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Crime Rate Increases with Oil Boom

posted on April 17, 2014

Despite unseasonable weather in much of the nation this week, winter is slowly loosening its grip on America – and its economy.

According to the Commerce Department, retail sales rose by 1.1 percent in March. That’s the largest increase in 18 months, and it was driven, primarily, by a 3.1 percent spike in auto sales.

General merchandise sales, which include transactions at department stores and big retailers like Wal-Mart and Target, increased 1.9 percent in their strongest single-month gain in seven years.

The government also reports that builders started work on 946,000 homes last month, up nearly 3 percent from February. But the number of U.S. workers applying for initial unemployment benefits rose last week to 304,000.

There is one place, however, where unemployment is virtually non-existent. That place, of course, is North Dakota, where an oil boom is fueling unrivaled economic growth. But the prosperity is not without problems.

Crime Rate Increases with Oil Boom

Sometime in the next two months, the state of North Dakota will join an exclusive club of states producing one million barrels of oil per day.

Figures released last week reveal daily production in the Bakken region has topped 950,000 barrels.  Only Texas is producing more black gold than North Dakota.

But oil production is not the only thing booming in western North Dakota and eastern Montana: Crime is also skyrocketing.

Local law enforcement officials say they are overwhelmed, as some new residents migrate to the region looking for work, but often finding something else.

Patrick Johnsen, Oil worker: "Middle of winter, icy roads, bald tires -- 'Please, God, let me make it' -- $11.72 in my pocket, but just the hope that there was opportunity there."

Patrick Johnsen arrived from the Chicago suburbs searching for a fresh start in the oil-bearing shale that’s under thousands of square miles of high plains.

Johnsen had previous bouts with drugs and alcohol and was fired from his oil rig job after being arrested for drunk driving.

Others are coming to the modern-day Gold Rush and getting involved in more serious crimes of weapons and drug trafficking including methamphetamine and heroin.

Timothy Purdon, U.S. Attorney, District of North Dakota: "They follow the money."

The number of drug offenses and other crimes has tripled since 2009. The new county jail is already overcrowded. The FBI is planning a permanent office in the region, and the ATF plus the DEA have added or diverted resources aimed at fighting crime.

Timothy Purdon, U.S. Attorney, District of North Dakota: "Right now, the place to be in terms of a lot of money flowing around - one of them is Williston, North Dakota."

Local law enforcement, like Williams County Sheriff Scott Busching, used to know most of the people in this once sleepy area around Williston. But now, like the oil business itself, population and problems are on the rise.

Scott Busching, Sheriff, Williams County, N.D. "Along with the good folk and the hard workers and people like that that come up here _ and we have many, many of those _ you get the hangers-on. You get pimps. You get the whores. You get the drug dealers."

Meth is not new here. But officials say “mom-and-pop” operations were greatly limited by new legislation. Now the drug is coming in from Mexico and in much larger quantities.   

Scott Busching, Sheriff, Williams County, N.D.: "Do we have problems? You bet. Does everybody else have problems? Yes they do. Are we going to come out on top? You're damn right."

The sheriff admits life as he knew it before in the Williston area has changed forever.

Even shipping the oil from the Bakken is creating problems in other regions.

Railroad cars carrying the crude have been the subject of much scrutiny. Two big events, one in Canada in 2013 and the other near Fargo earlier this year, are driving proposed safety changes involving the tankers and the crews that operate them.

Senator John Thune wants railroad companies to alleviate the bottleneck of freight cars nationwide. Last week, the South Dakota Republican called on rail companies to plan for the future needs of shippers in the region, especially in light of the projected growth of crude oil production and increased demand for coal, to ensure that all rail shippers receive adequate and efficient rail service. 

One possible relief for the shortage of rail cars would be the approval of the U.S. route of the Keystone XL pipeline.

The five-year review of the Canada-to-Texas pipeline has allowed supporters and opponents time to make their cases. Last week, 11 Senate Democrats urged the president to approve the pipeline.

The most strident opposition has been in the Cornhusker State, where some residents contend the pipeline will contaminate groundwater and contribute to pollution.

And over the weekend, this 80-acre message was completed near Neligh in northeast Nebraska. It reads “Heartland #NoKXL.”

Tags: Bakken crime Keystone XL Pipeline news North Dakota oil oil production rail shortage


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