Residents of N.D. oil town split on proposed wind farm

TIOGA, N.D. – The first wind farm proposed for oil-rich northwest North Dakota has area residents divided, with some advocating for renewable energy and others arguing the region is already inundated with energy development.

The North Dakota Public Service Commission heard a proposal Thursday from Lindahl Wind Project LLC, which is seeking to build up to 75 wind turbines north of Tioga.

The 150-megawatt project would help meet the high demand for electricity in the area driven by oil and gas development, Brice Barton, senior development manager for Tradewind Energy of Lenexa, Kan., which is developing the project.

“The project is ideally located to provide a low-cost, clean, renewable energy source to help meet that need,” Barton said.

The $248.5 million project, located on 13,000 acres about four miles north of Tioga, is the first wind farm proposed for northwest North Dakota, said commissioner Brian Kalk.

The project was initiated by landowners who first began studying the idea to develop a wind farm in the area in 2008, said landowner Dallas Lalim.

Supporters say the wind farm will provide the region with reliable electricity and help diversify the economy of Tioga, known as the oil capital of North Dakota.

“It’s been my dream that we could develop some alternative energy in the state and take advantage of our endless winds that we see here,” said Larena McGinnity, one of the participating landowners.

Basin Electric has agreed to purchase the power generated by the wind turbines.

The project would have 200 construction jobs during its peak and eight to 12 jobs during operation, Barton said. It also would provide the school district, county and state with tax revenue estimated to average about $700,000 a year, Barton said.

Other neighboring residents opposed adding wind turbines to the landscape that’s already been transformed by oil and gas development. Lindahl Township, one of three townships within the project, has nearly 300 oil wells, including those that have been plugged and abandoned, according to the Department of Mineral Resources.

Stephanie Vagts, who lives about one mile from one of the proposed turbines, said the community can’t endure another construction crew building more access roads when the area is “already bursting at the seams.”

“We’ve already sacrificed enough for energy,” Vagts said.

Resident Kathy Hove said she doesn’t want to look at the wind towers and she’s concerned about how the wind farm will affect the community.

“When they look up north from Tioga, they’re not going to see the Northern Lights anymore, they’re going to see red flashing lights,” Hove said.

Sen. David Rust, R-Tioga, told commissioners he took time to make up his mind on the project because he has friends who are passionate on both sides. But he decided to support it after considering the need for electricity and the rights of landowners.

“I feel that as a landowner, unless you adversely affect those nearby, you should have the ability if you own that land to produce an income from that land,” Rust said.

While the local township boards supported the project, other local governments were split on the issue. Tioga city commissioners voted 3-2 to oppose the project and wrote a letter to Williams County officials expressing their opposition. The Williams County Planning and Zoning Commission voted no to a conditional use permit, but county commissioners overturned that decision in a 3-2 vote.

Others who testified Thursday raised concerns about the wind farm interfering with oil and gas activity in the area. Kalk cautioned the company to be careful about pipelines, particularly old ones the company may not know about.

“Just because you’ve been told there’s nothing out there, doesn’t mean you’re not going to hit something,” Kalk said.

The all-day hearing had 23 members of the public testify, the most amount of public input the commission has received in a single hearing, Kalk said.

The commissioners will next discuss the project in a work session, likely to be scheduled in late October or November.


Cleanup of farmland chugs along two years after oil pipeline spill

An aerial photo taken June 18, 2015, shows the site of the cleanup and remediation of the September 2013 Tesoro Logistics oil pipeline leak that released 20,600 barrels of oil into a wheat field near Tioga, N.D. Credit: Vern Whitten Photography

An aerial photo taken June 18, 2015, shows the site of the cleanup and remediation of the September 2013 Tesoro Logistics oil pipeline leak that released 20,600 barrels of oil into a wheat field near Tioga, N.D. Credit: Vern Whitten Photography

TIOGA, N.D. – Two years after North Dakota’s largest oil pipeline spill, landowner Patty Jensen measures progress by how large the dirty pile of soil is compared to the clean pile.

