BISMARCK, N.D. -- One of the busiest McDonald's in the country is 225 miles northwest of here, in Williston, N.D., population 14,716.
Snapping up those Big Macs are the roustabouts, roughnecks and other oil workers who don't get counted in the Census, but still look for a meal after a day's work in the Bakken Shale. The formation surrounds Williston and has turned North Dakota into one of the country's top oil-producing states.
But the roads that lead from the Golden Arches to the oil fields are getting crushed by the hundreds of trucks that carry the oil field workers and their tons of equipment.
And it's all but impossible to find housing for the workers, or the teachers who would teach their children -- if the workers had homes to move their families into.
It's quite a reversal from 80 straight years of declining population on the high plains. It has boosted local businesses and employment just as the rest of the country found itself mired in economic woe.
Oil money has filled the state's coffers to the point that the Legislature was able to enact major road-building programs in its most recent session, while also passing $500 million in tax cuts. Boardings at the Williston airport have quadrupled from 10 years ago, and there are now five flights a day from Denver.
But it has state and local officials scrambling to catch up, while keeping in mind that booms go bust, too.
"There are certain things that, in hindsight, we should have thought about beforehand," state Rep. Bob Skarphol (R), told a gathering of state oil and gas officials from around the country gathered here in the state capital for their mid-year meeting.
Skarphol, Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R) and other North Dakota officials outlined for the assembled state oil and gas officials yesterday some of the trials and successes in the past few years as production has surged in their state, and offered some advice to those who might find themselves suddenly in the midst of one of the country's blossoming shale plays.
The Bakken is similar to many of the shale formations that drilling companies have tapped into in recent years with advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing that make it profitable to crack open rock a mile or so underground and pry loose oil and gas.
But the Bakken differs in that it is mostly oil, which has stayed profitable amid a glut of natural gas. And it's far less densely populated than other shale plays like the Marcellus in Pennsylvania and the Barnett near Fort Worth, Texas.
Still, that doesn't make the people who are there any less irritated when their road home is crushed by trucks, or just jammed with them, or they get surprised by wellpad construction next to their house when they arrive.
"They're gonna lose their sense of humor if they can't get down their road," said Dalrymple, who joined the panel, and described the state's road infrastructure as "under siege."
But, he added, "In spite of the challenges, we are quite happy. We're still just getting used to the idea of being an oil and gas state."
Dalrymple said the Williston McDonald's is the "No. 2 grossing" store in the country, an account that has also appeared in at least one recent newspaper article. But McDonald's Midwest Region Marketing Supervisor Brian Gist said that is not the case.
Gist sent Greenwire a statement saying that, "Recent reports about the Williston McDonald’s may have inadvertently been taken out of context. The Owner/Operators in the North Dakota media market containing Williston received national honors from McDonald’s for their recent successes."
Gist did not respond to a question about what the "recent successes" are.
But state oil and gas officials were warned that they need to prepare for more than surging revenue and clogged roads.
"Your regulatory agency will be overwhelmed. Trust me, you don't have enough people," said Lynn Helms, North Dakota director of mineral resources. "Your permitting staff, you don't have enough. ... Your permitting machine, it can't just be fast. It has to be good."
Helms said the state has added 14 full-time positions to its regulatory staff to handle the burden. But he stressed that the state government has remained "business-friendly and oil-and-gas friendly."
While the Legislature has the ball rolling on roads and water, the state and industry have also come up against a lack of pipelines to deliver its payload to market.
Beyond the business problems, that means that every day, a lot of gas is literally going up in flames.
Oil and gas come up the wellbore together, and the oil can be stored. But without a pipeline, there's nowhere to put the gas. Because of that, about 28 percent of the gas produced is being burned in the open, he said.
"That's one of the tigers that has us by the tail," Helms said. But the state created a pipeline agency to help facilitate the laying of new pipelines.
In many cases, the oil and gas underground aren't owned by the landowner, a situation often called "split estate." In many areas, that's a recipe for conflict as homeowners and ranchers suddenly have noisy, dirty industrial construction sites near their homes and on their land, with all the profit going to someone else.
The state has "surface-owner protection" laws ordering drillers to notify surrounding property owners before beginning construction of a well. It also requires companies to notify owners before sending crews to pick out the wellpad location. He hopes that will avoid situations where landowners come home to find a surveyor putting in stakes next to their home.
"If that happens, you're starting in a hole with that guy," Helms said. "You might've lost him."
Helms said there have been complaints that drilling is marring the prairie with "over-development." But Skarphol has said the rush of development has come with little pushback from national environmental groups.
"We've been fortunate. They don't like our winters," Skarphol said to laughter.
Oil production, with all of its benefits and problems, is far from over, Helms said. There's another 26,000 wells to be drilled in the Bakken, and the state expects around 2,000 to be drilled each year.
Recalling 1980s boom, bust
But while they deal with the boom, local officials like Brad Bekkedahl, vice president of the Bismarck City Commission, remembers the problems with that followed the last boom in the 1980s.
The city bought land and built infrastructure. When the bust came, the city had enormous debt, without the revenue to pay for it. At one point, the debt consumed 40 percent of the city's budget.
"We prosper and we suffer with the industry," Bekkedahl said.
This time the city is trying to find a balance between adjusting to the rapid growth without making financial commitments it can't meet if the industry goes away.
"When Mr. Bakken comes to town, no one can prepare for this," Bekkedahl said. "It's a good challenge to have, and there's a lot of people that wish they had it. But it's a challenge."