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A Town In N.D. Is Facing Hard Times As Oil Prices Plummet

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

During the fracking boom a decade ago, the population of Williston, N.D., doubled in size. Oil companies rushed in to drill, creating thousands of jobs. But now demand for oil has plummeted, and the town's fortunes are turning, too. Stacey Vanek Smith from our daily economics podcast The Indicator From Planet Money checked back in on Williston to see how it's doing.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Fallon Justice grew up in Williston. She seems to be involved in nearly every community board and charity effort and outreach program in the town. And she says when she was a kid, it was this small city of, like, 12,000 people, and everybody kind of knew everybody. But when fracking really started to take off around 2008, 2009, the town was totally transformed almost overnight.

FALLON JUSTICE: It got real crazy real fast.

SMITH: Every business had a now hiring sign in the window. The Taco John's was paying 20 bucks an hour. People were sleeping in their cars and pitching tents in the Walmart parking lot. Fallon met her husband Chase around that time. He moved from Montana to Williston in 2008 to work in oil.

CHASE JUSTICE: I was making 42 bucks an hour as a driller.

SMITH: Whoa. That's great.

C JUSTICE: Yeah, I think it was good money for sure.

SMITH: Things in Williston calmed down a lot after 2010. The town grew to accommodate all the people, but everything still revolved around oil, said Fallon Justice.

Does everyone in Williston, like, know what the price of oil is?

F JUSTICE: I would say yes (laughter).

SMITH: Fallon says oil prices are just a regular topic of conversation. Back in 2010, 2011, she'd get texts from people who were excited about how high the price of oil was. Now she says there's just a lot of fear and worry.

F JUSTICE: There's been lots of phone calls with tears between a lot of us.

SMITH: Because, of course, the thing that was fueling its boom back then was oil, and right now oil is in terrible shape. It has been at record lows. Fallon's husband Chase was watching the price of oil a couple months ago.

C JUSTICE: It was brutal. Everybody was kind of just shell shocked.

SMITH: A bunch of stunned oil workers were standing around after lunch, watching the price of oil drop down to $10, to $5, to 0 and then into negative dollars - negative $10, negative $20 down to negative $37 a barrel.

C JUSTICE: None of us had any idea that that could even happen, you know?

F JUSTICE: Oil field is a tricky little beast. When it's rolling hot, it's rolling hot. And it's a lot of hours. It's a lot of money. But when it hits that slump, it hits hard and fast.

SMITH: Oil companies started furloughing people, laying people off, declaring bankruptcy. Fallon says Williston is shrinking.

F JUSTICE: There's a lot of people that moved up here, that brought their families to make this their home. They are moving back, whether it's to Alabama or Louisiana or - you know, like, they've been laid off. They got nothing.

SMITH: But Fallon says that's just oil. Oil is a boom and bust business. It might be bust for a while, but it always comes back.

F JUSTICE: Williston is going to be OK. This isn't the first time. It probably won't be the last.

SMITH: Oil, she says, will come back. Williston will come back. Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.