SPLIT UP BY ECONOMY
RIFLE — Niki Smith and her two young sons rarely sit around the table and have family dinners anymore. Nowadays, they say, they tend to just snack.
The boys don’t get to toss footballs in the yard with their dad, and Niki finds herself doing all the chores around the ranch, including taking care of their eight horses.
Her husband, Cody Smith, a longtime worker in the oil and gas industry, is not home. To make ends meet, he’s working for weeks at a time in North Dakota, the epicenter of the new U.S. oil boom.
The Smiths are among a number of local families experiencing separation driven by economic need since natural gas exploration dropped off in western Garfield County in 2009. It’s also part of a national phenomenon as stable jobs that pay well become more scarce and more people must travel for work to hang onto an increasingly precarious middle-class lifestyle.
But it splits up families for long stretches of time.
A FAMILY HOME
“We moved here from Greeley and lived in New Castle for six months and we’ve been in Rifle for the last nine years,” Niki Smith said.
The couple purchased a ranch off of Silt-Mesa Road halfway between Silt and New Castle.
Cody Smith, who has worked in the oil and gas industry since he was 22, eventually took a job as a project manager with Sterling Construction in Rifle, which has taken him to Watford City, North Dakota, for construction of a 15-mile pipeline.
He started the job in late September, and won’t be home for another visit until Thanksgiving.
“It’s hard,” said Niki, clearly missing her husband of 13 years. “And winter is going to be especially hard with the chores. But I do have help from our friends and I talk to (Cody) all the time on the phone.”
The kids miss their dad.
“I feel kind of sad and bored,” said 10-year-old Colton. “He used to take us out to eat and we’d go roping.”
The Smiths’ older son put it more succinctly.
“It sucks,” said Tyler, 11. “I don’t like him being gone and everything. We used to throw the football or do something he wanted to do.”
Thanks to the Bakken shale formation and hydraulic fracturing, North Dakota is second behind Texas among states in U.S. oil production and has doubled and tripled the populations of towns such as Watford City and Williston.
It’s a classic boom, as oil and gas industry workers come for weeks or months at a time, earning good paychecks and eventually going back home.
Niki has not visited her husband in Watford City and said she doesn’t intend to.
“According to what he says and what everyone else says, there’s nothing to do up there,” she said with a shrug.
However, she did meet him in Las Vegas for the 2014 Professional Bull Riders event with several ranching friends. Both the Smiths are involved in putting on the Garfield County Fair — namely the family rodeo — and Cody serves on the fair board.
Watford City and Williston sit atop the biggest lake of oil to be discovered in North America since Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay in 1968. The production boom, as it always does in the petroleum business, has brought jobs, opportunity and money. Property values have skyrocketed.
But not without a price.
Rental rates have increased and housing is hard to find, which means many families can’t afford to live there even if workers wanted to bring spouses and children.
“It’s not easy to find housing here in Watford City right now,” said Mayor Brent Sanford. “There are a lot of places with extremely high rents.”
Crime also is up.
And families like the Smiths don’t want to go there.
LOTS OF OPPORTUNITY
The boom creates business opportunities beyond individual jobs.
Gould Construction, a longtime employer in Garfield County, has about 14 people working in Williston on infrastructure.
“This is the third year we’ve been there because there is not enough work here,” said company president Mark Gould. “We had to have a place to keep busy and that’s why we went to North Dakota.”
But Williston has few places for his employees to stay, Gould said.
“A one-bedroom apartment goes for about $2,000 a month, Gould said. “Most of the guys up there live in RV-type housing. And it can get to be 20-30 degrees below zero.”
Gould Construction is building water and sewer pipes, curbs and gutters, and pouring concrete in Williston, Gould said.
“These oil and gas guys are working two weeks on and one week off,” Gould said. “There are about 1 millions barrels a day of exported oil out of North Dakota.”
The workers come from all over, including Colorado, Wyoming and Texas to earn large paychecks.
According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which did a series on Minnesotans and Wisconsonites working the fields, the hours may be long, but the pay is big — as much as $100,000 per year.
It isn’t a new phenomenon for workers to leave their homes to earn a comfortable, middle-class income, but it’s not easy on the families, according to Patty Limerick, faculty director of the Center of the American West in Denver.
“It’s a very interesting contradiction that in order to get such robust wages, you have to sacrifice quality of life,” Limerick said. “And for these people, the condition is where the rigs are located. The families are separated and it does put a lot of pressure and stress on the spouses and the children.”
Limerick said that leaving home to make money is as old as the gold rush days in the 1800s in California, when people came from all over the country to seek wealth.
“It took a while and the 49ers (referring to the gold-seekers in 1849) were often melancholy and lonely,” Limerick said. “They would write letters that would say, ‘Give my love to mother, if she’s still alive,’ because it took so long for a letter to get from California to Connecticut.”
But even today, families still feel the separation — not only oil and gas workers, but such families as those of New York stockbrokers who live in the city during the week and come home briefly on the weekends, Limerick said.
“We’ve certainly had situations where people have made those choices,” Limerick said. “But it might be just what we’re doing in post-industrial America.”
HOPING FOR FUTURE
Niki Smith isn’t wallowing in pity. Like other oil and gas “widows,” she is making the best of it. Some families did not want to share their stories or make it public knowledge that their husbands were out of town for an extended amount of time.
“I just can’t,” one woman told the Post Independent. “My husband doesn’t want people to know that he’s gone for two weeks at a time, and I can understand where he’s coming from.”
For Niki, she just hopes that in the future her husband will be transferred to a job closer to home. His current job is expected to be completed by Dec. 10.
“It would be nice if it was something that was three hours away, like Vernal, Utah,” Niki said. “I work for the school district part-time and I’m pretty flexible. I could take the kids on a three-hour trip. But North Dakota is a 12-hour drive.”
Unless the oil and gas industry comes backs to western Colorado, Niki Smith said she does not see her husband working near home any time soon.
“It would be nice if his job was closer,” Niki said. “We’ve been too involved in this community to leave.”
Still, the situation is difficult.
“We don’t like it,” Niki said. “But we’re making the best of it.”
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