McKenzie County power outage prompts officials to make cold weather plans

WATFORD CITY, N.D. – A power outage in McKenzie County late Friday and early Saturday caused residents of 1,750 households to seek warmth as temperatures approached 20 below zero.

The outage, which for some lasted several hours, is prompting officials in the rapidly growing county to consider purchasing generators and taking other measures to protect residents in extreme cold emergencies.

“There are definitely some major issues here,” said Jerry Samuelson, McKenzie County emergency manager. “We have to work on alternative heat sources or shelters if this is going to be an issue.”

The power outage, affecting 1,750 households in Watford City, Arnegard, Alexander and Rawson, started for customers of Montana-Dakota Utilities about 5 p.m. Friday, said MDU spokesman Mark Hanson.

“We had an issue at one of the substations that was caused by the cold weather,” Hanson said.

Crews repaired the substation and started restoring power in sections so that circuits would not be overloaded, Hanson said.

Some areas of Watford City had power restored at 6:30 p.m. Friday, while some residents of the outlying towns didn’t have power until 11 p.m., Hanson said. A second outage affected residents of Alexander, Arnegard and Rawson from about midnight to 2 a.m. Saturday, he said.

Rural McKenzie County residents who are customers of McKenzie Electric Cooperative were not affected. Many residents sought shelter with friends and family who still had power.

“It got down to 50 in some homes,” Samuelson said.

The temperature in Watford City late Friday was 18 below zero with a wind chill index of 37 below zero, the National Weather Service reported.

Nuverra Environmental Systems, formerly Power Fuels, still had power in its apartment buildings on the edge of Watford City and offered its community room as a shelter, Samuelson said. Officials also were preparing to open the Watford City Civic Center as a shelter, he said.

Arnegard Mayor Virginia Elliot said she stayed with relatives who live in the county and had power, but many local residents went to their vehicles for warmth until power was restored.

“It wasn’t a good situation,” Elliot said.

Hanson said the outage was due to the cold weather, not caused by the growing number of power customers.

However, community leaders said power outages have become more common in recent years.

“Since the oil boom and everything started, we have had a lot more outages,” Elliot said. “Their lines are just so overloaded now that they just have problems.”

In Arnegard, officials are considering building a shelter and getting a generator, Elliot said.

“Hopefully there will be more people in the community here now that think that’s necessary,” she said.

Samuelson said he plans to talk to county commissioners about purchasing generators and making plans for power outages. He also is working to get cots and blankets to fire stations for people who become stranded in winter storms.

A rural power outage would have been even worse, Samuelson said, because it would have affected a lot of people in RVs and temporary housing.

“This is going to be an ongoing thing, I think, with all these additional users in the system,” Samuelson said.

McKenzie County closes unpaved roads to heavy vehicles

WATFORD CITY, N.D. — McKenzie County has closed all unpaved roads to vehicles heavier than 20,000 pounds until 6 a.m. Monday.

Wet weather caused significant damage to gravel roads in McKenzie County this spring and county commissioners said they would close roads to heavy trucks if the area received significant rainfall.

The road closure will shut down all hydraulic fracturing and other oil production activities today in McKenzie County, which has the heaviest amount of oil activity in North Dakota.

UPDATED: Rain could stop truck traffic in McKenzie County; roads open as of 8 a.m.

WATFORD CITY, N.D. – Rain could seriously hinder oil production and transportation in the state’s busiest oil county this weekend.

The McKenzie County Commission is prepared to prohibit trucks and other vehicles heavier than 20,000 pounds from traveling on gravel roads if significant rain falls today, said Chairman Ron Anderson.

“I’m sure there will be people up in arms, but we just can’t take it anymore,” Anderson said.

As of 8 a.m. today, roads remain open and officials are monitoring the weather. In Watford City, it was overcast but not raining shortly after 8.

Record-setting May rainfall exacerbated damage to the county’s gravel roads, estimated to cost $50 million, Anderson said.

The damage is not only expensive, but makes travel difficult for emergency responders, said Jerry Samuelson, McKenzie County emergency manager. One rut measured 17 inches deep, and that was after the road had been bladed, he said.

Some oil companies pulled trucks off the roads during the extremely wet weather, but gravel trucks and water haulers continued driving on the soft roads, Anderson said.

“They were pulling trucks down our roads,” he said.

McKenzie County has 74 active drilling rigs representing 40 percent of the state’s oil drilling activity.

A weight restriction of 20,000 pounds would essentially affect vehicles heavier than a pickup truck.

