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South Dakota Tries To Avoid Oil Boom's Downside


Some other news. The oil boom in western North Dakota has sparked one of the largest migrations to a single area in the United States since the Great Depression. Communities that once struggled to keep people at all, are now struggling to absorb all the newcomers as workers from across the country arrive to seek their fortunes in oil.

People across the border in South Dakota have been watching. South Dakotans say there is also oil to be found under the western part of their state. They want to drill for that oil without quite so much social disruption. South Dakota Public Broadcasting's Gary Ellenbolt reports.

GARY ELLENBOLT, BYLINE: The Great Plains States of North and South Dakota are used to sharing things. People naturally lump them together as The Dakotas. The two states share time zones, an interstate highway, and deep underground some of the world's best crude oil.

Both states are located in the Williston Basin, where until a few years ago, billions of barrels of oil were inaccessible. But now, with new drilling methods, that oil is coming out. And with that comes unparalleled growth, and the problems that brings. Williston, North Dakota police detective Dave Peterson says he's seeing problems.

DAVE PETERSON: From 2009 to 2011, we've seen a 260 percent increase in just our calls for service. That's any type of call coming in to the Williston Police Department.

ELLENBOLT: Because of the oil boom, western North Dakota is experiencing major housing shortages and increased crime activity, issues South Dakota officials would like to avoid. In Williston, North Dakota, rent and mortgage costs have sky-rocketed. A recent ad on Craig's List offered a single room of a Williston home for $1,250 a month - at least triple the cost of a few years ago.

Experts say extensive drilling in the state's far western counties is several years away, but in South Dakota's far northwest corner, Harding County commissioner Bob Johnson says he and fellow members are already looking at what's going on 200 miles to the north, and trying to plan.

BOB JOHNSON: Probably one of the main things is housing, and being able to handle the traffic and the law enforcement.

ELLENBOLT: South Dakota would like to avoid the so-called man camps that have sprung up around Williston, North Dakota. The area is surrounded with hundreds of windowed boxes, housing for the workers who come for the high salaries in the oil fields. Many consider the camps to be unsightly and dangerous. And some local residents worry that the residents there have no real ties to the area.

TERESA SCHANZENBACH: We still need to get together and talk about what could happen if your neighbor decides, yeah, we're going to put a man camp in.

ELLENBOLT: Teresa Schanzenbach heads the Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau in Belle Fourche, South Dakota. The city embraces its Western heritage as home to the State High School Rodeo, and as the Geographic Center of the U.S.


ELLENBOLT: Schanzenbach counts dozens of large trucks rolling through Belle Fourche on U.S. Highway 85 every day. While not nearly as congested as Williston, future development concerns her.

SCHANZENBACH: I mean people come from all over for our tourism. We want them to come and play and, at the same time, we really want to safeguard what we do have here.

ELLENBOLT: What they have is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the nation. Belle Fourche sits at the end of the Black Hills, which features Mount Rushmore, the tourist city of Deadwood, hundreds of other attractions and museums. Tourism is South Dakota's second-leading industry, worth almost $2 billion a year. The region can't afford to let increased traffic and negative growth damage that economic engine.

South Dakota officials agree that the key to encouraging growth, while keeping it manageable, lies in good planning. Jim Aberle is executive director of the investment and economic development group, Black Hills Vision.

JIM ABERLE: I was in Williston at the end of February. And one of the things I saw was the difference between good planning and poor planning, from one town to the next.

ELLENBOLT: South Dakota residents know the oil is there, and that in a few years, the crews will come to get it. While business leaders are eager for growth, they want to be better prepared before the drilling rigs and the roughnecks head south in droves.

For NPR News, I'm Gary Ellenbolt in Vermillion, South Dakota. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Since May of 2002, Gary Ellenbolt has been bringing South Dakotans the news of a new day on SDPB's Morning Edition. Imagine the guy in the local coffee shop who knows everything, can't wait to tell everyone, and throws in a clever phrase now and again, and you'll have an idea of the typical morning on South Dakota's only statewide radio network.