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Sidney 2.0: The Town I Never Heard Of

As I type this post, I’m bouncing through turbulence on an airplane taking me 1,000 miles in the opposite direction from where I need to be this weekend: Sidney, Mont.

I’m flying home to Seattle, but in just a few days I’ll trade skyscrapers and saltwater for oil rigs and prairie.

I’m a lot more excited for the latter trip.

My name is Amy Sisk. I’m a student journalist at The University of Montana in Missoula, and I have never traveled further east in the Treasure State than Fairmont Hot Springs. For those of you unfamiliar with Montana’s geography, that’s not even a third of the way through the state!

So why am I going to spend an extended weekend in a small town I had never heard of until a month ago?

Because Sidney’s sitting on top of a pool of black gold. It’s a modern-day oil boomtown, and this isn’t its first time at the rodeo. It started experiencing an oil boom in the mid-20th century that ended when oil prices fell in the 1980s.

The oil boom in Sidney began again in 2008 even though the Bakken Oil Shale that lies underneath Canada, North Dakota, and Montana was  discovered in shale rocks deep below the surface in 1996. Using new technologies like horizontal drilling and fracking, corporations pump out gallon after gallon of the lucrative material, which in turn pumps millions and millions of dollars into the local and state economies.

Sidney’s population is expected to double over the next few years. “Man camps” scatter the countryside, filled at night by the influx of oil workers, truck drivers and others working to service operations in the field. Visitors find it difficult to book hotel rooms because oil companies have reserved beds for their workers months in advance. Local businesses cannot retain employees, even if they offer large paychecks. McDonalds workers make $15 per hour, but the restaurant has had to hire international students from as far away as Jamaica, Turkey and Azerbaijan to fill vacancies.

Everyone’s headed to the field for work.

So, I am too, along with an editor and photographer. We want to tell the story of this changing town through the eyes of a local newspaper reporter. How does the oil boom affect the kinds of stories the local media covers?

Meanwhile, I want to turn this blog into a kind of Boomtown 101 course by writing about my experience chasing this story. In the end, I plan to produce a lengthy feature for MJR’s printed publication.

So far, we have found one of the last available hotel rooms in Sidney at the Lone Tree Inn. It’s not cheap either — we’re college students looking at $125 a night for four nights, in addition to gas and food expenses. We’re working on fundraising while simultaneously figuring out how to cover the town.

We called the Sidney Herald to ask if we can shadow a reporter for a day. Louisa Barber agreed to take us under her wing, so my next step is to compile a million questions to ask her about her job and the town. We still need to schedule interviews with the mayor and oil company executives, but we think the rest of the story will simply find us when we get there. We’re prepared to sit with the old-timers in bars, hang with workers in the field and hit up a few nightclubs for a crash course in Sidney culture.