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Small-town oil boom makes blue-collar capitalists

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WILLISTON, N.D. -- The pumpjacks, like giant hammers slowly swinging against the big sky, start peppering the roadside 80 miles out from Williston.

Closer in, the pumps, rigs and large oil tanks steadily replace barns and grain silos. About 50 miles out on US 2, the telltales appear of North Dakota's oil boom: modular homes for sale, "Drivers Wanted" billboards, and oil tanker after oil tanker. Just outside of Williston appear the "mancamps."

Mancamps are sprawling, low barracks -- typically warrens of well-furnished trailers -- each housing hundreds of men who have left home for this tiny town 19 miles from Montana and 60 miles from Canada.

What brought them here was at least 3 billion barrels of oil in the shale buried deep under the ground and the technology needed to extract it -- known as fracking. Fracking involves pumping water and chemical additives into the ground that force the oil out of the rock, making it accessible. With oil companies' mastery of fracking in 2008, Williston became a boomtown and an intriguing lesson in capitalism.

"Being out here, it's like the American dream," Chris Duell tells me at D.K.'s bar and casino. He bought a failing drinking-water company here in 2006, before the boom. Now his company, C&D Water Services, bottles and delivers water to many of the 200 rigs pumping oil around Williston, plus dozens of peripheral businesses. Every day more companies come in with more workers, meaning more business for C&D. Last year, C&D's sales doubled to a million dollars, Duell told me.

"I got lucky in life," he says. Duell, from Michigan, has seen both sides of capitalism's fickle nature. "All my friends who have college degrees from Michigan, Michigan State. They're all laid off."

Layoffs have brought many men to Williston. One burly transplant in his late 40s, with hands so huge they were difficult to shake, told me he was a Teamster near Sacramento when he was canned in 2008. After two years of taking unemployment checks, he happened to call some friends who had moved from California to Williston.

"How's the economy there?" he asked.

"Great," the friend replied.

"How long would it take me to get a job?"

"One day," his friend said accurately. "If you want a good job, wait a week."

Today, this large man (who, like most of the workers, insisted I not use his name) assembles machinery that his employer, Penkota Wireline, uses to perforate drilling wells as a way of prepping the well for fracking.

Dozens of contractors, like C&D, Penkota and Flint Energy, which disassemble, transport and reassemble rigs, serve the handful of oil companies actually extracting the oil. Halliburton is one of the biggest contractors, and its trucks and adapted school buses roam the streets of Williston.

One transplant, a hippie-looking man of indiscernible age who told me he was arrested in California for transporting a truck full of marijuana, now administers drug tests on behalf of Williston's many employers.

Thousands of new workers create demand for companies like Target Logistics, Black Gold, and ATCO Group to build their mancamps. Construction companies try in vain to meet demand for housing.

The result: unheard-of wages for able-bodied men willing to live and work in this modern Wild West. Got a commercial driver's license? You can make six figures. Unskilled labor pulls in $18 an hour, and the job often includes lodging and all the mancamp food you can eat. That's like making $70,000 a year -- for unskilled labor. Kel, a driver for Flint Energy in his 50s, told me he spent only $60 in three weeks.

"Everyone in here has a wad," Kel said at D.K.'s on Tuesday night, pointing around to the nearly all-male crowd of oil workers.

Williston's economy, that is, looks nothing like the rest of America. One worker drinking at D.K.'s, after telling me of his difficult odyssey to Williston with his uncle, seemed to be struck suddenly by the realization he had uprooted himself from his home in order to make lots of money while so much of America is unemployed or underemployed.

"Does that make us a--holes?" he asked, concerned.

"No," the hippie former drug-runner replied. "It makes us capitalists."

Many locals, like Anita at the front desk of the Super 8, don't like the oil boom. It's brought crime, trash, higher prices and fleets of trucks. But to the rest of America, it has brought more oil, and to thousands of men it has brought work -- and a lesson in capitalism.

Timothy P. Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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