Preparing for the Boom Helps Communities Learn from Experience
BY BRIAN D’AMBROSIO
On Sunday morning, May 2, 1982, Mike Samson, then Mayor pro tempore of Rifle, Colo., heard the phone ring, just as he and his wife were heading to church. He did not want to answer it, and had a strange feeling, as if the call would bring bad news, but his wife told him to pick up the phone. The man on the other end identified himself as a reporter for a major newspaper, then asked Samson to comment on “Exxon’s pull out from the town.”
Samson hadn’t a clue. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he admitted.
After another long silence the reporters said, “Oh
—you don’t know.
When Exxon left Rifle, it took with it 2,200 jobs. Prior to the pull out, business was good, the economy was good, people were thriving. Afterward, Samson explained, people did not eat out at restaurants, put off buying new boots, and many lost their homes.
“Those are ugly stories, real ugly stories, and they’re were a lot of them,” Samson said.
Samson tells that story in Preparing for the Boom, a new documentary filmed, edited and distributed by the Bozeman non-profit Future West, that examines the effect energy booms have had on their host communities.
The documentary poses a simple question: Will communities emerge from an energy boom in a better economic, social and environmental condition than when they entered it?
Western America is still a symbol of freedom and space, and rich in natural resources. But many of its rural communities have been blindsided by rapid energy development, which, while boosting local economies, has put severe strains on those communities, or left them high and dry after energy developers pull up stakes and leave town. Towns and counties across Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and North Dakota continue to face such challenges.
The message of the film is that it’s better to be deliberate in your approach to planning, than simply try to accommodate massive changes on the fly.
“We look at this film as the beginning of the discussion,” Jerry Grebenc, director of Future West, told the Pioneer.
“We see it as a film that will engage people about all the things a potential boom town needs to think about. We look at this film as a way of providing assistance and training to answer those questions.”
Future West thinks western communities can lead the way in demonstrating that designed growth and well-prepared change can strengthen communities, sustain robust economies, and conserve the natural environment.
The producers of Preparing for the Boom present the film as an educational tool that can help people understand how an energy boom can transform their community. Unfortunately, most communities are not organized to cope with a boom, let alone ensure that it benefits them long-term.
Grebenc points to a lack of knowledge about potential energy development in Western commun-ities. “There is a lack of understanding about the steps needed to plan for the community impacts and a lack of technical resources to identify and quantify the values most important to local communities.”
The word “planning” shouldn’t have negative connotations, said Grebenc.
“Land-use planning has often gotten a bad rap, or has been controversial,” said Grebenc. “What we want communities to take away from the film is that it is not bad to plan. There are so many lessons to be learned from a boom, and the people who were interviewed shared their message, their lessons, and their experiences.”
Powered by a wave of natural gas drilling, Rifle, Colo., a once remote town of about 10,000 people, was transformed by a construction escalation that resulted in thousands of new homes. Similar to other boom towns, transportation, water, and wastewater infrastructures became overloaded.
Rifle experienced that pattern before.
Back in the late 1970s, Rifle was at the hub of a leading oil shale boom in which energy companies dumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the area, racing to find ways to extract oil from underground shale.
But when the price of oil fell sharply in the early 1980s, so too did the incentive to invest in “nontra-ditional” oil.
Exxon was then the largest company in the area. The day it bailed on Rifle, May 2, 1982, was so tragic it came to be called Black Sunday. In a single day, 2,200 workers lost their jobs. Then, a 20-year recession set in.
Today, another boom is taking hold, this time involving natural gas. It’s being spurred by rising energy prices and more advanced technology enabling companies to drill horizontally as well as vertically. New permits for wells soared approximately 70 percent from 2005 to 2007, and are expected to rise an additional 20 percent in 2014.
“An energy boom is much different than an amenity housing boom,” said Grebenc. “With an energy boom, there needs to be an honest discussion about the fiscal benefits, as well as the economic impact on things like water, wastewater, and roads. Whenever you have a dramatic increase in population, you are going to have the increase in crime as well.”
The Bakken surge and the new technology that has driven it, including horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, has turned the inactive towns of western North Dakota into fledgling cities; communities like Williston have become modern boom towns, as well-paid oil workers (and their families) flood the area in search of economic stability.
But as new homes and temporary housing complexes (including sprawling man camps) fill the horizon, the newly formed shadows of these structures hide new problems: sex trafficking; inflated housing costs; overcrowded schools; haphazard residential and commercial development.
Since the 2010 census, Williston, North Dakota has doubled its population from 15,000 to 30,000. Located in the middle of the Bakken oil fields, Williston lures people from around the world seeking jobs and high wages.
But with the good also comes the bad.
Crime rates have skyrocketed overall. Communities face the rising sales of methamphetamine and other drugs that North Dakota U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon says have increasingly close ties to Mexican cartels. A mentally disabled Colorado man is currently on trial in the killing of a Sidney, Montana, teacher who disappeared after going out for a morning jog. Court documents said the defendants arrived in Montana in search of oil field jobs after a drug-fueled drive from Parachute, Colorado.
Following the woman’s disappearance, hundreds of Sidney residents turned out to search for her. The circumstances of her killing cast a dark cloud over the once-quiet town. That case has highlighted the social changes brought by an oil boom sweeping the Northern Plains.
“There is an increase in crime in boom areas,” said Grebenc. “That topic needs to be a part of the discussion. If you were in Sidney in 2007, you would never have had predicted just what it looks like today. Someone would have said that you were crazy. That’s how much things have changed there.”
The case has unfolded against a backdrop of spiking crime rates in Eastern Montana and neighboring parts of North Dakota.
Crime. Violence. Stress on resources. Boom towns have their downside, and Preparing for Boom listens to the voices of those who have been through the cycle and understand the swing. The film is a mechanism for the initiated to share their perspectives.
“People accept knowledge from their peers,” said Grebenc. “People accept knowledge from those with a similar background and who have had similar experiences.
“One of the strengths of this film is that it is a peer-based discussion. County commissioners, who have been there, share their town’s story and message. That’s pretty powerful.”