Reporting Liz Collin
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — They are Minnesota families separated by more than 600 miles. Tammy and Jason Hardy of Brainerd are one of hundreds of Minnesota families now divided by the oil boom of North Dakota.
The western part of North Dakota sits on the Bakken formation, the largest domestic oil discovery in decades. In just a few years, the state is predicted to be second to Texas in crude production.
North Dakota has the country’s lowest unemployment rate, and there are still thousands of job openings.
WCCO-TV caught up with the Hardy’s just after the New Year. They were spending the holidays together after living the last few months apart.
Like a lot of families, the Hardy’s prefer the holidays to be a little loud, shared with a large family. In a way, it helps to prepare Jason for the lonely life he will return to.
“We probably won’t see each other again until March or April,” Tammy Hardy said.
It’s a life that has pulled Jason from the people that matter most for a promise to be able to provide for them.
“You just got to do what you got to do,” Jason Hardy said.
It has been the situation since summer for the Hardy’s. Tammy lives with the kids in their home in Brainerd, a city where the economic outlook has been bleak.
“In the past year the work has just really dried up. It’s just hard,” Tammy said.
The unemployment rate in Brainerd is the highest in Minnesota among cities with 10,000 people. The manufacturing, construction and tourism industries have all been hit hard.
So after months of trying for a job that would keep them all together, Jason went west.
“It was literally be on welfare or we would have to split and do this,” Tammy said.
The once barren fields of western North Dakota have a promise land feel.
Jason found work at a trucking company right across the border in Montana. He moved up the ranks in just a few months.
“The next thing you know I’m a supervisor,” Jason said.
The boom centers around Williston, North Dakota, and stretches about 150 miles in all directions. About 350 oil companies have moved into the city, helping to double the town’s size in five years.
Nowhere better paints the picture of its growth than the parking lot of Wal-Mart. License plates from across the country line each aisle. Oil workers call this home since there’s nowhere else to stay.
Kelsey Wingate is from International Falls and is one of the lucky ones. His living expenses are paid for. He’s one of an estimated 10,000 workers housed in man camps that surround Williston.
Wingate went from a $10 an hour job back home, to a salary of more than $100,000 as an oil company mechanic.
“There is a ton of money to be made out here,” Wingate said.
Tom Rolfstad is the city’s economic development director. Since there are no concerns with job creation, it’s quality of life matters that are the main focus.
“That’s the problem with such rapid growth how do you keep up with all the ancillary things that go along with it,” Rolfstad said.
Heavy truck traffic is causing traffic jams, the population influx is straining sewage and water systems and a lot of places can’t find help, left to compete with the top-dollar jobs of the oil fields.
Yet in the scramble, there is real fear how long this can last in a state already burned by two booms in the last 60 years.
New technology allows wells to be drilled two miles down, then sideways at the same time. While drilling a well requires more than 100 workers, it only needs one to keep it running. But, Jason Hardy sees it as a new life.
“That’s why I pick the job I have. It’s not the oil,” Jason Hardy said.
His family will soon make the move to join him. Staking out a new future, surrounding an oil patch that’s producing modern-day pioneers.
“If it was easier at home I would definitely be home. It’s a little bit of an adventure though. I’m not going to deny that,” Jason Hardy said.