Cleanup operations continue around the clock at the site of the Tesoro Logistics pipeline leak that saturated Patty and Steve Jensen’s wheat field with 20,600 barrels of oil.

The company, which has spent $42 million on cleanup as of June 30, is about one-third to one-half done with the process to treat the contaminated soil, said Bill Suess, spill investigations program manager with the North Dakota Department of Health.

While the pile of contaminated soil dwarfs the piles that have been cleaned, Patty Jensen saw progress Friday during one of her frequent visits to the site.

“It’s kind of starting to come together,” she said.

Jensen keeps close tabs on the cleanup site, where the motto is “As long as Miss Patty’s happy, everyone’s happy.” She brings the workers homemade pie and they keep the office Keurig coffee maker stocked for her.

“The relationship between Tesoro and their consultants and subcontractors and the landowners is one of the best I’ve ever dealt with,” Suess said. “That goes a long way to make this a smooth-running project.”

The company declined to comment on a potential end date for the cleanup, which has become part of the Jensens’ lives since Steve discovered the spill while harvesting on Sept. 29, 2013. Both the Jensens and health officials say Tesoro Logistics has been dedicated to restoring the land.

“Up to this point, they have made an effort to get it fixed,” Patty Jensen said. “But it’s a pretty big mistake.”

Landowner Patty Jensen, pictured Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, near the site of the 2013 Tesoro Logistics oil pipeline leak, closely monitors the progress of cleanup. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

Landowner Patty Jensen, pictured Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, near the site of the 2013 Tesoro Logistics oil pipeline leak, closely monitors the progress of cleanup. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

Cleanup site grows

The oil spill contaminated about 15 acres of cropland, but the cleanup site has grown to about 35 acres to accommodate areas where excavated soil is being stockpiled, Suess estimates.

“It’s so huge,” Jensen said.

Crews excavate soil nearly 50 feet deep and use technology called a Thermal Desorption Unit to “bake” the hydrocarbons out of the soil.

The Jensens say they have a lot of confidence in the contractor, Nelson Environmental Remediation of Alberta, Canada, which operates the TDU system and carefully separates topsoil from other layers.

“They’ve done this all over the world,” Jensen said. “They know what they’re doing.”

Co-owner Warren Nelson said the process will restore the land so it’s productive for farming.

“It’ll go back to as good if not obetter condition,” Nelson said.

The TDU operates 24/7 can clean up to 1,000 tons of contaminated soil per day. Soil samples are then tested by a third party, and so far all samples have come back clean, Nelson said.

The company has two more TDUs on location, but the natural gas supply to the site is only adequate to run one unit, Suess said.

The region has plenty of natural gas – the state flared 20 percent of natural gas produced in July – but the challenge is getting enough gas to the site by pipeline.

“That would drastically cut back the amount of time needed,” Suess said.

Tesoro Logistics is routinely evaluating the operation, including the use of additional natural gas, spokeswoman Tina Barbee said.

In addition to the environmental contractors, Tesoro Logistics is paying North Dakota State University soil scientists $300,000 to help restore the land. They’ll begin working with test plots during the next growing season.

“There’s a fair bit of work to put it back to productivity,” said associate professor Tom DeSutter. “One of the things that we always stress is making sure that when the soil is replaced that the compaction is monitored very closely. The actual soil compaction where the roots will reside can have a lot to do with how productive those soils will be.”

Lessons the NDSU scientists learn can be applied to restore land contaminated by oil in other areas of the state, DeSutter said.

Todd Woywitka, site supervisor with Nelson Environmental, describes the control center on Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, at the cleanup site for the Tesoro Logistics oil pipeline leak near Tioga, N.D. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

Todd Woywitka, site supervisor with Nelson Environmental, describes the control center on Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, at the cleanup site for the Tesoro Logistics oil pipeline leak near Tioga, N.D. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

Fine still pending

The North Dakota Department of Health will fine Tesoro Logistics because of the spill, but the amount has not yet been determined, said Dave Glatt, chief of the Environmental Health Section.

