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Nancy Hodur, research assistant professor, Published March 01 2013

Spotlight on Economics: Population projections for Williston Basin

The recent and unprecedented expansion of the petroleum industry in western

North Dakota is presenting numerous challenges for communities. Resources and infrastructure are strained. State and local decision makers, regulators, developers and others are in need of information about the scope and scale of the growth and development of the petroleum industry to plan for the future.

Last spring, efforts began on several projects aimed at providing information that can be used by decision makers as they struggle to manage the many challenges associated with rapid growth and plan for the future delivery of public services.

One of the most basic metrics used to gauge response and guide the planning

process is population projections. Unfortunately, standard demographic models and methods historically used to project population are inadequate because of the very rapid rate of change in western North Dakota and the unique nature of the Williston Basin workforce. Accordingly, new models using different metrics were developed to estimate the current service population and to make projections of future population growth.

"Service population" is a term that was created to describe the unique

characteristics of the population in the Williston Basin. In addition to long-term normal residents, the service population includes others who live elsewhere but work in North Dakota and those who live in North Dakota temporarily.

Often, the workforce associated with oil field development activities, such as drilling, hydraulic fracturing (fracking), and construction and gathering system construction (pipelines), consists of workers who do not make North Dakota their permanent residence. Other workers associated with oilfield development may make their residence in North Dakota only temporarily.

Pipeline workers are a good example. After the pipeline is completed, the worker moves to the next job site. Including that portion of the population who do not make North Dakota their permanent residence is important because those individuals still need housing and demand public and private goods and services.

Because expansion in the oil and gas industry and associated employment is

driving growth, a model based on oil field development was created to forecast regional employment, housing and population based on various oil and gas development scenarios.

A second model based on an inventory of nontraditional housing, such as crew camps, hotels and conditional use permits and potential housing build-out, also was developed. The two methods were used to estimate the service population in Williston and resulted in very similar estimates of population.

Service population projections using the employment model and the housing model for Williston and six surrounding townships adjacent to the city were estimated to be from 37,000 to 41,000, respectively. The employment model and the housing models' 2017 projections were within 1 percent at service population to within 2 percent at 54,000 and 53,000, respectively.

For perspective, the 2010 U.S. census population for the city of Williston and the six surrounding townships was approximately 18,000.

The explosion in activity in the petroleum sector in western North Dakota has created tremendous opportunities and challenges. Estimates of the current service population suggest continued high demand and strain on infrastructure and public services.

It is hoped that the results of current research efforts will provide leaders with information they need to help make decisions that address both the opportunities and challenges created by the development of the Bakken and Three Forks oil shale formations.