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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)

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.

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."

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's Friday, and it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. We travel next to an economic magnet. New oil fields are transforming North Dakota.

GREENE: The state has become the second largest oil producing state in the nation. The industry is changing America's energy picture and changing the North Dakota landscape as tiny towns burst in population.

INSKEEP: What may be surprising is the way the boom is affecting distant states. The oil money is so attractive that some people who do not move to the oil fields commute there, hundreds of miles. NPR's Kirk Siegler continues our reports on the Great Plains Oil Rush.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Think your commute is bad? Try 580 miles. One way.

RORY RICHARDSON: Hi, Kirk, how are you doing?

SIEGLER: Good. Door to door, that's how far Rory Richardson travels between his home in western Montana and his job in the oil fields near Williston, North Dakota. Today he's getting off a plane his company now charters to shuttle workers back and forth between here and the Northwest. Clutching a duffel bag and a cooler full of food, Richardson walks out of the one-room Williston Airport and into the biting North Dakota winter.

RORY RICHARDSON: Right now it's no fun coming over to North Dakota.

SIEGLER: But this is Richardson's new life.

RORY RICHARDSON: Probably three-quarters of the people that I know and talk to are kind of the same way, you know, got their family back at home and commute back and forth.

SIEGLER: Including at least twenty of the guys he used to work with at the Montana paper mill, before it abruptly shut down four years ago. Richardson decided to go back to school get his business degree. That took two years. He spent another year looking for work. He would either never hear back or they'd call and tell him he was over-qualified.

RORY RICHARDSON: There's very little jobs and there all kind of that minimum wage type stuff, you know, eight, 10 dollar an hour jobs. You can't really make it on that, especially one person working.

SIEGLER: And with a wife and two year old son to support, he says his family ran out of options.

RORY RICHARDSON: I tried to avoid coming over here, best I could. I didn't want to move to North Dakota, I didn't want to come over here working, so to speak, but it's one of the only spots where it's really booming and there is opportunity over here.

SIEGLER: Rory Richardson found work here in western North Dakota last summer 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, it's rare that he even goes back there at night. He works 18 hours straight usually, and sleeps when he can in the back of a giant Kenmore rig that he drives from one drill site to the next.

RORY RICHARDSON: It's pretty tough, you know, trying to adjust 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.

SIEGLER: His typical shift is two weeks on straight, then a week off. It's really more like five days off after you count the two travel days back and forth, including a three-hour drive to the airport where the chartered plane leaves from. He feels lucky that he can usually fly.

RORY RICHARDSON: I had to drive back here a couple weeks ago, and it took me almost 18 hours. They had the interstate shut down out of Livingston.

SIEGLER: The Richardsons are neighbors of my parents near Missoula, Montana, next to the Idaho state line. And what's interesting is that three of the four families right around them are in this exact position. One or both of the spouses commutes back and forth to the Bakken oil fields.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)

RORY RICHARDSON: Hi, dogs. Hi.

SIEGLER: The Richardson's hunting dogs are the first thing to greet you in their muddy driveway in the rain. Rory's wife, Jennifer, is inside their modular home with the couple's two-year-old son, Colton.

JENNIFER RICHARDSON: Can you say hi? Colton.

SIEGLER: Colton is lying on the living room floor watching cartoons.

COLTON: Hello, Mommy.

SIEGLER: The wall opposite the TV is crowded with Montana wildlife that Rory shot and had stuffed. There's a Christmas tree in another corner by the window. It's just the two of them here alone over the holidays.

JENNIFER RICHARDSON: I'm basically a single parent. I have no help. I'm it. I'm the only person that does all the disciplining, the raising, everything, all the caretaking. He comes home once a month, for a week. It's not - it's not easy, that's for sure.

SIEGLER: And when Rory comes home, Jennifer says he's wiped out.

JENNIFER RICHARDSON: He comes home and he wants to spend time with his family. He wants to hunt, and he wants to, you know, do fun things. But yet the dishwasher needs to be fixed, and he needs to put a new transmission in my car.

SIEGLER: Jennifer Richardson 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 laid off, just like that, when the last of the three timber mills in this area closed.

JENNIFER RICHARDSON: It was crazy 'cause he got off work at like 6:00 in the morning. He jumped in his truck to go out cat hunting with a friend and they were driving around and next thing you know on the radio it says Smurfit Stone was closing their doors. Didn't even tell them at work that he was no longer having a job or nothing. They just fired him right there in his truck, on the radio.

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

JENNIFER RICHARDSON: That's not your T-Rex.

SIEGLER: Besides, their home, on three pristine Montana acres, their horse, their dogs, their lives are here.

JENNIFER RICHARDSON: Yeah, and when his dad's home, it's all about dad. I tell you, Colton doesn't even want me around. He tells me to go work. He goes, Mommy, you work.

RORY RICHARDSON: He's excited every time. He'll jump up and down and come running and give you a big hug and holler, Daddy, Daddy.

SIEGLER: Back in his truck in North Dakota, Rory says being gone so much is taking its toll on his family, even just six months in.

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

SIEGLER: For now, Rory's just hoping he can switch schedules to get two weeks off at a time. The money he's making here is good. Still, after you factor in what it costs to travel back and forth, the extra housing and food, it's basically the same pay as he made back at the Montana Mill. It's a sobering truth of this economy, and one of the only options for a guy like him now is to travel 600 miles one way just to find a comparable job. Kirk Siegler, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Our reports on the oil rush continue today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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