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Leading the nation in economic growth for the decade, North Dakota saw its third historic boom

Oil well.jpg
An oil jack extracts crude from the Bakken oil field in western North Dakota. Forum News Service file photo
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FARGO — North Dakota’s average annual economic growth rate of almost 5.8% led the nation during a decade that witnessed the beginning and end of the boom in the Oil Patch.

The growth of North Dakota’s economy and population from 2010 through 2019, in fact, was so significant that the decade can be thought of as the Third Dakota Boom, echoing periods of dramatic growth that occurred during the settlement era a century ago.

The decade coming to an end saw North Dakota’s economy soar 58.3%, from $35.4 billion to $56 billion in current dollars, and its population mushroom 13% from 672,591 to an estimated 760,077 from 2010 to 2018.

Such significant growth recalls what historians call the Great Dakota Boom, which lasted from 1878 to 1886, when Dakota Territory was drawing thousands of immigrants and other homesteaders, and railroads were laying hundreds of miles of track.

A second boom occurred shortly after, with its start coinciding with North Dakota becoming a state in 1889 and lasting until 1915, when a second wave of homesteaders flocked to the state.


Tom Isern, a professor of history at North Dakota State University, sees parallels in the growth that has been spurred by petroleum production and the two historic booms.

“The first two are railroad booms,” he said. “That has to do with a new technology. The Bakken boom is pretty much a precise parallel,” since it also was fueled by technology, horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing that unlocked “tight shale” oil formations deep underground.

All of the booms, however, made North Dakota dependent on outside powers — once the railroads and flour milling companies, now energy companies, Isern said.

Still, economic growth has been dramatic in western North Dakota and “palpable” statewide, he said.

David Flynn, a professor of economics at the University of North Dakota, ran the figures showing North Dakota’s average annual growth rate of almost 5.8% topped all states from 2010 through 2018. That kind of sustained high growth is highly unusual, he said.

“From my perspective, that’s a really big deal,” Flynn added.

“The growth rates kind of tell you where you stand,” he said. “It’s been a tremendous decade from a variety of perspectives.”

Although North Dakota experienced double-digit growth in the 1970s, that growth didn’t produce “knock-on effects,” Flynn said, such as population growth or the kind of industrial development that has accompanied the recent oil boom.


The oil boom, which started in 2006-07 and peaked in 2012, subsided with the slump in global oil prices.

Even with lower prices, North Dakota has consistently produced more than 1 million barrels per day since reaching that milestone in 2014 — recently topping 1.5 million — and has production that ranks above some OPEC countries .


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If the trend continues, North Dakota is on pace to reach the 2-million-barrels-per-day mark before 2030.
North Dakota’s population has soared along with its oil production, as the Oil Patch has drawn thousands of workers from other parts of the country, especially during the Great Recession of 2007-09.

The population gains are significant beyond their immediate numbers, because the influx of workers is comprised heavily of young people in their prime child-rearing years, said Kevin Iverson, North Dakota’s census office manager.

“That surge of young adults had a dramatic effect,” he said, referring to the “baby boom” that resulted.

The rise in births, in fact, caused North Dakota to become a younger state over the decade.

In 2000, North Dakota’s median age was 36.2, older than the 35.4 U.S. median. By 2010, North Dakota’s median age had increased to 37, but was below the national median, 37.2.


By 2018, North Dakota’s median age had dropped to 35.2, well below the U.S. median age of 38.2.

“The difference clearly has been the in-migration of young adults and children,” Iverson said.

North Dakota’s population has become more ethnically diverse as it has increased over the past decade. Since 2010, North Dakota’s population of Hispanic people has increased by nearly 30,000, almost tripling, and the population of black people by about 25,000, Iverson said.

“The Hispanic influx has been dramatic,” he said. “There is a possibility at some point in our future the Hispanics would become the biggest minority group,” though that would be years from now.

Dakota Territory and North Dakota saw even more dramatic population growth during the settlement era, when immigrants flocked from Europe, especially Scandinavia and Germany.

In 1880, early in the Great Dakota Boom but before statehood, the population of northern Dakota Territory was 36,909. The population skyrocketed, with a boost from railroad companies recruiting in Europe, to 190,983 by 1890 — and climbed steadily until 1930, when it reached 680,845.

Immigration, in fact, was so pronounced that in 1910 almost 71% of North Dakota’s population was foreign born or had one or both parents who were born abroad, according to the 1910 census.

The state’s population mostly declined in the decades that followed the 1930 peak, bottoming out at 617,761 in 1970. North Dakota didn’t surpass its 1930 population until 2011, when it reached 685,476.

Given North Dakota’s steady population growth since 2006, it’s only a matter of time before the state reaches another population milestone, the 800,000 threshold. It might even happen in the next decade, Iverson said.

“I think there’s a very good chance that will happen by 2030,” he said.

North Dakota’s economy still relies on commodities, such as oil and crops, which are subject to volatile price swings. Flynn agrees the state could breach the 800,000 population mark around 2030 — if unpredictable markets cooperate.

“If the current assumptions hold, we’ll see that happen,” Flynn said.

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