…Oh, frakk, ooohhhah, frakk.
The new gold rush that proves the anti-fracking fanatics have got it all wrong
As he takes me on a tour of his buzzing little town, mayor Brent Sanford points out the acres of development that have already happened — the giant grocery store, the smart restaurant, the school extension and the endless housing developments.
And he tells me what’s still to come — a smart new recreation centre, a state-of-the-art hospital, public housing, a day-care centre and even an 18-hole golf course.
There’s a new bank, which is essential, as so many local businesses are flourishing and so many more are clamouring to move in.
But it’s not always easy to hear what he’s saying.
His voice is drowned out by the rumble and roar of oil tankers, drilling trucks and the vast articulated lorries carrying waste water, clattering around his roads like an invading army on a never-ending victory parade.
The traffic noise and congestion are a pain, he admits, as are rocketing property prices — and the occasional punch-up as oil men hit town for a hard-earned drink or two.
North Dakotans are a conservative bunch who appreciate the solitude, the wide-open spaces and a simple way of life.
But they are sure of one thing — Watford City and the rest of western North Dakota is the land that was saved by fracking.
Only ten years ago, this region was dying on its feet — its farming industry finished, and businesses refusing to move somewhere so remote and empty.
Young people moved away to find jobs and only the elderly remained.
Geographers were even suggesting getting rid of the humans, and turning over the land to the buffalo that once roamed here.
‘Their reasoning was pretty good,’ says 41-year-old Mr Sanford, a fourth-generation North Dakotan.
‘The town has been shrinking since the Depression — but now we can get back to work.’
Two miles beneath our feet is the discovery that has changed everything here — the Bakken Shale formation, 360 million years old and the richest oil find in North America for 40 years. The figures are mind-boggling.
Geologists estimate the 15,000 square mile region of oil that has been dubbed ‘Kuwait on the Prairie’ could be worked for 25 years, using the controversial process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to produce some 14 billion barrels of high-quality crude oil.
At current rates, that’s enough to meet Britain’s total energy usage for 24 years.
The process involves injecting a pressurised mixture of sand, water and chemicals into shale rock formations, fracturing the rock and releasing gas and oil trapped inside.
There are already 8,000 wells here, producing more than 820,000 barrels a day, but it’s forecast that will increase to as many as 50,000 wells.
Comparisons with the 1847 Gold Rush are often made of the Bakken boom, and they’re no exaggeration.
Thousands of men (and a few women) have poured into the region, drawn by unemployment below one per cent and talk of £65,000 jobs for school-leavers with no experience.
And the Bakken is only one of several major fracking areas that have helped pull the U.S. out of recession, creating tens of thousands of jobs, cutting energy bills and freeing America from having to rely on unpleasant foreign regimes for oil and gas.
Not surprisingly, it’s a side to the fracking phenomenon about which you won’t hear much from the eco-warriors, who are hogging the airwaves about the issue in Britain.
Surrounded by gently rolling hills of cornfields and grass land where cattle graze and hay bales wait to be taken in, Watford City reminds me of nowhere so much as the South Downs of England, close to the West Sussex village of Balcombe, where noisy green protesters including fashion designer Vivienne Westwood have declared war on Britain’s attempt to exploit the fracking boom.
Many of those who descended on Balcombe to take on the police trying to keep order have been exposed as knowing next to nothing about fracking.
If they want to learn more about the economic arguments in its favour, they would do well to study the lessons of North Dakota.
No one here can remember environmental campaigners pitching up when the Bakken boom erupted around 2007.
They would have had a disappointing time of it, notes Mr Sanford, not only because there’s no media around here to listen to them but also because fracking hasn’t caused any of the environmental problems they allege.
No methane in the drinking water, no earthquakes and no air pollution. The one blot on the landscape is what’s known as ‘flaring’, the wasteful burning off of natural gas that comes up with the oil, which many companies haven’t got round to collecting via pipelines.
At night, it looks like there are giant candles dotted around the prairie — but they are estimated to produce large amounts of carbon dioxide.
As for the other big complaint about fracking — the disruption from traffic, noise and people — that’s another matter.
Watford City is the epicentre of the Bakken boom and, like everyone round here, Mr Sanford admits that it’s not the best time to see the benefits of fracking while the actual drilling is still happening.
In two years, the town’s population has exploded — from 1,700 to 25,000. Inevitably, the infrastructure, especially housing, is struggling.
But come back in five years, local bigwigs assured me, and it will have calmed down. The building work and road widening will have eased, and pipelines will have been installed so there won’t be the endless procession of tankers.
Then there’s the prickly issue of who gets the tax revenues from the oil and gas.
In Britain, pro-fracking advocates predict there would be much less opposition to it if local people benefit more, rather than all the proceeds being split between the mining companies and the Treasury.
