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Article by: JENNIFER BROOKS , Star Tribune
Four massive drilling rigs, idled on the windswept prairie near the North Dakota-Montana line here, wait for oil prices to rise again. Last year, when oil was selling for $100 a barrel, each rig employed almost 200 people, directly or indirectly. Now, with oil prices cut in half, they employ Shay Hunt, the night watchman.
“Over there, that was my rig,” said Hunt, a 35-year-old father of three from Williston, who has worked the oil fields for more than 13 years.
“Rain comes, 40-below comes, lightning and tornadoes come, we keep working,” he said, facing away from the downed rigs and into the biting wind blowing in from the west. “One time a [grass] fire a came up around the rig. We kept on working.”
But there’s a new threat to the oil fields. One you can’t work through.
After a six-year epic oil boom that has transformed both the economy of North Dakota and the lives of its people — sending unemployment to record lows and development and budget surpluses to record highs — the drop in prices is beginning to alter the landscape here. Half the rigs have been idled, costing thousands of oil workers their jobs with more layoffs likely to come.
Here in Williston, the epicenter of the boom, there is little panic. Officials say they welcome the chance for their city, the fastest-growing small city in America for the past four years, to catch its breath after years of breakneck change.
“We grew so fast, so quickly,” said Shawn Wenko, economic development director for Williston, home to the nation’s highest rents, lowest unemployment rates and largest municipal rec center. “Obviously, we have some catch-up to do.”