North Dakota’s oil production has been setting new records as a state, even while remaining the No. 2 producer in the nation. However, sometime — perhaps last year or even the year before — one of its counties set a national record. It was a record that no one really even noticed, until a newspaper in New Mexico happened to write about it.

McKenzie County has surpassed all other oil producing counties in the nation to take the No. 1 spot, with 17.88 million barrels of oil produced in January 2019.

That beat out the No. 2 producer, Lea County, New Mexico, which had 14.6 million barrels per month, and the No. 3, Weld County, Colorado, which had 13.7 million barrels per month.

It even beat out Midland County, Texas, which produced 12.5 million barrels of oil per month in January 2019.

Exactly when McKenzie County took the lead as the nation’s top oil producing county is not clear.

According to figures published on the state agency’s Website, McKenzie County produced 10 million barrels of oil in May 2014, just before a downturn in oil prices. Production zig-zagged upwards, hitting 13.55 million barrels in July 2015 before trending downward, mirroring a downturn in oil prices, to a 10 million barrel per month low.

As oil prices recovered, production climbed again, hitting 15.26 million in December 2017. But production zig-zagged up and down, suggesting the county probably traded places with Lea County for No. 1, before it hit the 17.45 million mark in October 2018 and 17.88 million in January 2019. The Lea County paper reported the January total as 17.3 million, however, that was actually December’s figure, not January, according to the state’s figures.

McKenzie County production was 16.22 million for April, the most recent numbers available —still well above Lea County, New Mexico’s 14.6 million barrels for the month of January 2019.

Williams County, meanwhile, produced 7.41 million barrels of oil in January, which was also a new record for the county.

In Watford City, word of the Lea County article has had people, and even Gov. Doug Burgum, talking about the county’s place in the energy sector, as a national leader in oil production.

“The McKenzie numbers are staggering,” North Dakota Petroleum Council President Ron Ness said. “Even some of the industry’s biggest players had no idea how much oil McKenzie County was producing per month.”

In McKenzie County, too, people didn’t quite realize just where the county’s production fell in the scheme of things. They knew it was top in the state, but top in the nation?

“This is the first time we’ve just kind of realized this, by them publishing the numbers,” said economic developer Daniel Stenberg. “McKenzie County is such a physically huge, large county, so it does kind of make sense. But I think it’s the first time many people realized it.”

Of course, high oil production means tax revenue for the county and all the high-paying jobs that go with the industry, Stenberg said, but to him it also means responsibility. To both existing and future generations.

“We have to have a town that can accommodate the industry workforce, for both blue and white collar management positions,” Watford City’s economic developer said.

To that end, Watford City has added a number of amenities to improve its community, including the Rough Rider Center, an expanded high school, and a new hospital with an obstetrics wing that’s waiting to begin operation.

Housing for workforce, however, continues to be among the biggest challenges the community faces when it comes to capitalizing on opportunities the oil and gas industry presents.

Permanent population, as opposed to a transient workforce, requires not only good schools, quality health care, and something fun to do. It requires a place to live. A place to put down roots. That means affordable housing.

“Looking at employment numbers for McKenzie County, we have 1,000 more workers at this time than last year,” Stenberg said. “We have increased by that many people, but we have not increased by that many more housing units.”

Hotels in Watford City are full now, especially on weekdays, Stenberg said. Apartments and single-family housing are getting harder and harder to find. And that’s true not just in Watford City, but throughout the Oil Patch.

“One of the biggest challenges is single-family housing,” Stenberg said.

That has prompted McKenzie County to fund an incentive program for builders willing to construct single-family dwellings in the $315,000 price range, which is the cap for an FHA loan.

That price range is still out of reach for many, Stenberg acknowledged.

“That’s really from the realtor’s perspective, we have been talking about that is the most needed portion, is the single-family, two-stall garage, three-bedroom, two-bath type of house,” he said. “We are hoping that by doing some of that, it will open up the kind of housing that is even more affordable.”

The county-funded program has $1 million to pay up to $50,000 for eligible housing, to help buy down costs and keep the home at $315,000. The application period has just opened for the program. No one has turned in an application yet, though several have been picked up.

“This program isn’t going to solve all our problems,” Stenberg said. “It’s hopefully a push in the right direction. By stimulating this, if people move out of the housing that is less costly, then it will make those available to others is the idea behind it.”

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