The penalty will take into consideration how quickly the company responded and how thorough the response is, Glatt said.

“Tesoro has been very responsive in getting to the cleanup, even though it’s costing them a lot of money,” Glatt said. “They’ve been committed to getting it cleaned up and bringing in more help as needed.”

Jensen said she thinks Tesoro Logistics should be required to reimburse the health department for its costs to investigate and oversee the cleanup.

“It’s huge when you think of the time they’ve had to dedicate to that,” Jensen said. “Is that the taxpayers’ responsibility? The people shouldn’t have to pay for that.”

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration regulates the pipeline, but it’s unclear if the federal agency plans to seek civil penalties. The agency did not respond to Forum News Service inquiries last week.

The North Dakota Public Service Commission meets with PHMSA representatives Tuesday, the anniversary of the spill, and commissioner Brian Kalk said the Tesoro Logistics spill is one topic he plans to bring up.

Tesoro Logistics said it works closely with PHMSA in regard to the cleanup, as well as strengthening the controls on its pipeline system.

“We have put systems and controls in place to identify and prevent this type of spill in the future,” Barbee said.

An independent, third-party report confirmed that the likely cause of the hole in the pipeline was from electrical discharge, consistent with a lightning strike.

The size of the spill –  865,200 gallons – put a spotlight on the need for stronger controls on pipelines to prevent spills and detect leaks sooner.

Since the spill, the Jensens have approved one natural gas pipeline for their land – already criss-crossed with pipelines – but they’ve said no to other proposed pipelines.

“We have to let the natural gas lines go in, but I have not let a saltwater go in because I don’t trust that the regulation is there,” Jensen said.

Jensen said she tries to focus on the positives that can come from the spill, even using some excavated boulders and petrified wood in their landscaping. More important to Jensen are the lessons that can be learned to prevent spills.

A representative of another pipeline company once told her: “Every time I see this in the paper, it makes me work harder that it’s not us.”

Landowners Patty and Steven Jensen, have used boulders and petrified wood found in the excavation of the 2013 pipeline leak in their landscaping. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

Landowners Patty and Steven Jensen have used boulders and petrified wood found in the excavation of the 2013 pipeline leak in their landscaping. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

Tesoro Logistics pipeline spill near Tioga

Discovered Sept. 29, 2013

Estimated spill: 20,600 barrels of oil

Estimate of recovered oil: 6,000 barrels of oil, or 30 percent

Area contaminated: 15 acres

Overall site of cleanup: 35 acres of farmland

Amount of soil excavated as of mid-September: 449,543 tons

Average amount of soil cleaned each day: Up to 1,000 tons

Cleanup costs as of June 30: $42 million

Sources: Tesoro Logistics, North Dakota Department of Health and Nelson Environmental


Feds award $1.5 million to help human trafficking victims in ND

WILLISTON, N.D. – A $1.5 million federal grant announced Thursday to combat human trafficking in North Dakota will fund two new positions to help victims in a state that reports serving 150 trafficking victims in 2014.

The U.S. Department of Justice grant will fund two regional “navigators,” one stationed in Fargo and one in Minot, to help human trafficking victims connect with services.

The dollars, awarded to the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office and the North Dakota Council on Abused Women’s Services, also will support proactive criminal investigations and includes a mandate to focus on labor trafficking as well as sex trafficking.

The grant is the first dedicated funding to serve human trafficking victims in North Dakota, where the commercial sex industry and human trafficking cases have risen along with the influx of oil activity.

North Dakota domestic violence shelters and other nonprofits reported serving 150 human trafficking victims in 2014, including 16 youth, according to the grant application.

