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Legislative tour a good idea, but needs expansion

Earlier this week, a group of influential North Dakotans — many from the eastern side of the state — boarded a 40-seat stagecoach and took a two-day tour of the so-called “Wild West.”

Well, what really happened is a group of 40 state legislators took a bus ride through the western North Dakota Oil Patch, making stops in Dickinson and Watford City, and seeing firsthand the growth, environmental changes and everyday issues faced by many of us on a daily basis.

The purpose of this trip was to educate elected officials about the area’s needs, put them on the same roads as the oilfield traffic, allow them to ask local officials questions and literally put them on the same surface as the state’s oilfield workers a little more than two months before the November election.

The tour included visits to a hydraulic fracturing site, a well site, a drilling rig and a reclaimed well site. There were tours of the ONEOK gas processing plant and the Target Logistics crew camp in the Watford City area. The trip concluded west of Dickinson with visits to the Dakota Prairie Refining facility and the Bakken Oil Express rail terminal.

The legislators experienced nearly every part of the process involved in extracting oil and gas from 2 miles beneath North Dakota’s surface. They saw what happens to that oil and gas once it gets here, and were afforded time to speak with people in charge of the area our state’s energy industry directly impacts.

The legislative tour is a great idea. It helps teach our state’s political representatives about what is really happening in western North Dakota. It shows that not everything out here is as crazy as often reported but that some aspects are as stressful and busy as advertised.

The North Dakota Petroleum Council organizes this tour every two years. And kudos to them for doing it. It nearly goes without saying that the North Dakota energy industry has nothing to lose from visits from state legislators.

The problem is, trips like this to bring legislators and other state leaders to the Oil Patch need to happen more often than every two years.

Two years is a lifetime in the Oil Patch. In some cities, two years means a doubling or tripling of population, and such an abrupt increase in school enrollment that facilities that were brand new and built for growth become overcrowded; such is the case in Watford City and will soon happen in Dickinson. Two years is the difference between a specific area being actively explored for oil and turning into a consistent production site.

And while it’s a great idea to put the legislators in the shoes of an oilfield worker and teach them the basics of what happens at a typical Bakken oilfield site, it doesn’t benefit them as much as, for instance, would a meal at a cafe where they could do their own research and ask questions of common North Dakotans to find out what people really believe are issues in the Oil Patch — not just the issues the Petroleum Council, Marathon, Whiting, ONEOK or MDU Resources believe they need to hear.

These legislative tours need to continue. They help teach the underinformed what is actually happening in western North Dakota. But, at the same time, they must expand beyond the “Bakken Basics,” as the Petroleum Council calls it, and find a way to better connect with people living here and dealing with the everyday challenges and effects of the energy industry.