Bakken Oil Boom Gives Wings To Williston

 - August 7, 2012, 7:00 PM

The Bakken shale, a vast, oil-rich 200,000-square-mile formation that stretches across Western North Dakota and into parts of Montana and Canada, represents a significant opportunity for aviation. Beneath it lies an estimated 18 billion barrels of oil. Between three and four billion barrels–as much oil as there is under the Gulf of Mexico–are recoverable using current technology. Exploration of the Bakken is still in the early stages, but as many as 40,000 production wells could eventually be drilled in the area. Each well will need a full-time crew of between one and six people.

Once tiny Williston, N.D., is ground zero for the Bakken. In the 2010 census it had a population of 15,000. In less than two years that number has almost doubled–and is still growing–fueled by oil exploration and drilling. The town’s 3,000 hotel rooms are full every night. In 2011, Williston issued building permits for $380 million worth of new construction. This year, it will likely authorize $400 million more. In town, land that once sold for a few thousand dollars an acre is now fetching $180,000 per acre.

The non-tower Williston airport, Sloulin Field (KISN), began to see traffic take off in late December 2010. Today, it is still growing, stretching the airport and its staff to their limits. At the airport’s sole FBO, Western Edge Aviation, manager Ed Fandrich says GA traffic has increased 50-fold since late 2010. At any given time there can be 20 private jets on his ramp. Sales of jet-A have gone from 5,000 gallons a week to 25,000 in a little more than a year. He had to strip everything out of the small FBO lounge and convert it to a high-density seating terminal to accommodate up to 158 charter passengers who use it every day, and park outdoor port-a-potties on the side of the building. Monthly charter enplanements are running better than 1,300. “We miss [counting] some of the charter enplanements, I know we do,” said airport manager Steve Kjergaard.

The charters fly in daily in 328Jets, Brasilias and Metroliners, bringing in crews from Denver, Houston, Vernal and Salt Lake City. Fandrich has had to hire four more line workers and bring in another fuel truck.

The peak rush is generally between 8 and 10 a.m., but there are days it stays busy all day. “It gets pretty busy some days,” said Fandrich. “This summer it is supposed to be even worse.”

On the commercial side, enplanements have gone from 300 a month to 3,000 since 2010, said Kjergaard, stretching a new terminal, built for 500 per month in 2004. Williston used to be staffed during daylight hours, but now Kjergaard has an expanded staff there from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. seven days a week. “All of the airplanes that come in here are full,” he said. Currently, only Great Lakes Airlines serves Williston.

Airport Expansion Unlikely

To the outside observer, the simple solution to all this providence would be to expand the airport, improve its facilities and bring in bigger airplanes. Both Fandrich and Kjergaard agree that is unlikely. The City of Williston owns the airport. As the city has grown, an airport that used to be outside the city is now in the middle of it, and the land it sits on has a high development value. “They could make a killing off the land here,” said Fandrich.

The other problem is the airport’s main runway: While it is 6,600 feet long, it has a weight limit of just 25,000 pounds. “About the biggest thing we can bring in here is a Saab 340,” Kjergaard said. Bigger aircraft can land at Minot, a two-hour drive away, but that airport is also under stress. Designed for 100,000 passengers annually, Minot has seen its traffic grow from 5,000 commercial enplanements per month to 19,000. The FAA recently estimated that North Dakota airports affected by the Bakken boom would need $400 million worth of new investment over the next five years just to stay even with demand.

Given these limitations, the prospects of capital improvements at the current Williston airport are remote. “Nobody is going to sink money into this site if we have to relocate,” Kjergaard acknowledges.

The airport will likely be relocated, but it will be expensive–Kjergaard estimates the cost at $100 million to $150 million–and take years. Currently, the airport master plan is in the process of being revised and a final decision on modernization versus relocation will be made thereafter. Meanwhile, Williston will soldier on.

“Up until this happened, this used to be a good ’ol little airport,” Fandrich said. He admits the growth has been good for business, including the small flight-training operation on the field. Oil workers, flush with cash, are taking flying lessons. The instructors, Fandrich said, are staying “really busy.”