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Bismarck-Mandan development group seeks to lure energy-related firms

BISMARCK -- In 1977, Tom Berg, an employee with a Minnesota environmental testing company, had a good idea while eating supper in Bismarck. "A bunch of guys came in ... and it turns out they were from the mining companies and power companies," Be...

BISMARCK -- In 1977, Tom Berg, an employee with a Minnesota environmental testing company, had a good idea while eating supper in Bismarck.

"A bunch of guys came in ... and it turns out they were from the mining companies and power companies," Berg said. "They were talking about all the things going on in the mining and power industries, and I thought, 'Gee, there's some opportunities here.'"

Today, Berg is the owner of Minnesota Valley Testing Laboratories, a firm that has made a business out of environmental analysis for the coal mining and reclamation fields and is constructing a new building in town.

As the state grows with its latest energy boom, one question is how can other firms establish themselves in Bismarck-Mandan that serve the energy sector without being in the thick of the extraction activity.

"Though we're looking at all industries right now, our concern is in oil and gas," said Russ Staiger, head of the Bismarck-Mandan Development Association. His group is beginning an effort to identify energy services that are not available in the area or not meeting demands and find ways to encourage businesses that offer those services. Some local firms, like Berg's, have made a place for themselves serving the coal industry, and Staiger said the BMDA is trying to identify local companies that can meet the needs of the oil and gas companies.


Unlike Williston and Dickinson, Bismarck is removed from the oil patch, but its central location, air travel connections, hotels and proximity to government offices and business services are helping it become a center for the work that goes on in offices, courthouses and laboratories.

"I used to have a pretty good handle on (the number of firms), but I don't anymore," said Ron Ness, director of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, an industry group. "That's what's hard to measure in the industry, how many new companies are moving in."

Professions that have been bolstered by energy development include land services, attorneys, engineers, geologists and environmental scientists.

"We've had to add a couple of jobs in Bismarck just to serve the Oil Patch," said Lance Loken, president of Western Plains Consulting Inc., a Bismarck environmental consulting firm that employs 28 full-time and contract workers. Their services include soil and water sampling for oil and pipeline companies and site work for wind developments. "We kind of hit it all."

Engineering is another need for the energy industry, and firms based in Bismarck-Mandan assist energy companies with surveying, mapping, site investigation and other technical work on the systems of harvesting energy and transporting it to markets.

"It kind of ripples out," said Brian Long, head of development for Ulteig, a regional engineering firm with offices in Bismarck. The company's projects include electrical transmission, wind farm site selection, pipeline engineering as well as transportation infrastructure on oil patch roads and airports.

"The huge advantage of Bismarck is being next to the coal fields and oil fields," he said.

BMDA officials have said their hope is that Bismarck-Mandan could develop into a support center for all the parts of the energy industry that support the work that goes on in the field. The city is removed enough from oil and gas fields to avoid the strains on infrastructure, housing and services that are now part of life in western North Dakota towns.


"Most of my work is done right at this desk," said Rick Frazier, head of Bismarck's Legacy Resources and president of the Landman's Association of North Dakota. "It does help that the Capitol is here and the Oil and Gas Division is here."

Frazier estimates that Bismarck is headquarters for around 50 landmen, who search through title records for mineral and land ownership and broker deals between resource owners and exploration companies. Bismarck offers them meeting spaces, access to business services and state government and more of the basic retail and hospitality businesses that smaller oil field towns lack.

"Infrastructure is key," Frazier said. "I don't want to live in Williston. I don't want to live in Dickinson."

Staiger uses a comparison with Houston -- though hesitantly due to the difference in scale -- for the support role that Bismarck could play if North Dakota's oil production climbs to second in the country, as some predict. The BMDA is beginning its effort by visiting Oil Patch communities and energy companies to determine what economic activities could take place here.

"Houston is not directly in the Oil Patch," Staiger said. "We sit here kind of at the heart of the state. ... There is a good reason for senior management to be located here."

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