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Associated Press, Published August 30 2012

Dakotas lawmakers tour ND oil patch

WILLISTON, N.D. — Grand Forks Rep. Gary Paur used to travel to the other side of the state for some hunting and time alone.

With the explosion of oil activity in western North Dakota, he barely recognizes the place.

"You could spend all day out there and not see anybody," Paur said. "The solitude is gone."

Paur was one of more than two dozen lawmakers from the Dakotas who toured the oil patch this week to get a firsthand look at the boom and its impact on the area in an event sponsored by the North Dakota Petroleum Council.

Lawmakers were bused to drilling rig and oil well sites and spent the night Wednesday in a crew camp near Williston. They also got an earful from local officials looking for help with millions of dollars in infrastructure needs.

"This is the biggest construction project in America, and maybe North America," said Ron Ness, president of the oil trade group that represents hundreds of companies working in the oil patch. "You can read about it but to really get a feel of it, you have to be out here."

North Dakota has risen from the nation's ninth leading oil producer to No. 2 in just six years, with advanced horizontal drilling techniques in the rich Bakken shale and Three Forks formations in the western part of the state.

More than half of Williston's residents now work in oil-related jobs, the city's unemployment rate is less than 1 percent and there are more than 3,000 unfilled jobs.

Williston Mayor Ward Koeser told lawmakers Thursday that the city's population has doubled in the past decade. He estimated the city has more than a half-billion dollars in immediate infrastructure needs, such as road building and repair, utilities and housing.

"I have not yet come across something that does not need to be expanded," he told lawmakers.

Koeser said leaders in the region will be aggressive in asking for help when the Legislature convenes in January. The entire state is sharing in the billions of dollars in new wealth, but western North Dakota is paying the price, the mayor said.

"We believe the state benefits and that it's a state resource," he said.

Bismarck Rep. Karen Karls said she was sympathetic to the region's plea and hoped others would be, too, "especially since it is contributing so much to the kitty."

Most of the lawmakers invited on the tour were from cities well outside the oil patch. Tioga Rep. David Rust, whose district is near the oil epicenter, said he hoped the tour would be an eye-opener.

"In a lot of places in North Dakota not much has changed, and some areas experience outmigration," he said. "Here, you're looking at an explosion of activity and an influx of people."

Fargo Rep. Ron Guggisberg said the economic impact is being felt across North Dakota.

"We would not have the opportunity we do if it weren't for the economy up here," Guggisberg said. "Other states are looking at where they have to make cuts. We're looking at what our investments are going to be."

South Dakota Rep. Betty Olson of Prairie City said the boom has bled into her state in the form of increased business and traffic, as semis pass through en route to the oil fields.

This was Olson's first visit to western North Dakota in years. She said her son and a granddaughter both have landed jobs in North Dakota's oil patch.

Olson also said she was impressed by North Dakota's economic windfall, though she didn't envy everything.

"The traffic up here scares grandma to death," she said.


Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.