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By Erik Burgess, Forum staff writer, Published May 24 2012

1 million people in ND by 2015? Probably not

BISMARCK – The population of North Dakota could reach 1 million people in the near future but probably not by 2015, state officials say.

At the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference on Wednesday, Lynn Helms, the state director of mineral resources, said oil production could reach 1 million barrels a day by 2015 and that boom in production could bring the state’s population to 1 million.

This was interpreted by some as a projection that North Dakota could hit 1 million people by 2015, but Helms said his population estimate was actually pegged for 2020 to 2030.

“I don’t know where the ‘1 million people by 2015’ came from, but that would scare the pants off me, too,” Helms said.

It’s a challenge to track the growth in the Oil Patch, officials said Thursday.

In response to the million-person question, Kevin Iverson, director of the state census office, said that the speed of population growth in

western North Dakota is one reason why it’s so difficult to map.

“We’re in a really unique situation,” he said. “I can’t tell you those numbers are wrong. I can’t tell you they’re right.”

Iverson said other difficulties arise from the fact that censuses typically count residents, and many workers in the oil fields do not live in the area permanently.

Rod Backman, chairman of the state’s Census Committee, said his office is working with the U.S. Census Bureau to help them better predict growth in the state, especially out west. July 2011 census estimates, the latest available, have North Dakota at about 683,000 people, but those numbers do not include what Backman’s office is estimating at up to 24,000 in oil field work camps.

“We have communicated to the (national) census that there’s a lot more going on here than what they’re estimates are reflecting,” he said.

Nancy Hodur, an assistant research professor at North Dakota State University, said she and a colleague are finishing a study in Dickinson to develop a better methodology for calculating population growth in the oil boom. The methodology, she said, is based primarily on job availability and growth.

“That’s what’s driving the growth out there – jobs,” she said. “So basically we’re modeling potential change in employment as a result of the Oil Patch.”

Helms said his population projections have been based on an “old model” which takes the number of available jobs multiplied by 2.5 and that he worked with Jobs Services to calculate a starting number.

Typically, Hodur said population numbers are based on numerous factors, including birth and death rates and migration into and out of the state. But because the situation in the oil fields is so new, Hodur said that sort of historical data isn’t available.

“We don’t have the historic data yet. This has all transpired so quickly,” she said.

Helms also said he consulted with Hodur before making his population projection, but Hodur made clear that her NDSU research team has not given out any population estimates and will not until their study is completed.

“We have worked with Lynn, but no, we did not work with Lynn to come up with that number,” she said.

Forum Communications reporter Amy Dalrymple contributed to this report.