The regional navigators funded through the grant, positions modeled after a system Minnesota recently adopted, will serve as a point of contact for victims who need help, as well as coordinating with law enforcement and other victim advocates in the state.

“It really decreases the amount of hurdles victims have to jump through to receive services,” said Janelle Moos, executive director of CAWS North Dakota, which represents the 20 domestic violence programs in the state.

The new positions could be filled before the end of the year, Moos said.

CAWS will receive $900,000 from the grant, plus an additional $100,000 from the Department of Justice for victim services. The North Dakota Attorney General’s Office will receive $600,000.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said his office will use funds to train and equip specialized regional teams to investigate and target human traffickers operating in North Dakota.

The federal dollars will be used in conjunction with the $1.25 million allocated by the state Legislature for victim services, which have not yet been distributed.

Christina Sambor, an attorney who will head a new North Dakota Human Trafficking Task Force established by this grant, said the effort will involve collaboration with several partners, including the U.S. Attorney’s Office and local police and prosecutors.

In addition, the funding will help North Dakota better track human trafficking statistics over the three-year grant period “so that we can really start to quantify and better identify trends in the state,” Sambor said.

While North Dakota has begun focusing more efforts on investigating sex trafficking in the past two years, this federal grant will be the first coordinated effort to focus on labor trafficking in the state. The effort will involve working with Department of Labor compliance inspectors and establishing a protocol for investigating labor trafficking cases, according to the grant application.

U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., urged the Department of Justice in a letter this month to provide North Dakota with federal resources to fight human trafficking.

“As the incidences and threat continues to grow in North Dakota, we have to make sure members of our communities, business leaders, and local law enforcement have the resources they need to address and prevent these horrific crimes, and these funds will help do that,” Heitkamp said in a statement.

The Department of Justice announced $22.7 million in funding to 16 anti-trafficking task forces on Thursday, including North Dakota’s.

Williston gets $27 million federal grant for airport

WILLISTON, N.D. – Williston will receive $27 million in Federal Aviation Administration funding to relocate its airport, allowing the city to move forward with a much-needed expansion.

Rapid growth in Williston has increased boardings at Sloulin Field International Airport from 7,800 in 2007 to more than 120,000 in 2014.

The city is working to relocate the airport about 7 miles northwest of the current location. Director Steven Kjergaard said the FAA dollars announced Wednesday will allow the city to move forward with acquiring the land and completing design of the $254 million project.

“It shows the FAA is really committed to this project,” Kjergaard said.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta visited Williston’s airport in April 2014 at the invitation of North Dakota’s congressional delegation.

Huerta toured the terminal, designed for about 10,000 people per year, which is now the amount of commercial traffic the airport sees in one month.

The current airport was designed for 30-passenger turboprops, but is now operating 50-passenger regional jets and causing some damage to the runway. The new airport could accommodate larger jets.

The FAA also completed an environmental assessment and found no significant impact, a hurdle that needed to be cleared before the city can acquire the land.

The new airport will be called the Williston Basin International Airport.

The city also has an application pending with the FAA for $120 million in additional funding, and anticipates getting news on that application later this year or early next year, Kjergaard said.

The state of North Dakota has committed $58 million toward the project.

Construction on a new airport could begin as early as 2016. Under an aggressive construction schedule, Williston’s new airport could open in fall of 2018.

“We need this as fast as we can get it,” Kjergaard said earlier this month during a Williston economic development event.

Operator seeks changes in status for pipeline

STANLEY, N.D. — The operator of a gathering pipeline is seeking approval from the Public Service Commission to convert the existing crude oil pipeline to a transmission line, allowing companies to transport less crude by rail.

Hiland Crude is proposing to expand a 42.5-mile pipeline in Mountrail County, which has already been constructed and operating since the end of 2014 as a gathering pipeline.

The company proposes to convert the pipeline to a transmission line to accommodate customer requests to connect more oil with the Double H Pipeline, said Andrew McCraw, director of midstream project management for Kinder Morgan, which recently acquired Hiland.

