If you haven't heard about the "North Dakota phenomenon" yet, you will soon.
The state is quickly becoming known as a modern-day version of California during the gold rush. People are flocking to the state, seeking their fortune (or at least a decent-paying job), and formerly sleepy farming towns are now booming.
So what's causing this modern day boom? Well, unlike in the case of California, it isn't being caused by gold.
This time, it's oil.
As it turns out, there is an ocean of oil stretching down from Canada into North Dakota and Montana. It's called the Bakken Shale field, and scientists estimate there could be well over four billion barrels of oil in the region. That would put it just behind the oilfields of Alaska as America's second-largest oil find.
Oil? Aren't we supposed to be running out of the stuff?
Yes, but it turns out we're able to get a lot more out of the ground than ever before.
You see, we didn't just stumble onto oil in North Dakota. In fact, scientists have known about it for years. We just haven't had the technology -- or incentive -- to take it out of the ground. But now we do.
The specifics can get complicated and full of industry jargon, but suffice it to say these are sophisticated techniques that take oilfields previously considered difficult and expensive to develop and make them economically viable. When this technology made shale oil profitable, companies made a beeline for large shale deposits like that in North Dakota.
This drilling renaissance has helped the United States go from importing two-thirds of its oil less than two years ago to importing about half now. If current production trends continue, Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS) estimates the United States could be one of the world's biggest oil producers within six years.
And as you can probably guess, this technology has produced a lot of oil and gas-related jobs. North Dakota's unemployment rate is a staggeringly low 3.1%.
[InvestingAnswers Feature: 10 States With the Lowest Unemployment Rates]
The town of Williston gives a pretty good picture of the situation. According to a recent story by National Public Radio, Mayor Ward Koeser estimates the town's unemployment rate is less than 2%. He also estimates the town has grown from 12,000 to 20,000 in the last four years.
Due to the massive influx of workers in Williston, the local housing industry can't keep up with demand, causing prices to skyrocket. Apartments sometimes go for as much as $1,500 a month. Parking spaces for RVs and trailers are in short supply.
Many exploration companies have built or leased acres of temporary housing, known as "man camps," where workers live in dorm-style housing, complete with beds, showers and food service. [To see what a "man camp" is like, watch this video.]
If you're not interested in oil, that's OK, because there are plenty of other jobs in the state. "We actually have probably between 2,000 and 3,000 job openings in Williston right now," Koeser says.
The picture is similar in other towns across the state. There have been reports of fast-food jobs paying $15 an hour, restaurant wait staff making $25 an hour (after tips), truck drivers averaging $80,000 a year -- even strippers making up to $2,000 a night.
How long can the boom last? Opinions differ on this matter. Some say five years, others say 40. More important, the question that should be asked is, "What can we learn from this?"
First, we've learned that the pioneer spirit is alive and well in the United States. And don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
It takes guts and determination to pack up and venture hundreds of miles into the unknown, taking a gamble that the "rumors are true" and that there's still opportunity for those willing to work hard enough to make the American Dream a reality.
The second, and more important, lesson is that technology can propel the American machine. The technology being used to extract oil from places like the Bakken Shale formation is incredibly sophisticated. (One article compares techniques used in places like North Dakota and the Gulf of Mexico to those used by NASA.) And it's exactly this type of innovation that can create jobs and secure our energy future.
#-ad_banner_2-#The Investing Answer: Innovation and exploration can lead the U.S. economy back to greatness. Thanks to technology advances and oil finds like the Bakken shale, we've been given a "get out of jail free" card.
The simple truth is that we are running out of oil. It's just a matter of "when" not "if." And because we have to use increasingly costly techniques to get oil out of the ground, we are simultaneously establishing a floor for oil prices and helping alternatives become more economically viable.
Putting a floor on oil prices means companies like General Electric (NYSE: GE) and First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR) have time to develop ways to lower costs for alternatives like wind and solar. As StreetAuthority's David Sterman pointed out in a recent article about First Solar, "After cutting its manufacturing costs by 30% in the past three years, [First Solar] says it is just 19% away from being truly competitive with more traditional electricity sources such as coal and gas-fired power plants -- without subsidies."
Technological innovation can be a second chance for the U.S. economy. It can bring us out of this economic malaise, get people back to work, get our military out of places that don't like us very much, and solve our long-term energy problems. My guess is that these are goals almost every American can get behind.