From an airplane at night, Williston, N.D. appears an oasis of thousands of points of light on the Great Plains. Most are white or yellow, but some flicker bright orange. They are the oil drilling rig flares of the Bakken Shale formation — fires that burn night and day.
But dozens of these fires have gone dark in the last eight months.
According to a report by Al Jazeera America, Williston has been pummeled by plunging oil prices worldwide, which dropped from a $105 a barrel in February 2014 to $54 in February 2015. There are still high-paying jobs, but fewer of them.
For residents, the result is layoffs, reduced work schedules and smaller paychecks for everyone from oil rig workers to Walmart greeters. The slowdown, as locals call it, has pushed thousands deeper into poverty, closer to homelessness or out of the city altogether, charity workers said.
Since fracking began in the Bakken Shale around Williston in the late 2000s, the city’s population has more than doubled, to about 20,000 today, according to the Census Bureau. That figure does not include temporary and seasonal workers and others living on the city’s outskirts.
For those who live in mobile homes, gas tanks might do the job of keeping those inside warm, but safety is an issue, said Katie Peterson, a Methodist charity worker in Williston. At one RV camp that Al Jazeera visited, the charred, hollow corpse of a trailer destroyed in a heating system accident involving its gas tank shook in the cold, whipping wind.
“I have many families who are in campers. Probably the majority of them are sharing housing with other people,” said Deb Roel, a homeless liaison for the Students in Transit, a federally funded program to help kids without permanent housing in Williston get an education.
Read the full report here.