KILLDEER, N.D. — The Bakken oil boom of North Dakota is keeping homes, families and dreams alive in Utah.
"This has been great for Utah boys," said Jill Askerlund, her eye-catching smile lighting up her face as she gestures across a rolling landscape of hills.
Jill Askerlund is a "Southern California gal," a self-proclaimed "girly girl" who loves her high heels and hates dirt.
So when her husband, Fil, told her he'd landed a job in North Dakota — where there's no housing to be had because of the oil boom and the winters are Siberian cold — he didn't expect her to come. But not only did she join her husband in North Dakota, she jumped at the opportunity.
"There are a select few women who would do that — walk away from a big, beautiful home and live in a fifth wheel," he said.
Follow the money
The Askerlunds are among the thousands of people from Utah and across the country who have found that the oil being pumped from the largest oil field in the world is also pumping new chances into their lives — with opportunities that may well be unrivaled in their lifetime
An oil rush that began in 2001 has transformed western North Dakota, turning the state into the nation's No. 1 economy and helping to fuel a near 40 percent increase in U.S. oil production in the past two years.
Truckers are hauling in six-figure salaries. McDonalds and Wal-Mart offer $500, hiring bonuses and oil companies are renting entire floors of hotels to house their employees.
"Until you see the growth for yourself, you can't understand it," Fil Askerlund said. "It is unfathomable. I never had the opportunity to live through the Alaskan gold rush, but this is obviously what it is to me. The area is just so impacted by oil development."
A new home
The Askerlunds live in one of the hundreds of "man camps" that have sprung up with the Bakken oil boom because of the shortage of housing.
In their fifth wheel that Fil Askerlund towed to Killdeer, Jill still struggles to conquer the logistical challenges posed by what she calls her "Easy Bake" microwave and "Easy Bake" stovetop.
Her first Christmas in Killdeer, she did some holiday baking for new friends. It took her four days. This year, she retired her apron early.
At their home in Santaquin, the master bathroom is larger than the fifth wheel.
Finding room for their scant possessions is difficult, akin to playing chess or some other board game where the pieces have to be strategically moved.
"Everything has a place, and every place has a thing," she quipped with a smile.
Jill Askerlund spends six weeks with Fil and then flies home to Utah to spend a month, continuing in her job as a surgical first assist, working across from a Utah County doctor in the operating room.
She had friends in Utah who were aghast at what she was "giving up" to join her husband in North Dakota. What about her seven grown children? What about her 17 grandchildren?
"I'm not married to my grandchildren," she counters.
This will be his third winter there and her second winter of bundling up in layer after layer of clothing, of driving nowhere without a winter survival kit.
"The key to our success is that we decided this is an adventure," she said.
It was also a matter of economic survival.
Fil Askerlund was the victim of the recession, laid off because of the economic downturn. The construction industry was hit hard, and despite dozens upon dozens of resumes he submitted, nobody in Utah was hiring.
"We ran through $20,000 in savings, all of our 401(k) money, and for three years I did landscaping and sprinkling systems, making a tenth of what I had been making," he said. "Anyone who was here knows how bad the economy got."
Jill's job helped them survive, but their financial future — and the ability to retire at a decent age — looked bleak.
A friend turned down the Killdeer job working as a project manager for Heber City-based Epic Engineering. Fil Askerlund overheard the telephone conversation and simply blurted, "Tell him I'll go."
That was two years ago
The North Dakota people, unlike their winters, have been warm and welcoming.
"They are the most accepting, loving, kind, generous, peacemaking people I have ever met," she said.
Fil Askerlund was asked to serve on Killdeer's Centennial Committee and is on the board of directors for the local nursing home.
One of his projects is building a cultural hall for the community that will play host to weddings, dances, funerals and Future Farmers of America events.
He's turning a car dealership into housing and fixing the runway at the local airport that had been shuttered for some time.
But it wasn't easy to leave Utah.
"I love the outdoors. Nobody loves fishing and hunting more than me and I miss the mountains because the geography is different than Utah," he said. "But the people here are good-hearted, moral people. They are good God-fearing people who love their country, love their state, and it shows."
When the people of Dunn County decided they wanted the cultural hall, Askerlund said they had a barn-raising and raised $1 million on their own to help pay for it.
'Not good for us'
But the fallout from the unrestrained growth can't be overstated — not with its impacts to small rural communities, overwhelmed schools, police and hospitals and the inherent tension that comes with change. The roads have been trampled by so much truck traffic they have crumbled and traffic is beyond congested — some call it "Third World Crazy."
