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What does boom do for you? Survey shows Oil Patch attitudes

WILLISTON -- A survey of Oil Patch residents bears out the old saying that money can't buy happiness.

Sixty percent of longtime northwest North Dakota residents say they have benefited economically from the oil boom, but the majority say their quality of life has not improved, according to a new survey by University of North Dakota faculty.

UND geography faculty gathered perceptions of the oil boom by sending surveys to residents of Williston, Stanley and Watford City who have lived in their communities for six years or more.

"We wanted to understand how people who have lived in the area pre-current boom perceive economic, social and environmental impacts on their communities," said Bradley Rundquist, UND geography professor.

About 17 percent said the oil boom has improved their quality of life. Fifty-two percent said they disagree or strongly disagree and about 30 percent were neutral on the question.

The survey project also asked for written comments from respondents. Many participants wrote that the state should limit the number of drilling permits to allow communities to catch up with housing, law enforcement and other infrastructure.

"I would like the oil boom to slow down! It is too much, too fast," one respondent wrote.

Faculty received responses from 237 people, with the most responses coming from Williston.

Eighty-five percent of those who responded are between the ages of 41 and 80. The median number of years the respondents have lived in North Dakota is 50.

Written comments from participants varied greatly. Many don't like how their communities have changed: "Take it all back! We miss our old city of Stanley. The quiet, clean, happy, respectful, caring community! We hate it here now!" one participant wrote.

"The only way I can see things getting better is for the whole mess go bust!" another wrote.

Others were more optimistic:

"This oil boom is a great thing -- will even be a greater thing -- when issues are resolved, which will make residents happier, feel safer, and can be proud of their surroundings," said one respondent.

"I have worked in the oil field for 34 years and it has kept our family farm in the family," commented another.

Here are some of the other findings:

n Fifty-seven percent of participants said the oil boom is good for the community, and 53 percent said it's good for families.

n Fifty-seven percent said their community is a safe place to live.

n Forty-six percent say their community is a good place to raise a family. Forty-one percent disagree or strongly disagree.

n Sixty seven percent of participants said there are too many newcomers. Forty-one percent said the community welcomes newcomers.

n The most unified responses were in the topics of litter (95 percent say there's too much), housing (97 percent say costs have increased) and roads (96 percent say roads are less safe).

On questions about the environment, 68 percent say their community is a less environmentally sound place than it was five years ago, but only 14 percent said they'd like to see environmental groups such as the Sierra Club get involved.

Sixty-two percent said federal agencies such as U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the EPA are too powerful.

The survey also covered media issues and political impacts of the boom.

Fifty-nine percent of participants said the federal government should play a larger role and 64 said that state offices should do more to help local citizens. Half of respondents said state representatives are aware of the problems.

"Politicians in (the) eastern part of the state only care about the millions of dollars coming in and not what's happening to the west," one wrote.

This survey was a first step in a broader research effort about the Oil Patch, Rundquist said. Faculty plan to analyze the attitudes and views of different groups in the sample, such as men and women, youth and elderly, employed and retired, and political affiliation.

Researchers also plan to do field work and site visits. Rundquist plans to study the impact of oil-related infrastructure on the landscape. Another group of researchers led by UND faculty is studying North Dakota man camps.

"There are so many interesting research topics related to what's happening there," Rundquist said. "This is our first attempt to gather some data."

Dalrymple is a Forum Communications reporter stationed in the Oil Patch. Reach her at or 701-580-6890.