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Jacobs: Growth brings traffic -- and other crazy things

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columns Dickinson, 58602
Dickinson North Dakota 1815 1st Street West 58602

Whenever I drive in western North Dakota, I feel that an accident is about to happen -- and I'm going to be in it.

Traffic is definitely one impact of the oil boom.

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In fact, traffic is a pretty good measure of economic activity almost anywhere. That thought occurred to me as I tried to cross Demers Avenue in Grand Forks last week. I confess that I was going to jaywalk, but the traffic convinced me to change direction, and I found myself at the corner of Fourth and Demers.

Ed Neirode, the county administrator, was there. He'd pushed the button to order a walk signal.

Traffic's picked up, he said -- and not just downtown but also in other parts of the community.

Traffic is the first thing a visitor notices in the Oil Patch. From Minot west, U.S. Highway 2 is a busy road.

My visit to Williston involved a talk to a local group advocating literacy. The topic was reading in general, newspapers in particular, and there were questions about the Flood of 1997.

One woman, clearly someone unhappy about the wrenching changes that have engulfed the western part of the state, wanted to know, "Are things crazy out there, too?"

The question betrayed a sense of isolation that surprised me.

But my answer may have surprised her even more.

It's not crazy, I said. But the impact is huge beyond the Oil Patch itself.

Probably the greatest impact on any single piece of ground is at the corner of Gateway Drive and Columbia Road right here in Grand Forks. The university's new School of Medicine and Health Sciences building will be constructed there.

Across campus, the law school is getting new space, too.

Neither of these building projects would have happened without the wealth that oil brought the state treasury.

The oil boom also led to the largest industrial undertaking in the city's history, a huge nitrogen fertilizer plant now seeking financing. It will use natural gas from North Dakota's oil field to make nitrogen fertilizer.

Business connections with the Oil Patch are flourishing, too. Anyone with a nodding acquaintance with Grand Forks firms will recognize signs on office buildings in Williston.

Some of the increase in local car-and-truck traffic is related to the oil boom, almost certainly, as the economic activity picks up here in response to developments in the western part of the state.

It's not crazy. But it is noticeable.

In the West, the changes are profound, of course. And the boom shows no sign of slackening. But things seem to be more organized and a little more manageable than they were.

The state Highway Department has finished a bypass around Williston, and a bypass around Watford City is under construction.

Getting places still can be a challenge, though.

I made stops at the ranch that Suezette and I own near Blaisdell and at my parents' farmstead near Stanley.

Neither is more than a mile from Highway 2. But both are hard to get to, because both are south of the highway. For a westbound driver, that means a left turn across traffic: a wait for a suitable lull, a quick acceleration when one occurs and a sense of relief when the turn is accomplished.

If you dare lift your eyes from the road, other impacts of the boom are evident, too. The most obvious is housing, which ranges from pick-up campers to mansions put up by oil millionaires.

The most conspicuous, though, are the man camps. Those who operate these dormitory-style facilities like to call them "lodges" or "crew quarters," but the names haven't caught on.

Curiously, perhaps, oil wells themselves aren't so conspicuous. New technologies -- fracking and horizontal drilling -- have made it possible to consolidate drilling locations, called "pads" in the patch.

Except after dark -- or what passes for dark in the Oil Patch.

That's when the flares that accompany most wells are visible across the landscape. Flaring is down some, but by far the majority of natural gas -- a byproduct of oil production in the Bakken formation -- is burned at the well site.

Stanley, my own hometown, has solved some of its infrastructure problems. Main Street has been widened and repaved. The sewerage lagoon has been enlarged.

Stanley was lucky. It had a bypass before the boom.

Downtown Stanley remains a quiet prairie town. Out on the bypass, though, it's completely different. That part of Stanley is a 24-hour emporium hell bent on commerce.

Yes, it is a crazy combination -- but that's life in the Oil Patch.

Jacobs is the publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, which is a part of Forum News Service. Email him at mjacobs@gfherald.com.

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