The money may be lucrative, but crime is up, and western North Dakota is overwhelmed.
"It's insane," Fil Askerlund said. "I think people expected it to slow down, but it hasn't."
While the boom has made many North Dakota residents instant millionaires — the number of people reporting seven-figure incomes doubled in 2012 — the find has come with other costs.
An employee at a Bismarck hotel, struggling to keep up with the latest crush of out-of-town guests, was bitter about the changes that had come to her home state.
"It is good for our economy, but it is not good for us," she said. "They should have left the oil in the ground."
In late December, a fiery derailment and crash of a train hauling crude led to the evacuation of 1,500 residents of North Dakota's Casselton. Last July, a runaway oil train carrying Bakken oil derailed and exploded in the center of the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic, killing 47 people.
Boom towns are experiencing a crisis in housing, with rent and property prices increasing so drastically it has driven locals out of the market. The state threw $1.1 billion toward residents in tax relief and one-time general fund appropriations shot up from $8.8 million eight years ago to $2.2 billion in 2013 to take care of pressing infrastructure needs.
Concerned about oil extraction occurring on national grasslands too close or within the boundaries of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, conservationists have led multiple field trips to document impacts and warn state and federal officials about the costs to wildlife, land, water and scenic vistas.
"North Dakota is engaged in a heavy development boom," said Ed Arnett, energy policy director with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. "The vast majority of that is occurring on private land, and from my perspective, North Dakota has to sort out how they are going to balance that energy development with the least effects."
Arnett's group had heard rumors about surveying being done for a new pump jack just outside the Theodore Roosevelt National Park's Elkhorn Ranch, established by Roosevelt on the banks of the Little Missouri River in 1884.
Only a few historic remnants of the ranch remain — such as the flagstone — but the site draws reverent visitors, including Arnett.
"The ranch is so sacred and special, but there are minerals embedded all around it," he said during a field trip to the site in September. "It is difficult for the state, for industry to balance against that, but not for us. We are not against energy development. But if you don't have good planning and good strategy, the consequences can be horrible."
A report by the North Dakota Chapter of The Wildlife Society documents fish kills in wildlife management areas and flooded oil wells in Lake Sakakawea, south of Williston.
Mike McEnroe, the society's legislative liaison, believes the changes coming are dire.
"If you don't get out to western North Dakota, you are not going to see it any more."
He said oil companies are largely exempt from water pollution rules and the state exercises little oversight of industry.
"The economic benefits of the oil industry are going to come at a cost to natural resources that we aren’t prepared to bear," McEnroe said.
North Dakota Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley rejected the notion that the state won't overcome the challenges to its people and its environment.
"There's no nostalgia in watching your hometown dry up and blow away," he said. "We have a pristine, beautiful glorious state which we take serious responsibility for our water, our air quality, our land. When they draw out that last drop of oil, God willing, we will still be ranching, we will still be farming, we will still be birding, we will still be hiking, we will still be canoeing, we will still be taking photographs of our pristine places."
The North Dakota Legislature set up an Outdoor Conservation Fund that directs $30 million every two years from oil and gas revenues to establish parks and recreation areas, maintain access to streams and improve habitat.
McEnroe says the effort doesn't go far enough, and the money is piddling compared to what the state could be taking from industry to preserve North Dakota's environment.
Arnett echoed his concern.
"There are not a lot of answers as to what can be done on private land other than on a voluntary basis," he said.
Fil Askerlund said he believes the North Dakota people are smart enough to ultimately get it right.
As part of that oil rush and among the faces of North Dakota's new destiny, the Askerlunds have been witness to the extreme growing pains and the changes playing out in the small towns grappling with the unrelenting pressure and prosperity.
When he was teaching a Sunday School class in his LDS ward in neighboring Dickinson, Fil Askerlund said he asked how many of the 200 people in the room were natives. Not a hand went up. Only four hands were raised to represent people who had been there five years or longer.3 comments on this story
He added that two years ago, the LDS Church had 136 members in the area and now it is pushing close to 1,000 people — folks like him and his wife who have paratrooped in from Utah, from Idaho, from states where the jobs can still be hard to come by.
"If Utah ever unlocks its oil shale and comes up with an economically feasible way to get it out of the ground, they should probably learn some lessons from North Dakota," he said. "These guys have had to go through a learning process that is unrivaled."
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