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Oil counties need $5 billion: Industry leader calls for five-year investment plan in areas

WILLISTON, N.D. -- The state should invest up to $5 billion in northwest North Dakota communities with the most oil activity, the president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council said Wednesday.

Ron Ness, while testifying to a group of legislators meeting in Williston, said communities need significant resources to do long-range planning, but the state's grant program for those areas is only helping them react.

Ness called for a five-year plan with $800 million to $1 billion per year invested in schools, roads and infrastructure for communities in the core areas of the Bakken.

"The magnitude of infrastructure required is going to require a lot of money," Ness said. "We have the opportunity to do it right."

Members of the Energy Development and Transmission Committee are meeting jointly with the Education Funding and Taxation Committee in Williston through today.

Ness told legislators that as industry shifts from an exploration phase to a development phase, the state is at a critical time to invest in infrastructure.

The industry paid $1.3 billion in oil and gas production tax last year, and will pay even more this year, Ness said. Those dollars should be targeted at the counties with the greatest oil activity, he said.

A grant program could help surrounding communities that are experiencing oil impacts to a lesser degree, Ness said.

One program that needs support is the TrainND workforce training program based at Williston State College, Ness said.

"They need to go to the next level," he said.

The program serves about 13,000 people per year through safety courses and other workforce training, primarily for the oil and gas industry, said Deanette Piesek, CEO of TrainND for northwest North Dakota.

The college has two facilities totaling about 17,500 square feet to serve those students, but the program is at capacity, Piesek said.

In order to meet growing industry demands, Piesek said she needs a $6 million building that would provide an additional 36,000 square feet of training space.

If Williston State College can't expand its program, colleges and programs from other states will begin offering training in North Dakota, Piesek said. She said she knows of a Wyoming college that is planning to offer some training in Minot.

Legislators asked Piesek to provide them more information about the TrainND program and its needs.

"I think North Dakota has a huge opportunity in training for industry that's coming here," said Sen. Lonnie Laffen, R-Grand Forks.

Legislators also heard about challenges with planning and zoning and enforcing existing ordinances.

The agendas for Williams County Planning and Zoning meetings already are full through September.

"We need a timeout because we are so overrun that we cannot plan, all we can do is react," said Williams County Commissioner Dan Kalil.

Sen. Dwight Cook, R-Mandan, said perhaps the state could send some planners to some of the counties to help with the backlog.

On Wednesday, legislators also toured Williston, Watford City and Tioga, N.D.

Sen. Rich Wardner, chairman of the Energy Development and Transmission Committee, said he had heard about many of the issues facing oil country, but he gained a better appreciation for it by driving the roads and seeing the activity firsthand.

Speaker of the House David Drovdahl, R-Arnegard, said many of the committee members had not visited northwest North Dakota for a long time.

"It was an eye-opener for a number of them," Drovdahl said.

Amy Dalrymple is a Forum Communications Co. reporter stationed in the Oil Patch. She can be reached at or (701) 580-6890.