North Dakota lawmakers to tour state's booming oil patch, hear pleas about region's needs



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BISMARCK, North Dakota — Dozens of North Dakota lawmakers will be getting a warts-and-all tour next month of the state's booming oil patch and its impact.

The North Dakota Petroleum Council-sponsored event is the second one of its kind to precede a Legislative session in recent years, and officials in the western part of the state hope it'll pay off with what they say is sorely needed additional money for infrastructure. They say the last tour in 2012 helped a little, but it hasn't been enough.

The two-day bus tour begins Aug. 26, with more than 40 lawmakers mainly from cities well outside the oil patch visiting drilling rig and oil well sites and spending the night in a crew camp, said Alexis Brinkman, the council's government relations manager. Much of the tour will be centered in the Watford City area, near the epicenter of the state's oil patch in McKenzie County.

"We really hope it gives lawmakers a chance to ask questions and see what's going on out west," Brinkman said.

Democratic Rep. Lois Delmore of Grand Forks will be on the tour and also plans to visit oilfield spill sites in the region.

"We've been lucky to see some of the benefits but not as many of the problems," said Delmore, a retired school teacher who has served in the Legislature for nearly two decades. "I want to see what progress is being made and what we're going to have to look at in the Legislature. Some of the things happening out there can't be described in words and pictures."

North Dakota trails only Texas in oil production, and its output has risen from about 261,000 barrels daily in 2010 to more than 1 million barrels daily with advanced drilling techniques in the rich Bakken shale and Three Forks formations.

The state's financial reserves are pegged at about $2 billion, but the newfound oil riches have resulted in unprecedented demands for spending on roads, schools, public works, law enforcement and emergency medical services. Gov. Jack Dalrymple has said the state has invested nearly $4 billion since 2011 to help meet the area's swelling demands.

Officials from oil-producing communities want to revamp a formula used to distribute oil and gas production tax revenue. The fund currently sets aside 75 percent to the state and 25 percent to local governments.

Watford City Mayor Brent Sanford and others want a 60-40 split in favor of local governments in oil counties.

Sanford said Watford City has received about $46 million in state money during the current two-year budget cycle but the city's infrastructure needs are $284 million. More than 6,500 people are using the city's wastewater system that was designed for only 1,000 residents, and hundreds housing units are hamstrung by the lack of infrastructure that the city can't afford to fund on its own, Sanford said.

"Ten years ago there were only 5,000 people in our whole county that's the size of Rhode Island," said Sanford, a CPA and automobile dealership owner. "Now it takes five minutes to make a left hand turn because of the traffic."

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 don't want to sound parochial and selfish about our needs," Sanford said. "But we are the golden goose and more money needs to be invested here."

Rep. Vicky Steiner, R-Dickinson, said she won't be making the trip. She experiences oil boom life daily.

"I'm keeping a seat open on the bus for someone else," said Steiner, who also is the executive director of the North Dakota Association of Oil and Gas Producing Counties. "You can hardly put into words what's happening out here — our state has been turned upside down and we now have a whole new identity.

"It's absolutely critical for (lawmakers) to come out here and see what's going on."

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