Great opportunities often come with great challenges, and that is the case with North Dakota’s up and down energy industry. Studying those challenges and opportunities with a fresh eye is the aim of a relatively new group on the scene, the University of North Dakota Energy Hawks.
Nine students in different disciplines, including petroleum engineering, public health, space studies, computer science, political science, accounting and economics, and more were in Williston Tuesday for a portion of their 10-week internship. It was an opportunity to tour the town, and learn from public officials and residents about their experiences living and working in the heart of the Bakken.
Their tour began with the Williams County Commissioner’s regular meeting, where there was debate about new easements the county has begun requiring as part of new subdivisions and developments. The easement is seen as a vital component to improving roads in areas of the county that are growing, but some are questioning its fairness.
There was also a legislative update from Helen Askim, which included overcrowding issues at county schools, a new radar tower for the airport Williston is building north of town, and behavioral health issues, the latter of which are the subject of the state’s upcoming interim studies.
After the normal business of the commission, the students were each given a chance to ask commissioners questions.
Jacob Loing , an accounting and economics major, wanted to know how the population influx had affected zoning and other county regulations.
Kameron Hymer, Williams County Development Services Director, talked about how various components of Development Services used to be separate. The boom forced the county to rethink the efficiency of that. Making things more of a one-stop shop for developers, allowed the county to more quickly and more efficiently handle the onslaught of permitting requests.
David Moreno, of Grand Forks, a dual major in political science and international studies, wanted to know about coordination between the county and state.
Williams County Commissioner Barry Ramberg said he doesn’t feel the county gets a lot of direction from the state.
“We spend more time reacting than proacting,” he said.
Williams County Commissioner Steve Kemp pointed out that other entities approve well sites and facilities.
“So when Commissioner Ramberg says we react, they approve these sites, then we react to where the state is going to place them,” he said. “The state also collects the GPT and the extraction taxes and they decide how to disburse that money.”
That goes back to a 1950s decision, Kemp added.
“The state said we are far better at dealing with this than you, and so we will give the oil industry a single entity to choke.”
Williams County Commissioner Beau Anderson meanwhile feels that North Dakota’s township structure gives it some strengths over other states.
“Every 6 by 6 miles there’s a township, and there are sections that are a mile square. They take care of secondary roads in their area,” he said. “There are issues that come up, which they can bring to the county. Our job is to listen to the folks in our county and if there are issues at the state level we need to fix, then we talk to our state legislators.”
Kemp added that the western counties all belong to an association of counties, Western Dakota Energy Association, which was created to lobby the legislature and speak with a louder, unified voice about the effect the surge in oil and gas activity has had on them.
“We couldn’t depend more on our legislators,” he said. “But we are incredibly under-represented, and that is one reason why it’s critical to get an accurate census.”
While the county has but six state legislators representing one portion or another, it is the second largest sales tax producer in the state.
“The single largest revenue source outside of GPT and extraction is sales taxes,” Kemp said. “You have the No. 1 or No. 2 sales tax producing county represented by six people, and three of them share, so it’s not just Williams County, but also Mountrail and Divide. That is significant taxation without representation. It’s the way sales tax works unfortunately. We participate greatly in revenue to the state, but we don’t participate in the state on the same level. So our voice is loud, but not heard.”
There were also questions about renewables and flaring.
Anderson acknowledged that flares can be seen an hour before arriving in the Oil Patch, and that lessening them is vital.
“I’ve heard talk about a plastics plant in Tioga, which I’m not going to discredit, but the nation is demanding less plastic,” he said. “I see that farmers are interested in a local source of fertilizer. So if we could harness this natural gas and make fertilizer and become a net exporter of fertilizer east and west, then why aren’t we doing that instead of burning it off?”
Hanson, meanwhile, said he felt that flaring is mostly caused by lack of infrastructure.
“With the different pipelines being put in, it’s going to get and less,” he said. “And hopefully that leads to some of the value-added products that we need, to not waste the resources.”
Anderson added that he doesn’t think anyone in the state is opposed to renewable energy per se, and pointed out that some of the state’s producers will be growing corn or other grains that can be used to make biodiesel or other fuels. The state is also poised to be an important producer of hemp, whose fibers could be used for many “green” applications, such as fiber glass replacements or biodegradable textiles or packaging.
He and Ramberg suggested that wind power is winning out over solar largely due to the footprint solar panels make on the land.
“You can farm right around wind turbines,” Ramberg said. “Those are not an issue. They work together well. Same with the oilfield.”
“We have to look at all of our industries,” Anderson agreed. “I’m not against solar power, but we are losing farmland to urban sprawl, and a lot of development ends up over prime agricultural property.”
One thing the boom has underscored to him, Anderson added, is the need for diversity on boards like the Williams County Commission.
“That is why we have folks up here from all walks of life,” he said. “Public opinion is how we do business. I had a former commissioner tell us we are in the business of solving problems. People bring us a problem, and we solve it. That is what we do.”