The Double H Pipeline, which began operating earlier this year, also was acquired by Kinder Morgan and sends oil from western North Dakota to a hub in Guernsey, Wyo., which connects with refineries in Oklahoma and the Gulf Coast.

Reversing the gathering line and converting it to a transmission line would decrease the amount of oil being transported by rail and truck, McCraw told commissioners during a public hearing Thursday in Stanley.

The pipeline originates 5 miles south of Ross and ends at the Dakota Plains Holdings Pioneer rail terminal, about 1.5 miles southeast of New Town.

The $15 million project, known as the New Town Expansion, involves construction of additional above-ground facilities, but no additional pipeline miles would be constructed. The proposal includes connecting to a storage tank owned by another company and modifying equipment so the pipeline could transport 36,000 barrels of oil per day, double the current capacity.

Commission Chairwoman Julie Fedorchak said when she joined the commission she had questions about converting gathering lines to transmission lines.

Oil transmission lines, regulated by the PSC, have more requirements than gathering lines, which the North Dakota Industrial Commission recently began regulating.

“I was pretty apprehensive about the whole conversion process because it is giving a company a certificate for a route that already exists,” Fedorchak said. “And our whole point is siting. And that naturally feels like something you need to be doing ahead of time.”

But Fedorchak said she now feels comfortable about the process commissioners have for verifying that the existing pipeline meets PSC requirements, Fedorchak said.

She said she recognizes that it’s valuable for everyone, including landowners, to maximize existing pipelines.

Commissioner Randy Christmann asked the company to provide proof that it obtained waivers from residents of 19 homes that are within 500 feet of the pipeline, which are required by the PSC but not for gathering pipelines.

Fedorchak also asked the company to provide documentation showing how deep the pipeline is buried and more information about the pipeline boring where it crosses the Little Knife River.

No members of the public testified at the hearing.

Commissioners said they will make a decision after reviewing the additional information requested from the company.

Oil production ‘hanging in there’ despite low prices

WILLISTON, N.D. – North Dakota oil production fell less than 1 percent in July but held at an average of 1.2 million barrels per day, the Department of Mineral Resources said Monday.

Director Lynn Helms said North Dakota’s oil and gas industry is “hanging in there” despite low oil prices that have led to a significant decline in drilling.

The inventory of wells that have been drilled but are waiting on hydraulic fracturing crews grew 70 in July to an estimated 900 as companies postpone completing wells until prices recover.

Natural gas production held steady at an average of 1.66 billion cubic feet per day in July, according to preliminary figures.

The state lost ground in July on reducing natural gas flaring, with the amount of gas flared increasing from 17 percent to 20 percent in July, Helms said.

He attributed the increase to the industry’s focus on drilling in areas where oil production is highest, which is also where natural gas production is highest. Another factor was that the Hess Corp. Tioga Gas Plant operated at 88 percent capacity in July while a compressor station was down, Helms said.

The long-term solution to reducing flaring is to get more infrastructure in the core areas, but two gas gathering projects will be delayed a construction season due to difficulty in getting right-of-way approvals, Helms said.

Even during months when the percentage of flaring has declined, the volume of flared gas has increased, which is contrary to the North Dakota Industrial Commission’s goals to reduce flaring, Helms said.

The state had 68 drilling rigs operating Monday, six fewer than August and 131 fewer rigs than a year ago.

Companies are now drilling more wells in less time with improved efficiencies, but regulators are beginning to encounter quality problems with some wells, Helms said.

In the past two weeks, Helms said there have been three wells that had problems with casing and cementing, the layers that protect groundwater zones. The instances have not had any environmental impact because the Department of Mineral Resources has strict rules on casing and cement, Helms said, but it has led to some expensive engineering problems for companies to resolve.

“We’re seeing some quality issues start to develop at this pace,” Helms said.

