortunately, shale oil has been largely betrayed by an ungrateful Washington DC, which has hammered the idea of increased fossil fuel production, and done precious little to help shale oil producers make the necessary changes to their business model to adapt to lower oil prices.

North Dakota, and Williston in particular, reflect this reality. Williston boomed as shale oil production became mainstream, going from a town of 12,000 to a town of more than 40,000 at its peak. Today the situation In Williston is very different and much less rosy. Williston’s place at the heart of a new American gold rush, with virtually no unemployment and household incomes above $80K a year, set the stage for renewed optimism after the 2008 Recession. The change in North Dakota’s economy was so remarkable that, for what might be the first time ever, last year Hollywood actually made a scripted (and underrated) TV series about oil. Reflecting enormous irony, that series was cancelled at the end of its first season. Related: Oil Prices Rally To 2016 Highs On Weaker Dollar

Today the picture in Williston is much different. The town’s population is back down to 31,000, while layoffs are common across the oil patch which is leading to severe distress for many related service businesses like hotels and restaurants. The bust is also putting enormous pressure on North Dakota’s budget. Some experts suggest that North Dakota is the quintessential boom-bust story. With little in the way of economic infrastructure in much of the Bakken region before the boom, there is little to support the region now after the bust. In that regard, many of the businesses that have opened in the area may have little prospect of ever recouping the capital they put into opening up shop if they haven’t done so already.

Williston is pressing forward with a new $1B five year infrastructure plan including a $250M airport. Those projects are quite risky though. If things don’t improve, much of that money may end up being a waste in the end. While breakeven prices across the Bakken are as low as $35 a barrel right now, that’s largely because the best sites are the ones being drilled at present. Once those sites run dry – which won’t take long as is typical in fracked wells – oil prices will need to be much higher before producers can justify investing more capital in new wells. Related: Despite Fundamentals, Oil Surges Above $40

America owes a debt to places like Williston which helped provide much needed economic support after the Great Recession. Perhaps nothing can be done to truly help boom towns like Williston – no one really has control over oil prices after all. But some actions like approving and expediting the building of new pipelines to carry crude from the Bakken to Cushing would certainly be a good start, and would be fitting way for the US to repay the debt it owes to the shale oil industry.

Michael McDonald of Oilprice.com

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  • Jeff on March 20 2016 said:
    Here in NY state we fought hard to keep fracking out for exactly this reason.

    For a few years, a bunch of outside companies swoop in, overload infrastructure, scar the landscape with dirt roads and pipelines, put our aquifers and wells in permanent jeopardy, then disappear once the suckers wise up and stop investing their 401K funds in the latest "economic boom" that, as usual, turns out to be a bust.

    I'm sure sorry we missed out on that...

    Actually, in all seriousness, my heart goes out to the folks in Noth Dakota. I hope you can stabilize and revitalize your communities with something more sustaining.
  • The Shadow Broker on March 20 2016 said:
    Always amazes me when people think Booms will last forever. Get in, make your money, get out. Simple.
  • the blame/e on March 21 2016 said:
    "America owes a debt to places like Williston . . . ."

    Yeah, right. What a bunch of crap. What Michael McDonald of Oilprice is saying in this propaganda puff piece is how the government should be compelled to once again provide a taxpayer-paid-for bailout . . . this time to the oil industry.

    Fracking: Another unprofitable, and most likely deadly to the environment, example of capitalism run amok, once again demanding a handout (gratitude). Another example of ignorance impossible.
  • Jay Beigh on March 21 2016 said:
    re: "...US to repay the debt it owes..." What a load of entitlement , fascist corporate welfare socialism that sentence implies. What about the subsidies (foregone tax revenues) we --the US --gives to the oil and gas industry, and all the towns who happen to have the double-bladed knife-edge of being where the resource lays? Oil is metaphorically and literally the devils brew from the bowels of the earth. The sooner we burn it and let the rest of the species re-inhabit the world after Homo sap self-extirpates, the better.
  • Houyhnhnm on March 27 2016 said:
    I can buy the argument that the shale oil boom helped the recovery from 2008, but I fail to see what "debt" the nation owes to the shale oil industry or any other extractive industry. The defense industry is credited with finally finishing off the Great Depression. What sort of "debt" does (or did) the nation owe the defense industry? High tech is credited with getting the U.S. out of much milder doldrums in the early 1990s. What "debt" does the nation owe to Intel, Microsoft, Palm/Blackberry, the dot-coms, etc.?

    If the leaders of the shale oil industry want to enhance their image, a good start would be to tell us what poisons have been and are being injected into the ground. Former oil executive and power behind the throne Dick Cheney and his spineless enablers made that a state secret, presumably because they are so dangerous that many jurisdictions would ban their use if the people knew. Until the industry comes clean on this, sentimental appeals like Michael McDonald's are not going to move me.

  • CQ on March 29 2016 said:
    The commenters here are obviously ignorant to the economic impact oil has had on the entire nation. Oil production has helped iron factories in the east, frack sand suppliers in the great lakes region, engineering firms across the nation, truck & trailer manufacturers in Ohio, Washington, Texas, North Carolina, and etc. It has helped the ports in the northeast to the west coast, and countless other equipment and parts suppliers. There were tens of thousands of people that moved to oil regions that had zero opportunities in their home states - saving homes from foreclosure and their local governments from the drag of more unemployment in their jurisdictions.

    All of these businesses then were able to employ more people, which then were able to spend more money on food, electronics, recreation, travel, apparel, housing, cars, etc. That's what the short-sighted commentators are unable to see.

    All those "greedy oil companies" got you the cheap gas you have today, and are having a rough time for it. All those "greedy oil companies" employed thousands of people with very handsome salaries. So perhaps the industry doesn't deserve a bailout (not that they deserve one any less than others that have been given them) but the industry does deserve respect for their huge contribution to America's economy.

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