In the United States, Williston, the oil town that wants to become sustainable

In the American imagination, the north dakotathese are the vast plains where the future president Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) was a cowboy and bison hunter at the end of the 19th century.e century. A national park is dedicated to it, with its iconic Little Missouri meander. At the exit of this American paradise is a brand new four-lane road. Very quickly, going up towards the north, the gleams of flares appear: natural gas is burned next to derricks.

On the sides, prefabs serve as a camp for workers in the oil industry. It’s the arrival in Williston, a boomtown of oil prospectors, which experiences boom and bust to the rhythm of oil prices. We had planned to go there in early 2021, when the oil was at its lowest, to tell his agony. The city had been shattered by the Covid-19. Its brand new airport, inaugurated in October 2019 with six daily flights to serve Minneapolis (Minnesota) and Denver, was almost at a standstill.

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The 273 million dollars (269 million euros) of investments suddenly seemed quite useless. The boss of Outrigger Energy, Dave Keanini, aroused a bit of compassion: he had just completed a factory and a network of natural gas pipelines to serve the wells of the region. But the leader had surprised us with his optimism: oil, it goes, it comes, and it will be reborn. Eighteen months later, in fact, a completely new story seems to be unfolding, that of the consolidation of the city.

A far west side

Until 1956, there was almost nothing in this city founded at the end of the 19the century by a railroad tycoon, before oil was found there. Alas, the black liquid was not abundant enough, and the city was slowly declining. The discovery of technology to exploit shale oil and gas by hydraulic injection will change the situation. Between 2008 and 2014, the population doubled, reaching 24,000 inhabitants. This is the time when one does not stay in Williston: one goes there to make a fortune. “Oil and gas is the playground of young men. They make money and work hard”comments Shawn Wenko, director of economic development for the city of Williston.

Read the multimedia infographic: Shale oil rush in North Dakota

The population, at the time, had a wild west side, with its alcohol, its prostitution and its crime accompanying the prospectors. This is still somewhat the case today, to see the customers of the steak house of the city, invested by sturdy fellows wearing Stetsons. Then, as in all the boomtowns of the West, the oil crisis of 2014 burst the bubble. “It was less devastating than in the 1980s, because the technology had evolved”, explains Shawn Wenko. The wells continue to spit out their hydrocarbons without much to do.

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