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NDSU Researchers Create New Model to Help Western North Dakota Oil Patch Estimate Growth

Fargo, N.D. – The start of the recent oil boom in western North Dakota set off a historic period of growth for the area, complete with challenges.

A lightning-quick population explosion led to housing shortages. Increased activity in small towns and on roads led to infrastructure concerns. School class sizes tick rapidly upward.    

It’s a road seldom traveled for a state used to focusing on retention rather than expansion. Nancy Hodur, NDSU research assistant professor, and Dean Bangsund, research scientist, in agribusiness and applied economics at NDSU, are providing research as the region acclimates to such growth.

“We are attempting to provide guidance in an uncertain future with regards to rapid change,” Bangsund said. “There is a high demand for projections that are based on a good understanding of what is going on at this point. We are putting numbers to questions, so the information can be used for planning and educational efforts.”

Hodur and Bangsund have more than 30 years of combined experience producing impact assessment research. They started working two years ago on issues related to the oil boom in western North Dakota with a study commissioned by the city of Dickinson as it attempted to draw up a strategic plan for future growth.

A primary aspect of Dickinson’s plan was coming up with population estimates. Traditional methods using census data were inaccurate due to the constant influx of new workers.  

Hodur and Bangsund came up with new models, using employment and housing as a guide. The numbers were astounding.

The research showed Dickinson could reach about 64,000 residents, including temporary workers, by 2020. The 2010 census put Dickinson’s population at 17,787.

The need to understand and quickly react to the unprecedented growth in western North Dakota was evident. A wave of requests for Hodur and Bangsund to perform similar studies on other towns followed, morphing into a comprehensive look at population trends of the entire Williston basin, which includes parts of North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana.

“We have been going 900 miles-an-hour for the last two years,” Hodur said. “This work is absolutely spot on with the mission of this land-grant university. We take the skills, knowledge and expertise of the university and make sure it gets out there, and gets to the people who need it.”

Hodur and Bangsund have done studies on employment, housing, oil-well growth, economic impact and student enrollment for communities across the Bakken oil formation and the state of North Dakota. In addition, the researchers maintain a healthy workload of projects from outside the oil and gas industry. They have completed work for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, and the biofuel, power and agriculture industries.

“It’s not just the oil and gas industry driving this growth,” Hodur said. “You’ve got a thriving agriculture industry, the unemployment rates in the state are among the nation’s leaders, you have a strong technology corridor in the eastern part of the state and North Dakota exports were at an all-time high in 2012. Many things are going well.”

Hodur and Bangsund regularly update their western North Dakota research projects. It’s important to adapt some projections often due to the fast-changing nature of circumstances in the area, Bangsund said. They are also eyeing another major project on workforce characteristics in western North Dakota to provide an even more accurate assessment of population.

The study will require a primary data collection effort that will likely include personal interviews, focus groups and a written survey of both individuals and businesses. It will be a lengthy process. However, the data could help smooth the road for many communities in the area dealing with a population explosion by shining a light on the needs and makeup of its people.

 “We have an activity in western North Dakota that is beyond historic precedent,” Bangsund said. “Not only for the people that live there, but for the rest of the state. There are very few areas in the country that could, over a short timeframe, show they have had the same rate of growth. We are enthusiastic about the chance to lend some guidance on what this means to the state. And we feel fortunate that we’ve been given the opportunity to represent NDSU in a very public manner.”

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