“At that level of road restrictions, then we can’t even move oil,” said Lynn Helms, director of the Department of Mineral Resources. “No oil, no water movements, anything like that.”

In McKenzie County, 70 percent of oil is transported by truck, according to the most recent figures.

“That would have a really serious short-term impact,” Helms said.

The other significant impact would be on hydraulic fracturing, which requires heavy equipment and trucks that haul water and sand.

The short-term impact on drilling rigs that are up and running would be less severe, Helms said.

One-fourth to one-half an inch of rain was possible late Friday and early today for McKenzie County, said Patrick Ayd, forecaster with the National Weather Service. As much as an inch of rain was possible in some localized areas, Ayd said.

May was a wet month for McKenzie County. Grassy Butte, in the southeast portion of the county, set a new record for May rainfall with 6.69 inches of rain, the National Weather Service said.

Sunny weather during the middle of last week helped to dry out the roads.

McKenzie County officials will monitor the weather and make a determination based on how much rain falls, Samuelson said.

“This is truly unprecedented,” he said.

The county should have taken this type of measure during the wet spring of 2011, Anderson said.

“It took us a year to dig back out of that one,” he said.

Overall, the wet weather is causing spring road restrictions to continue longer than usual, which is slowing down oil production in North Dakota. Typically the spring load restrictions for state highways are lifted around Mother’s Day, but they continue to be in place for Williams, Divide, Burke and northern McKenzie counties, Helms said.

That is preventing some drilling rigs from operating in North Dakota and contributes to a backlog of wells that are waiting for hydraulic fracturing crews, Helms said.

“We may not see our summer production surge until very late in the summer,” Helms said.

‘I didn’t expect to be homeless in the snow’

Toby Butler of Red Bluff, Calif., walks Sunday, April 14, 2013, in Williston, N.D., after submitting a job application at Walmart. Butler arrived in Williston Saturday night on the Amtrak and didn’t expect to get caught in a snow storm. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. – Toby Butler was in for a surprise Saturday night when he arrived in Williston on the Amtrak from Red Bluff, Calif.

He got off the train at the beginning of a snow storm with $30 in his pocket and no place to stay. The 24-year-old said he checked the weather about a week before leaving for North Dakota, but he didn’t know about the winter storm until he was an hour away from Williston.

“I didn’t expect to be homeless in the snow,” said Butler, who had never seen much snow before Sunday.

Butler met a taxi driver at the Amtrak station who gave him a free ride to Concordia Lutheran Church, where he stayed for the weekend.

On Sunday, Butler walked around Williston in the snow and wind to submit job applications at Walmart and hotels. He wore layers and a heavy coat, but forgot gloves.

Butler worked as a roofer in California and decided to move to North Dakota to look for work after he separated with his fiancee and no longer had housing. He’s looking for any job in Williston, but eventually would like to work in construction or the oilfield.

Christian Newman of New Orleans, who moved to North Dakota in January, rides his bike after working a shift at the Microtel hotel in Williston, N.D., during a snow storm on Sunday, April 14, 2013.

Christian Newman of New Orleans was also out in the storm Sunday. Newman, who moved to North Dakota in January, rides his bike to work from his camper near downtown Williston to the Microtel hotel.

Newman said his vehicle needs repairs and a roundtrip taxi ride can cost $25 to $30. He saves money by riding his bike.

“Not everyone here works in the oilfield,” Newman said.


Winter weather causes 4.2 percent drop in January oil production

BISMARCK – A winter storm and subzero temperatures contributed to a 4.2 percent drop in North Dakota’s oil production in January, the Department of Mineral Resources said Friday.

The state produced an average of 738,022 barrels per day in January, according to preliminary figures from the department, down from the record high of 770,111 barrels per day produced in December.

“That is a very significant drop in production,” said Lynn Helms, director of the Department of Mineral Resources.

Helms said he anticipates that the state’s monthly oil production numbers will continue to go up and down through May. February was a strong month, but recent winter storms will likely mean a drop in March production, Helms said.

The month of May will bring spring road restrictions that in some counties may severely restrict truck transportation, Helms said.

Starting in June, North Dakota should again see consistent increases in monthly oil production, Helms said.

North Dakota also saw a production decline in November, in part due to winter weather.

The state’s budget revenue forecast is built around an average daily production of 830,000 barrels a day starting in July, hitting 850,000 barrels a day at the end of 2014 and holding steady through the end of the 2013-15 biennium.

Helms said he expects the production will meet those projections and will likely exceed them if the drilling rig count remains as high as it is now, which is 188.

