North Dakota Oil Patch Sees Exodus of Workers

Killdeer City, N.D., Administrator Matt Oase can’t help but notice that the community’s population is not what it was six months ago, and wonder what that might mean for the 2020 census count.

Apartment complexes are advertising move-in specials such as one month of free rent, a sign that they have rooms sitting empty since oil workers left town after losing jobs.

Entire fleets of pickup trucks, a staple in the oil industry, have idled. At least 20 trucks are parked outside an oil company near Oase’s city office, the Bismarck Tribune reported.

“They have been sitting there a couple months now,” he said.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, it caused global travel to fall, sending oil demand and prices cratering in March and causing activity to slow down significantly in the Bakken. Those developments prompted layoffs and an exodus of oil workers at an inopportune time amid the 2020 census, which will determine the level of federal aid eligible for Killdeer and every other American community over the next 10 years.

The virus itself made matters worse. Killdeer and other oil patch communities had planned to promote the census by setting up booths at local events where people could fill it out online, but many of those gatherings never materialized this spring and summer.

“All that was scrapped due to the pandemic,” said Oase, who chairs the Dunn County/Killdeer Complete Count Committee.

U.S. Census Bureau data show that 52% of Killdeer’s estimated residents have responded to the census, below North Dakota’s overall self-response rate of 64%. The figures are lower in other oil patch communities, including 37% in Watford City and 51% in Williston. The state’s four biggest oil-producing counties range from a 32% rate in McKenzie to 48% in Williams.

Those figures, however, “are probably not a great reflection of our responses,” said Williams County spokeswoman Lindsey Harriman, who co-chairs the county’s complete count committee. A number of factors are at play that could show lower census participation than the reality, she said.

The self-response rate does not include residents whose data is collected by census workers knocking door-to-door, which has taken place over the past month and will continue through September. The Census Bureau provides a statewide figure indicating that those efforts have added a significant number of responses, although it does not break down the data by county. When tallied with the self-response rate, 86% of North Dakotans’ census information has been recorded.

Other factors include a delay in processing information from residents who responded without using the identification number mailed to them this past spring, as well as census forms that went to vacant households, Harriman said.

“We don’t really know,” she said of the true census response rate in Williams County. “All we can say at this point is please still fill it out if you haven’t done it yet.”

The 2010 census failed to account for the explosive population growth experienced in the Bakken over the course of the past decade, and community leaders have been hoping for high census participation this time around.

Still, the nature of some oil jobs — on for a few weeks, off for a few weeks — poses a unique challenge when it comes to the census. Some workers have families in other states that they go home to when they have time off.

Local leaders promoting the census say workers, nevertheless, should be counted in North Dakota if they lived here April 1, 2020, and spent more than half their time in the state.

“We always knew here in oil country that we were going to be up against people getting counted,” Oase said.

The 2010 census recorded 751 residents in Killdeer. Oase was anticipating that at least 1,600 residents might respond this year, but his expectations have dimmed somewhat. Now he hopes to see at least 1,200.

It’s unclear exactly how many people have left the region, but he gauges population changes by tracking city water, sewage and garbage bills and school enrollment.