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Worker shortage bites the Bakken

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Posted at 8:13 AM, Jul 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-22 10:13:39-04

Not even high-paying jobs in the Bakken oil fields of eastern Montana and North Dakota have been enough to fend off a growing shortage of skilled workers.

The problem has reached the point where North Dakota state officials are worried that workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic slowdown won't be returning.

In his monthly report on North Dakota's oil and gas production, Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms said at the current price point for oil, there should be anywhere from 20 to 25 hydraulic fracturing crews working across the Bakken. Instead, inspectors report only eight frac crews in the field this week.

"The companies are trying with all their might to hire," said Helms, who heads the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources. "They just aren't finding employees who want to come back into the industry and come back to North Dakota."

Helms pointed to the shortage of workers as a big reason North Dakota's oil production remained flat from April to May of this year, increasing by just four-tenths of one percent.

North Dakota's oil industry did set a couple of new records in the month of May. The number of producing oil wells statewide reached a new, all-time high at 16,612. Also, McKenzie County, south of Williston, became the first in the state with more than 5,000 active oil wells. To put that in context, in April of 2006, the entire state had only 3,525 active wells.

Regarding the worker shortage, Helms explained that during the depth of the pandemic, when oil field activity slowed to a crawl in North Dakota, many workers were let go and left the state, most of them moving to Texas.

"Texas had more rigs running, significantly higher activity than here, and no winter," said Helms. "The workers have been slow to come back here, if at all."

Helms believes it's going to take both salary and housing incentives to entice workers back to North Dakota, especially given the rhetoric around fossil fuels that discourage people from returning to work in the industry.

"There is some concern this could be a long-term trend," said Helms. "If we want to get back on the growth curve, we need to double or triple the number of hydraulic fracturing crews working in the state. Companies are finding it very, very difficult to find employees."