As Bakken oil booms, so does crime

Oil drilling rig near Stanley, North Dakota
An oil drilling rig near Stanley, North Dakota. The well is being drilled into the Bakken Formation, one of the largest contiguous deposits of oil and natural gas in the United States. The boom is forcing law enforcement to deal with spiking crimes ranging from drug trafficking and gun offenses to prostitution.
KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

MATTHEW BROWN, Associated Press

GLASGOW, Mont. (AP) — Booming oil production across a wide expanse of the Northern Plains is forcing law enforcement from the U.S. and Canada to deal with spiking crimes ranging from drug trafficking and gun offenses to prostitution.

Officials say up to 30,000 workers could descend on the Bakken oil fields of Montana, North Dakota and Saskatchewan in the next few years. The rural region is emerging as one of the top oil producing areas of North America, and the recent kidnapping and brutal murder of Montana teacher Sherry Arnold has drawn more attention to the changes brought on by the rapid pace of drilling.

In the wake of the killing in Sidney, federal prosecutors were holding a two-day retreat that began Monday for dozens of police, border agents and other law enforcement to craft a common strategy to deal with rising crime. Two men are in custody in Arnold's case, which left residents shaken and led to a rise in applications to carry concealed weapons.

The town in Montana is in the heart of the booming oil fields, its once-quiet streets now jammed with oil company trucks and hotels booked full with workers.

U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter said Monday that the retreat was already in the works before Arnold's death. But he said the killing pointed to the need for better coordination among law enforcement as the boom continues.

"It underscores the necessity and need for this meeting," Cotter said. "The population flux will naturally bring increased criminal activity to the area. It is imperative that our law enforcement establish open lines of communication between each other to ensure they are as responsive as possible."

In communities like Sidney and Williston, N.D., assaults, traffic offenses and other crimes are on the rise as drilling accelerates to meet the nation's strong appetite for domestic fuels.

The situation is exacerbated by a housing shortage that is spurring the construction of sprawling "man-camps" that can accommodate hundreds of out-of-state oil workers.

Government officials say the boom could last another decade or more as companies tap into a reserve estimated by the U.S. Geological Survey to hold more than 4 billion barrels of crude.

The suspects in Arnold's killing -- 48-year-old Lester Van Water and 22-year-old Michael Spell -- allegedly traveled to the Bakken from Colorado in search of jobs in the oil patch. Court records suggest Spell and Waters had been smoking crack cocaine and were living out of Waters' vehicle when they snatched Arnold off a Sidney street in the pre-dawn hours of Jan. 7.

Industry representatives say companies go to lengths to ensure the workers they hire won't cause trouble -- either on the job or in the community.

Drug tests and background checks are standard for many companies, said Kari Cutting with North Dakota Petroleum Council. She added that the lack of housing can quickly deter would-be workers who show up without a position already secured.

"The fact is that neither of the gentleman involved in that unfortunate crime were involved in the oil industry," Cutting said. "We do know there are challenges. Any opportunity has challenges that need to be overcome, and we want to be part of the solution in all this."

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.