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Commuting To Distant Oil Fields: Good Money, At A Price

The small streets of Williston, N.D., are bustling with trucks early in the morning.
Annie Flanagan for NPR
The small streets of Williston, N.D., are bustling with trucks early in the morning.

Think your commute is bad? Try 580 miles, one-way.

Door to door, that's how far Rory Richardson travels between his home in western Montana and his job on the oil fields near Williston, N.D. Often, he makes the trip on a plane his company charters to shuttle workers between here and the Northwest.

"It's no fun coming over to North Dakota," he says, clutching a duffel bag and a cooler of food as he walks out of Williston's one-room airport and into the biting North Dakota winter.

But this is Richardson's new life.

North Dakota is now the second-largest oil producing state in the nation, and thousands of workers like Richardson have been flocking there in recent years. Some are settling in and planting roots, but many more are in his position, commuting from surrounding states where good jobs are scarce.

"Probably three-quarters of the people that I know and talk to are the same way," he says. "Got their family back at home, and commute back and forth."

Back home, Richardson says, there are very few jobs, "and they're all kind of that minimum-wage-type stuff — you know, $8-, $10-an-hour jobs. You can't really make it on that, especially [with just] one person working."

Two Weeks Straight, One Week Off

Richardson lost his job at a Montana paper mill four years ago when it abruptly shut its doors. He decided to go back to school and get his business degree. That took two years. He spent another year looking for work. He would either never hear back, or employers would call to tell him he was overqualified.

"I tried to avoid coming over here, best I could," Richardson says. "I didn't want to ... but it's one of the only spots where it's really booming and there is opportunity over here."

With a wife and 2-year-old son to support, he says, his family ran out of options.

Trucks crowd a busy intersection during rush hour in Williston, N.D.
/ Annie Flanagan for NPR
Annie Flanagan for NPR
Trucks crowd a busy intersection during rush hour in Williston, N.D.

Last summer, Richardson easily found work in northwestern North Dakota as a cement operator, putting casings on new oil wells. He has a bed in a "man camp" on the outskirts of Williston, but with so much drilling going on, he rarely goes there, even at night.

He usually works 18 to 24 hours straight, sleeping when he can in the back of a giant rig that he drives from one drill site to the next.

"It's pretty tough, trying to adjust to living in a truck, working on the job site on location, 24 hours a day, for three, four days at a time before you make it back to camp," Richardson says.

His typical shift is two weeks straight, then one week off. With the two travel days back and forth, including a three-hour drive to the airport, it's really more like five days off. But he feels lucky that he can usually fly. When he has to drive, it's typically 14 or 15 hours back to his home near the Idaho border.

The long commute and being away for so long is taking a toll on families like Richardson's. But he knows he's not alone.

At least 20 of his former co-workers from the Montana mill are also commuting here. And three of the four families around his home west of Missoula are in the same position: one or both spouses commuting back and forth to the Bakken oil fields. (Full disclosure: The family that doesn't commute are this reporter's parents.)

Rough, But An Improvement

"I'm basically a single parent," says Jennifer Richardson, Rory's wife. She and the couple's son, Colton, were home alone over the Christmas holiday.

"I have no help. I'm it. I'm the only person that does all the disciplining, the raising, everything, all the caretaking," she says. "He comes home once a month, for a week. It's not easy, that's for sure."

And when Rory is here, he's wiped out, Jennifer says. "He comes home, and he wants to spend time with his family, he wants to hunt, and he wants to do fun things; but my dishwasher needs to be fixed, and he needs to put a new transmission in my car."

And when her husband's home, Jennifer says, "It's all about Dad, I tell you. Colton doesn't even want me around. He tells me to go to work," she laughs.

Jennifer says this long-distance commuting arrangement is far from ideal, but life is better now than it has been these past four years. She remembers when Rory and more than 400 others were abruptly laid off, when the last of the area's three timber mills closed.

Rory heard the news on the car radio. He had just finished his shift at 6 a.m. and was heading out hunting with a friend.

"They were driving around, and next thing you know, on the radio it says Smurfit-Stone [Container Corp.] was closing their doors," Jennifer says. "Didn't even tell them at work. ... They just fired him right there in his truck, on the radio."

Jennifer says emphatically that moving to Williston, where she grew up, is not an option. Her family moved there during the last oil boom in the 1980s. With all the crime and other social problems that have come with this latest oil rush, she says, she doesn't like the idea of raising their son there now.

Besides, their home, their horse, their dogs — their lives — are all here on three pristine acres in Montana.

Always Thinking About The Next Move

Back in his truck in North Dakota, Rory Richardson says being gone so much is taking its toll on his family — even just six months in. The money's good, but after factoring in commuting and housing costs, it's basically what he made back at the Montana mill.

"Two weeks is a long spell," he says. "A lot of things can happen in those two weeks when you're gone."

For now, Richardson says he's hoping to switch schedules to get two weeks off at a time. And alone and weary out on the job site, he's always thinking about his next move.

"Do you try to find a lower-paying job back at home, or do you move your family over here?" he says. "And how long is this oil boom going to last? You know, it's a big commitment to come over here and resettle, [just] to have something happen in four or five years."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.