While oil production dropped about 10,000 barrels per day statewide, the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation saw an uptick in activity with an increase of two drilling rigs and increase of 11,000 barrels per day.

The percent of crude oil transported by rail remained at 47 percent in July and pipeline stayed at 46 percent, the same breakdown as the previous month, said Justin Kringstad, director of the North Dakota Pipeline Authority.

Pipeline proposal adds safety measures for river crossing

WATFORD CITY, N.D. — A proposed crude oil pipeline that would cross the Yellowstone River would be at least 50 feet below the riverbed and include other safety measures to prevent spills, a company representative said Thursday.

The North Dakota Public Service Commission is considering a proposal from NST Express to build a 23-mile pipeline in McKenzie County to transport oil to a rail-loading facility.

The project would involve horizontal directional drilling under the Yellowstone River to transport up to 100,000 barrels of oil per day from about 9 miles north of Alexander to the rail terminal a half-mile north of East Fairview, N.D.

Steven Guenther, pipeline project manager with Buckeye Partners, which designed the project, said during a hearing Thursday the potential for a spill in the river would be “very low.”

The pipeline would be installed at least 50 feet below the riverbed and the company will do additional surveys of the bottom of the river every five years to monitor potential changes, Guenther said.

By comparison, the Bridger Pipeline that ruptured under the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana in January was an estimated 8 feet below the riverbed. That incident dumped 30,000 gallons of oil in the river.

NST Express has contracted with Clean Harbors, the same company that cleaned up after the Bridger spill, to provide cleanup response in the event of an incident, Guenther said. NST Express also will have a trailer in East Fairview with additional spill response equipment.

The 12-inch steel pipeline would have automated valves on either side of the river that could be shut down remotely from a control center in Texas, Guenther said. The maximum amount of oil that could be between the valves is 2,100 barrels, or 88,200 gallons.

The pipe under the river would be thicker – a half-inch – and the line would be inspected every five years for abnormalities, Guenther said.

The pipeline would be owned by NST Express. Buckeye Partners, which operates more than 6,000 miles of liquid petroleum pipelines in the United States, is in negotiations to construct and operate the pipeline. It would be Buckeye’s first project in North Dakota.

A subcontractor has not been selected to do the horizontal directional drilling.

Buckeye has obtained easements from 65 percent of landowners along the route, which is about one-third cropland and two-thirds grazing land. No landowners spoke during the public hearing.

Commissioners complimented Buckeye for making several changes to the pipeline route to accommodate landowner concerns, including avoiding cutting across fields.

“That goes a long way to decreasing the fatigue that landowners are feeling in this area,” said Chairwoman Julie Fedorchak.

The pipeline needs some additional permits, including approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and McKenzie County. The county has approved three 50,000-barrel storage tanks that will be constructed north of Alexander.

If the pipeline is approved, some construction on the $60 million project could begin this fall at the Alexander site, but the pipeline installation would not begin until next spring.

David Mach, a representative of United Piping in Minot and Duluth, Minn., told commissioners that he recently walked a pipeline right-of-way owned by Buckeye in the southern part of the U.S. and he was impressed with the construction and maintenance.

“They put it back the right way,” Mach said. “And that’s what we like to see up here.”


Fracking leads to spill at neighboring well

KILLDEER, N.D. – A valve that failed during hydraulic fracturing operations caused a neighboring oil well to release fluids for 36 hours, leading to a spill of more than 600 barrels of produced water.

Burlington Resources Oil & Gas Co. reported the spill Tuesday at a well in Dunn County about 13 miles north of Killdeer, the Department of Mineral Resources said Thursday.

Spokeswoman Alison Ritter said the company had shut down the well and crews were monitoring it while fracking a neighboring well owned by the same company.

A valve failure in the frac operation caused an uncontrolled release of produced water to occur at the neighboring well, starting about 8 a.m. Tuesday, Ritter said.