Mr Sanford says he is fighting for his town to get a bigger share, too — it gets eight per cent of the 11.5 per cent tax on the value of the oil that comes out at the well head. The state government keeps the rest.
The other key difference with the UK is that American landowners can sell the rights to the minerals under their land, while in Britain they are owned by the Crown.
In the U.S., companies that want to extract oil from the land — and most of it lies under farmland — must give the owner a lump sum to drill a well, then pay them a royalty for every barrel extracted.
Some North Dakotans have become very, very rich out of the Bakken boom, and state taxation records show around 12 new millionaires are created every week.
Not that you would notice — the plain-living, God-fearing locals don’t go in for flashy displays of wealth.
The mayor’s assistant recounted how a local farmer recently came into his second-hand car dealership to get his old car repaired, and confided that he gets a cheque for almost £200,000 every five or six weeks just for the mining rights under his land.
When I managed to track down one of these newly minted multi-millionaires, Ed Shelke, the 74-year-old said he has never totted up how much he made from the 1,700 acres he sold to the oilmen. I suspect he is simply too modest to say.
Some of the land is now being fracked for oil, some of it has been built on, some is being used to store the highly salty water that is a fracking waste product.
Given that he says he sold each acre for anything from £13,000 to £22,400, he could have made almost £38 million. And then he gets a five-figure sum every month in royalties.
But he and his wife Charlotte still live in the same modest house, and drive an eight-year-old Chrysler.
‘It was a peaceful little town before,’ he says. ‘But now we’ve got a nice foodstore, a hospital, new work on the churches and a golf course — a lot of things we’ve always wanted.’
The Gold Rush feel is even more obvious when I drive 46 miles north to the town of Williston.
There, Tom Rolfstad, the economic development chief, gave me the good news: Williston has been America’s fastest-growing metropolitan community for the past two years, adding 10,000 new jobs every 12 months.
The average income has soared from £19,000 to £55,000 in just five years.
The oil companies are spending £1.3 billion a month in the region and he has private investors coming to see him every week looking to sink money into his town.
Here, there is a new public playground with a gym designed to look like an oil derrick, and a seesaw that resembles an oil pump: a gift, naturally, from an oil company.
No wonder Rolfstad has no time for the way environmentalists around the world — and especially in Britain — have seized on fracking to further their anti-carbon agenda.
‘In the next two or three years, you’ll see this place blossom even more,’ he says bluntly.
There’s a Wild West feel to the place at the moment, though.
As Williston, hotel receptionist Brice Walters told me, he found the town ‘totally surreal’ — but he earns three times what he would have made for the same job back home in California.
Businesses are so short of workers that everyone earns over the odds here — workers at the fast-food store Subway take home £500 a week, and even box-stackers in Walmart get £15 an hour.
Oil workers here talk of retiring at 45.
Tucking into a large plate of prime ribs over lunch at R Rooster Barbecue, father and son Ken and Daniel Stinnett took me through the economics that have kept them in Williston for the past two years.
Rig hands — who do heavy labouring and general maintenance — can earn more than £20 an hour, while drillers get £30 or more.
Oil companies work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, here and if you factor in overtime (it’s not unusual to work a 98-hour week), and the fact that there’s nothing to spend your money on but food and drink, people are taking their annual dollar earnings well into six figures.
‘I came from California where the economy was so bad you couldn’t find a job,’ said Daniel. ‘I got here to find ‘Help Wanted’ signs on every business.’
Fracking sceptics will say that you can’t possibly compare Sussex or even the Pennines — site of Britain’s potentially vast Bowland Shale deposit — with the vast, underpopulated expanse of the American prairies.
They have a point. But if the environmental risks have been overplayed, can Britain afford to turn down fracking just because of the disruption and the ugliness?
Chris Wright, an American engineer and fracking pioneer who has addressed the House of Lords on the issue and recently visited the north of England, told me: ‘There’s nothing northern England could do more to spur employment than drill for shale gas.’
But what about the environmental concerns? Just this week, new research said fracking caused nearly a dozen mysterious small earthquakes in Ohio in 2011.
Wright says claims of water contamination don’t stack up because you drill oil and gas far below any water table.
Occasional slip-ups occur, he says, where companies have cut corners, such as not properly encasing their drilling pipes in concrete or — in the case of the earthquakes —injecting too much waste water into too few wells.
As for the environmental impact of a new well, ‘it’s not that much different to building a Starbucks’, he says.
Actually, there isn’t a Starbucks for hundreds of miles out across the Bakken field, but no doubt there soon will be — just another piece of the social jigsaw as a region that was once pretty much left for dead transforms before our eyes.
‘I see a light at the end of this tunnel,’ says Williston’s long-serving mayor Ward Kroeser. ‘And it’s a pretty nice light.’
Whether Britain has the will and the political vision to create a fracking boom even half as lucrative remains to be seen.
But with every new well that’s sunk in North Dakota, the arguments for doing so grow ever stronger.