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There is nothing I love more than summers in North Dakota. Each weekend from Memorial Day to the start of the North Dakota State Fair, I hit the road and drive back to my hometown of New Town to spend a weekend on Lake Sakakawea.
What used to be a pretty quick drive from Bismarck to New Town has been slowed these past few years by something I never thought I’d see in New Town: stoplights.
This summer those stoplights have been worsened by road construction, and as I sat waiting at one stop for what felt like an eternity keeping me from the pontoon on the lake, I thought about all the stories I’ve been reading in all the national papers and blogs about the Great North Dakota Oil Bust and the imminent doom and gloom falling upon our humble state. I thought about it as I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw semis and trucks lined up behind me. I looked ahead at the intersection and the lines of trucks and semis on either side waiting for their chance to go. I looked ahead at the guy in an orange safety vest trying to direct all these people who are going about their day in the oil patch. I looked at this bustling intersection and messy road construction, and I wondered, “Where’s this ‘bust’ everyone is talking about?”
To be fair, things are slower. I have friends who had the miserable job of laying people off this year. I’ve been the recipient of emails that have bounced back from friends and colleagues as either undeliverable or stating “this person no longer works here.” I’ve had to be the person telling a deserving nonprofit that unfortunately, due to oil prices, many companies are having to be more diligent in their community spending. It’s hard for some to understand, but it’s even harder to dole out big contributions at the same time that employees are being let go.
I’ve also talked to friends who have been fortunate enough to receive small royalty checks to help pay bills or live more comfortably in the past. They’ve confided that those checks are getting much, much smaller. When you talk to those people and you think about the thousands of faceless others that you know are out there who have lost their jobs or seen their businesses slow, it’s not realistic to tell inquiring reporters or others that everything is still great. That would be insensitive. There is a human element to oil and gas development that too often gets missed, and for those people, it’s not great.
To be sure, we’re in a slowdown, but it would be inaccurate to call it a bust.
At the 2015 Williston Basin Petroleum Conference, a presenter, Tony Cadrin, spoke about this slow down and the cycles we’ve seen before. Coincidentally, he, too, had been laid off not long before the conference. Still, Cadrin didn’t lose perspective and he didn’t become victim to the bust mentality. Instead, he saw opportunity.
After all, there are two things to keep in mind about the petroleum sector. First, we have gone through many commodity cycles in the past, and we will continue to in the future. It’s the nature of commodities. Second, the industry has survived each and every one of these cycles, coming out stronger through innovation and optimization. After all, hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling were born from a bust, and they’ve helped create perhaps the single greatest opportunity for our nation to improve its economic trajectory and standing in the world.
So as I sit in traffic this weekend on my way to the lake to celebrate Independence Day, I’ll be thinking about opportunity and will try to imagine the incredible technologies that some smart guy is going to come up with to make the industry and our state stronger. And, while that smart guy is coming up with his ways to make the industry stronger, I’ll be thinking of ways to help spread the message that while things may not be great, they’re still pretty good in North Dakota. The industry may not be able to contribute as much financially as we used to, but we’re finding ways to pitch in and give back and show our dedication. We have people ready and willing to volunteer. We’re planning blood, food and coat drives to help give back. We have teams entering marathons and 10ks to help good causes. Activity may have slowed down, but our dedication and commitment to the communities has not. In other words, we’re here to stay.
And, when that tired, dirty guy in the orange safety vest waves me along through construction, I’ll smile and wave back, because that construction and those lines of traffic aren’t signs of a bust. They’re signs of progress.
Written by Tessa Sandstrom, communications manager for the North Dakota Petroleum Council.