An estimated 630 barrels, or 26,460 gallons, of produced water and 20 barrels, or 840 gallons, of oil were released but contained on the well location, Ritter said. All but 20 barrels had been recovered Thursday, she said.

Additional fluid being released was diverted into tanks, Ritter said. Crews regained control of the well about 8 p.m. Wednesday after pumping heavy saltwater down the well, Ritter said.

A state inspector has been to the location and will continue to monitor cleanup operations.

Richard Suggs, a petroleum geologist with the Department of Mineral Resources, said the fracking process of injecting fluids at high pressures into a well can cause pressure to increase in adjacent wells.

“If you put a bunch of fluid in the rock and you push a lot of fluid around, it basically makes a wave,” Suggs said. “It’s like dropping a pebble in a puddle and watching the waves dissipate.”

A Department of Mineral Resources rule that took effect last year requires companies to notify other well operators within 1,320 feet if they are planning fracking operations.

Companies have several options to protect their wells, including shutting down operations, Suggs said.

“We do have rules in place to try to prevent something like this from happening,” Ritter said. “This was a case where the valve failed and it couldn’t be prevented.”


Athletics return to N.D. school that has grown with the oil boom

Alexander High School teacher and football team defensive coordinator Mike Rizzo, center, leads the high school and junior high teams through warm up stretches at a practice August 21, 2015. Andrew Cullen/Forum News Service

Alexander High School teacher and football team defensive coordinator Mike Rizzo, center, leads the high school and junior high teams through warm up stretches at a practice August 21, 2015. Andrew Cullen/Forum News Service

ALEXANDER, N.D. – When this growing Oil Patch town has its first high school football game in 27 years today, the focus won’t be on the scoreboard.

“It’s just a coming together of a community,” said Superintendent Leslie Bieber. “It’s exciting to see it.”

Comet Athletics are back in Alexander, where the school building is doubling in size to keep up with a growing student enrollment fueled by oil activity.

Bleachers are expected to be packed for the football team’s first game, just as they were earlier this week when the school hosted its first varsity volleyball match in 11 years.

“People are just excited to be able to have that feeling of identity again,” Bieber said.

Alexander Public School, which had about 55 students before oil development took off in the area, recently had a co-op arrangement with neighboring Watford City for athletics.

With 210 students enrolled this fall, and enrollment projected to be 360 by 2018-19, Alexander officials decided it was time to break away from Watford City and bring back its own teams.

High school senior Jacquan “Jayy” Morgan, whose family moved from California to Alexander about five months ago, said he “went crazy” when he heard the town was starting its own team.

“My head exploded,” Morgan said. “I knew I would be on this team and part of it. It’s history.”

Alexander native Jack Heen, 14, has played sports in Watford City, but is excited to play for his hometown team this year.

“It’s way better because then you know everybody on your team,” Heen said. “You go there (Watford City) and you’re the new kid, kind of.”

With a roster of 13, Alexander doesn’t have enough football players to compete against other North Dakota teams yet. The Comets will play six-man football and compete against eastern Montana teams. Today’s game is against Grass Range/Winnett.

Many of the players have never played organized football before. And none of them, including Coach Kevin Clausen, have played six-man football, which has some rules that are different than traditional football.

“We’re all kind of learning together,” said Clausen, who taught and coached in Fairview, Mont., before leaving teaching in 2013 to work in the oil industry.

Community members have rallied behind the school to bring back athletic programs, raising $50,000 in one night during a fundraiser last spring, Bieber said.

Everything for the team is new, from the sod to the scoreboard to the uniforms. New goal posts were installed last week and Clausen planned to paint the field after practice Thursday.

Lifelong Alexander resident Wade Aasen is among the Comet alumni who plan to attend today’s game, which is part of the community’s annual Old Settlers Day celebration. Aasen, who played football until he graduated in 1973, said the athletic programs bring the community together and are good for the students.

