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N.D. oil meet strikes it rich

BISMARCK -- The Civic Center is packed here with the largest crowd by far in the 18-year history of the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference and Expo that opened Sunday.

BISMARCK -- The Civic Center is packed here with the largest crowd by far in the 18-year history of the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference and Expo that opened Sunday.

Nearly 3,000 people will end up registering, said Ron Ness, executive director of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, the trade group organizing and spending $500,000 or so on the event that runs through Tuesday.

That's about twice as many as attended the 2008 conference in Minot, which set an attendance record at the time.

In alternating years with North Dakota, the conference is held in Saskatchewan, where the northern edge of the Williston Basin is drilled and pumped of the same sweet crude oil.

"This is unbelievable," Dean Anderson said.


A Larimore, N.D. native and 1980 graduate of UND, Anderson has worked all over the world as an engineer making sure drilling and wells operate how they are supposed to.

"Only a few years ago, it was just a couple hundred people here," he said.

The big difference is the good price for oil, but more the steadily growing potential of the Williston Basin, which is as active as any oil patch in the nation right now, he said.

Anderson is a senior sales engineer with Pioneer Wireline Services in Denver. The company operates as Penkota in North Dakota. It provides monitoring of wells and helps perforate casing in drill holes into the Bakken or Three Forks formations two miles under the ground.

The holes in the pipe are needed to "frac," or fracture, the hard rock formations holding the oil so the crude can move into the pipe, Anderson said.

It's calmer in Denver and North Dakota than other places he's worked, such as Turkmenistan, Kuwait and Norway's North Sea, Anderson said.

The basin's boom

But the Williston Basin has never garnered more interest, Lynn Helms said. As director of the Oil and Gas Division of the North Dakota Industrial Commission, Helms is chief regulator of the state's oil industry.


Daily oil production is at a record 250,000 barrels, with 112 drilling rigs putting new holes in the ground, Helms said. Recent studies showing an added 2 billion barrels of recoverable oil in North Dakota's share of the Three Forks formation directly under the Bakken formation means this "play" should last for 20 years or longer, Helms said.

So, industry representatives from most states, Canada and several other nations are at the conference.

Lin Fa, a graduate student in geology at UND, is visiting for a year from China, where he's worked in the oil industry.

He's getting a look at North Dakota's oil field, he said Sunday, and will share what he knows when he returns to China this summer.

As much interest as there is in the industry, there's also a growing civilian intrigue, Helms said. So this year, Helms added a consumer-friendly education seminar that packed several hundred people into a room, with many standing around and outside the room trying to hear. The topic was how the Bakken formation is drilled.

Lots of water

Charles Vein, founder and president of Advanced Engineering and Environmental Services in Grand Forks, took in the seminar.

"I just wanted to get a feel for how it's done," Vein said. He's in the water, not the oil business.


But his company has offices in Bismarck and Williston, consulting with cities and counties in the oil patch on their public water systems.

The rapidly growing oil drilling across western North Dakota is tapping water supplies like never before, Vein said. "They say every oil well takes 1 million to 3 million gallons of water to drill."

That's because the relatively new technology of "fracing" underground rock layers to get at the oil is done with large amounts of water under pressure, plus special sand or mud compounds.

The city of Williston, Vein's client since 1997, draws its drinking water from the Missouri River, which flows by the town, and it also sells water to oil companies who use it to drill for oil.

His municipal and county clients want to make sure their water systems are still up and the appropriate size after the oil activity slows down again, Vein said. With water, just like the shortage of housing, cities and counties are being careful not to over-expand because the bust in the early 1980s after the most recent boom in the oil patch left the cities with big bills and empty buildings.

But the feeling here at the conference seems pretty positive that oil prices will stay good, and the play will last for years this time.

Tribes' bonanza

For the first time in the 60-year history of the state's oil industry, the Three Affiliated Tribes at Fort Berthold Reservation are in on it in a big way. Until the late 1980s, the tribe didn't own the minerals under the reservation. Now they do, through a federal action, and it means Marietta Short Bull is very busy. She's the realty specialist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which acts as a trustee for the tribe, leasing rights of way so oil companies can build drilling locations and roads to get at oil under the reservation.


She has approved 115 right of way actions on the reservation for oil companies. So far, there are 50 producing wells on the reservation and 15 drilling rigs operating digging new wells, with more coming, Short Bull said.

The first well owned entirely by the tribe just came in recently and is producing 500 or more barrels a day. Other wells already producing are on privately owned mineral acres, by tribal members or others, Short Bull said.

But the tribe stands to reap a bounty because one-third of the mineral acres leased by oil companies who intend to find oil are owned by the tribe, she said.

N.D. family firm

The recent good times of the past four years sure beat the lean times from 1985 to 1999, when the state's oil industry became nearly moribund at times, Lynn Moser said. She's president of Inland Oil & Gas in Bismarck, founded by her father, Burk Strothman, 45 years ago. Her daughter, Kate Moser, just graduated from North Dakota State University in mechanical engineering. Moser just hired Kate, bringing a third generation to the small, local oil company that partners with others to lease mineral acres and get wells drilled, for natural gas in South Dakota and oil out of the Bakken formation in North Dakota.

Moser represents the hundreds of small companies that subcontract with the big oil companies to get oil out of North Dakota's ground, sharing in the profits as well as the risks.

And she's bullish right now.

"We're adding a couple people," Moser said. "I think we're in for a long, steady period of time in the oil business."


Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237 or cell at (701) 740-9891; e-mail him at slee@gfherald.com .

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