Coming soon? Town in N. Dakota may show future oil, gas impact

The economy is booming in Dickinson, N.D., a community whose population was similar to Marietta’s a couple of years ago, but has grown by 30 percent since 2010 and is still increasing, thanks to North Dakota’s oil-laden Bakken shale deposits.

McDonald’s workers in Dickinson earn $15 to $20 an hour with benefits; truck drivers start out at $34 an hour, and workers in their 20s can make between $100,000 and $150,000 a year in the oil fields, according to Steve Sprague, a former Tunnel resident and Waterford High School ag science instructor.

“This is what’s coming to Marietta-and sooner than you think,” said Sprague, 62, who moved to the Dickinson area a year ago after learning jobs there were prosperous and plentiful.

He’s now a supervisor for Six Gun Hotshot, a small trucking company that does a lot of business with a number of oil and gas companies that have established horizontal hydraulic drilling operations in that area.

“My boss is 32 years old and started the business in 2007 with a single truck and a ‘hotshot’ (a dually pickup towing a trailer),” Sprague said. “Now he has five hotshots, five semi trucks, and a crane-hauling truck. We work in North Dakota but are also pushing into Wyoming, Montana and Canada.”

He said the success enjoyed by the company has become typical of businesses in the Dickinson area.

“Every business is booming,” Sprague said. “It’s unbelievable. There are signs all along the roadways, advertising for help wanted, and people from all over the country are going to North Dakota to work. There’s a lot of work, and not enough people.”

But he said the growing prosperity does have some drawbacks.

“Anyone going there should be sure and do their homework on the area first,” Sprague said. “It can be difficult to find a place to stay-hotels are filled, and some folks end up living in their cars or small trailers. Some of the oil companies have built ‘man camps’ near the drilling sites where employees can stay while working 12-hour shifts with two weeks on and two weeks off.”

He said housing is probably the biggest concern in the Dickinson area right now, and noted one-bedroom apartments are renting for $750 to $1,200 per month, plus utilities, and homes with three or four bedrooms may rent from $2,750 to $4,500 a month.

Marietta Area Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Charlotte Keim said the housing impact of the shale industry moving into the Mid-Ohio Valley is already being felt here.

“The president and CEO of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce was here this week, and we spent some time talking about the shale development,” she said. “It’s already happening here, and the first sign was an increase in the local bed tax collection.”

The bed tax, or city hotel/motel tax, has been growing in the last few years, and is expected to generate more than $960,000 by the end of 2013.

Keim said hotel and motel rooms have been filled throughout the week as oil and gas company representatives began arriving in the area to look at land availability and analyze the mineral potential in local Utica and Marcellus shale beds.

“Two years ago I started receiving phone calls from oil and gas workers in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio who were having problems finding housing,” Keim said. “Some of our surrounding counties have no lodging facilities, so they came here.”

She said some advance shale workers want to bring their families here and need housing during the one or two years they’ll be working in the area.

“Those initial people have the specialty skills needed to get the shale process set up, and after a couple of years they’ll go back to their homes or move on to the next job site,” Keim said.

But as companies hire more permanent workers, the housing demand will increase.

“We’re already seeing that, too,” Keim said. “The demand is turning housing from a buyer’s to a seller’s market. And overall that’s good because people will begin upgrading and improving their existing housing for sale.”

She said anyone who wants to take advantage of employment opportunities with the oil and gas industry should be obtaining the needed skills now.

“They should start doing some research about the industry and what jobs are needed,” Keim said, adding that obtaining a CDL license could be a good start as truck drivers are already in demand by some shale companies in this area.

And training for oil and gas industry jobs is already available at local facilities like Washington State Community College and the Washington County Career Center.

Sprague said work in the “oil patch” is hard and goes on 24/7, but anyone willing to put in the effort stands to make a lot of money in a relatively short period of time.

The economic boom has brought other unexpected issues to the Dickinson area, too.

“You have to make an appointment two weeks ahead of time to have an oil change for your car,” Sprague said. “One local tire shop had to add five or six new bays, and they still can’t keep up with the demand for tires.”

Gasoline prices also tend to be higher in the Dickinson area. He said some locals will drive across the border into Wyoming where they can buy gas 50-cents cheaper than in town.

Sprague said shale oil and gas companies are now setting up shop in the Mid-Ohio Valley, drilling wells into the Appalachian region’s mineral-rich Marcellus and Utica shale beds.

“It’s happening here, and the best thing you can do is have the infrastructure ready when companies start bringing their equipment in,” Sprague said.

Washington County began developing a road use maintenance agreement (RUMA) last year that holds drilling companies responsible for maintaining county and township roadways that may be damaged by heavy equipment and increased truck traffic.

“The infrastructure can take a beating from that traffic,” said county engineer Roger Wright.

He noted that state highways are generally pre-designed to handle heavy traffic, but many county and township roads have developed over years from original trails and pathways into gravel and paved roadways.

“We have a road use maintenance agreement with drilling companies,” Wright said. “For example, PDC is currently putting stone on roads in Adams Township leading to their drilling sites. The county wants to reach out and work with all of the drillers who plan to operate here.”

He said the Ohio County Engineers Association provides a venue where counties can share their experiences about dealing with the shale oil and drilling industry across the state.

“We’re still in the infant stage here, so we’re trying to learn as much as we can from other counties,” Wright added. “But in my opinion taxpayer funds should not have to be used to pay for road repairs that are caused by heavy drilling equipment. Those industries should be responsible. That’s why it’s important that we obtain road use maintenance agreements with the shale companies.”

Marietta city engineer Joe Tucker said the city is already seeing an increase in the number of trucks traveling on city streets.

“We’ve talked about a road use maintenance agreement for the city to help protect any impact on our streets, and we’re currently looking at establishing a wellhead protection plan for our drinking water wells as a precautionary measure,” he said.

Tucker noted the city is also continuing to work on major intersection improvements along the Ohio 7 and Pike Street corridor which will help ease traffic congestion that could be generated by additional vehicles on the road due to projected growth from the oil and gas industries.