“It gives you town pride and pride in yourself,” Aasen said.

Alexander native Kathy “Jess” James was among the fans in the packed stands for the first volleyball match last week.

“I’m so proud of all of those girls,” said James, who plans to attend every home game. “Some of them have never played.”

Clausen, who played for the Mayville State University Comets, said he could feel a buzz around the Alexander school this week in anticipation for the first game.

“It seems like a lot of the spirit of the community revolves around the sports program of the school,” Clausen said. “You can just see how excited everybody is. I just feel thankful to be a part of that.”


Interest in six-man

Justin Fletschock, assistant director for the North Dakota High School Activities Association, said that while North Dakota does not have six-man football, like the Alexander Comets are play, schools have inquired about it recently.

Grenora has a co-op arrangement with Westby, Mont., to play six-man football, and Mandaree has inquired about starting a team, Fletschock said. The association could considering sponsoring six-man football in two years if enough teams are interested, he said.

“We’re very open to it,” Fletschock said.


Oil Patch economy settling into ‘new normal’

WILLISTON, N.D. – Drilling is down and hotel vacancies are up, but participants at a conference Wednesday said there are still reasons to be optimistic about Williston’s economy.

Peter Elzi, a consultant whose firm has done more than 70 market studies on Williston, said low oil prices will make 2015 and 2016 challenging years for the city. But the area has a lot of other economic activity, he said, such as a new airport in the works and construction of new schools and government buildings, along with pipeline and gas plant expansions.

“There’s still people coming here and there’s still activity,” said Elzi, a principal with THK Associates in Denver. “People forget the most valuable oil that an oil company owns is still in the ground. It’s a bank for them. It’s there when prices recover.”

Shawn Wenko, executive director for Williston Economic Development, which organized the conference, said 2015 has been a good year so far development, but it’s at a pace that’s a “new normal.”

“Everybody got used to what happened between 2010 and 2015, and that was a tremendous amount of growth, numbers that were off the charts,” Wenko said. “And that’s a trajectory that’s not sustainable.”

One area that expanded rapidly in Williston was the addition of new hotels, with 16 hotels that opened in the city since 2010, said Amy Krueger, executive director of the Williston Convention Visitor’s Bureau.

While hotel rooms were difficult to find in Williston a few years ago, hotels have been averaging about 55 percent full in 2015, Krueger said.

The national average for hotel occupancy is about 70 percent, said Elzi, who said he paid $286 to stay at Williston’s Hampton Inn this week.

Hotel prices in Williston have started to come down, to an average daily rate of $122, but are still about $20 to $30 higher on average than neighboring cities of Minot and Dickinson, Krueger said.

Job-seekers continue to walk into the Williston office of Job Service North Dakota, but not at the pace they did in 2012 and 2013, said director Cindy Sanford.

The Williston area now has 1.5 jobs for every person, compared with six to seven jobs available for each person in 2011 and 2012, Sanford said.

Companies are now less likely to provide employee housing or pay for workers to travel home, Sanford said. Employers have dramatically cut back on overtime, which is the biggest reason workers have left North Dakota, Sanford said.

“We have had people walk in and go ‘Can I file for unemployment because I’m only working 40 hours a week?’” she said.

But Job Service has started to see some of those workers come back, in part due to apartment rents that have dropped, Sanford said.

Williams County had 38,924 workers in March, a drop of about 5,000 jobs since November, according to Job Service statistics.

Even with job layoffs that have occurred, the Williston area had 1,100 job openings as of this week, including 190 jobs in the oil industry, Sanford said.

As oil prices recover, Elzi said it’s going to be difficult to attract workers back to Williston now that the economies in other areas of the country have improved.

“It’s a harder recruit to say, ‘Would you like to freeze to death in February in the Bakken?’ when you’re competing with some other parts of the country,” Elzi said. “So filling some of the jobs is going to be a little bit of a challenge for folks.”