Oil boom and a kidnapping alter Montana town

Associated Press Modified: March 2, 2012 at 4:00 am •  Published: March 2, 2012
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SIDNEY, Mont. (AP) — Sidney isn't the first small town in the West to get run over by a gold rush, in this case black gold — more than 16 million barrels of crude being pumped every month from the massive Bakken oil field beneath eastern Montana and western North Dakota.

But Sidney's new-found prosperity doesn't dull the sting of the recent kidnapping and apparent murder of a local teacher, Sherry Arnold. Authorities allege the 43-year-old Arnold was snatched from a Sidney street by two men among the thousands from across the country descending on the small towns of the Northern Plains in search of a slice of the boom's multi-billion-dollar payoff.

"It's turned this little town upside down," said Ron Whited, Arnold's father, who lives on a ranch 25 miles outside of town. "There's evil in the world, and it just happened to touch down in Sidney, Montana on Jan. 7."

Arnold's disappearance has brought into sharp focus the changes now overwhelming the 5,000 residents of Sidney. And for many it means an abrupt end to the days of unlocked doors and reflexive trust that residents of the self-proclaimed "Sunrise City" say they once enjoyed.

Sidney's past still can be seen in the overall-wearing farmers passing in and out of Johnson Hardware along Main Street, in the smoke that rises from the Sidney Sugars plant at the edge of town during sugar beet season.

But the streets are now jammed with semis, the police chief says he will need up to seven more officers, the hotels are overflowing and the schools stretched to capacity. And it's just begun: The Bakken boom is projected to last another 10 to 20 years with tens of thousands more wells drilled, state regulators say.

"The things we've always taken for granted we can't take for granted anymore. Like Sherry," said lifetime resident Leann Pelvit. The former school bus driver took Arnold to school when she was a student. Pelvit's daughter, Charley, was in Arnold's high school math class.

Even as the two suspects in the case await trial, Whited and others in this historically agricultural community don't blame the explosive changes wrought by the boom for his daughter's disappearance.

Scores of industry workers joined in the massive search for Arnold that turned up only a single running shoe. A "couple bad apples" as one local farmer put it, do not represent the many newcomers who arrived for well-paying jobs.

Oil production in the Bakken dates back decades, but ignited into a boom a few years ago when horizontal drilling techniques coupled with hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," made it easier to pull oil from a geologic formation that holds an estimated 4.3 billion barrels of oil.

Most drilling so far has been in North Dakota, where there were 3,500 wells at the end of 201, with rigs sinking 150 more each month. As oil prices stay above $100 a barrel and production increases, companies are pushing into Sidney and surrounding areas of Richland County, near the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers.

When Gary Hancock , arrived in Sidney this week with his daughter's boyfriend, Richard Rayborn, after a marathon 30-hour drive from Magee, Miss., they spent their first night in Hancock's Chevrolet pickup with the engine running to fight off the single-digit temperatures.

They were following Hancock's son-in-law, who arrived in the Bakken last year to work for a drilling company. Hancock left behind a wife and two daughters for the opportunity to multiply his wages from his previous job, hauling chickens for the food company Sanderson Farms.

"You'd do good to make $500 a week" at home, Hancock, 47, said through his open window as Rayborn slept in the passenger seat. "Up here, you can make $500 a day."