Flaring of natural gas was at 29 percent for January, up slightly from 28.5 percent in December.

Justin Kringstad, director of the North Dakota Pipeline Authority, recently examined why the gas is being flared, looking for ways to lower that percentage.

A lack of pipelines is attributed for 16 percent of the flaring, a figure that is higher for counties on the fringe of the Williston Basin, Kringstad said.

The remaining 13 percent of natural gas that is flared is because of challenges on existing infrastructure. For example, one extraordinarily high-producing well in McKenzie County that Helms calls “sort of a bully” has such strong pressure that it keeps natural gas from neighboring wells from flowing into the pipeline system that they share. That forces those wells to flare off the gas.

Kringstad said possible solutions include adding compressor stations or adding a loop or parallel gathering line.

Frequent cleaning of pipelines may also reduce flaring, Kringstad said. Natural gas liquids can build up and pool at the bottom of the pipeline, particularly in winter months.

“We need every inch of that pipeline to move the gas,” Kringstad said.

Flaring has been trending downward from a high of 36 percent in September 2011, but it’s been stuck around 29 percent for the past three months. Helms said the goal is to get it to about 5 percent.

Helms said he’s excited about an innovative drilling proposal from the Bakken Hunter company that arranges oil wells to line up with a gas gathering system to make it easier to capture the natural gas rather than flare.

“We’re frustrated and we want to keep making progress on that,” Helms said. “This is the type of thing that really will be a step change.”

Highway 85 in northwest N.D. now open

U.S. Highway 85 from the junction of state highways 50 and 5 is now open, the North Dakota Department of Transportation said this morning. The highway closed Monday due to heavy snow drifts.

State highway 50 from U.S. 85 to state highway 42 near Alamo is now open to one lane of traffic. Crews are working to remove a stuck vehicle to open the roadway to two lanes of traffic.

Call 511 or visit for current road conditions.

Snowplows being pulled from northwest N.D. roads, some highways blocked

Snowplows are being pulled from the roadways and some highways are blocked in northwest North Dakota, according to the North Dakota Department of Transportation.

U.S. Highway 85 is blocked from the junction of state highways 50 and 5 in due to heavy snow drifts. State highway 50 is blocked from the junction of U.S. 85 to state highway 42 near Alamo due to a traffic incident.

Snowplow operators have been working since early morning and are being pulled from the roadways in Dickinson, Williston, rural areas around Minot and areas north of Devils Lake. Snowplows will resume operation early Tuesday morning when it is safe.

Motorists should not travel in these areas, the NDDOT says.

For road information, dial 511 or visit

Man’s tent still standing after Williston blizzard

Jim Menter adjusts his tent Saturday in Williston, N.D., that he reinforced during Friday night’s blizzard. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. – Jim Menter’s tent is still standing today after the blizzard, but it required a lot of work to reinforce it during the storm and trips to his camper to warm up.

The Illinois man who moved to Williston for work decided to see what it would be like to ride out a blizzard in a tent.

“It’s kind of like a snow day for an adult,” Menter said.

He used sleeping bags and other blankets to prevent snow and air from coming into the tent. He worked through the night during wind gusts of 35-mph and higher to reinforce the tent, including placing sand bags over two of the corners to weigh it down. He also used a dust pan and snow scraper to remove about an inch of snow from the inside of the tent.
Menter set the tent up near the RV he recently moved into, where he would warm up periodically by his space heater and change into dry gloves.

“When I’m out there I get comfortable with it and it’s not so bad,” Menter said Friday night.

On Saturday, the blizzard subsided and Menter put makeshift chairs inside the tent so he can hang out inside. He thinks he may try the idea again in the future, but next time would think more about the direction of the wind when he positions the tent.
“It’s kind of a learning experience for me,” Menter said.



Williston man plans to brave winter storm in a tent

Jim Menter sets up a tent in Williston, N.D., late Thursday to see what it’s like to ride out a blizzard in a tent. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. – As most people prepare to hunker down for the weekend storm, one new Williston resident wants to see what it’s like to ride out a North Dakota blizzard in a tent.

Illinois man Jim Menter bought a tent this week after hearing about the forecast.

He doesn’t need it for housing – he recently moved into an RV – but Menter is curious how comfortable of an environment he can set up in a tent during a storm.

“I just want to try it,” Menter said. “It’s a bucket-list thing, basically.”

Menter bought an eight-person tent that is about 6 feet tall so he can set up a space heater in the middle without it getting too close to the tent.

He set the tent up next to his RV as the sun went down Thursday and worked through the night attaching blankets to the windows using zip ties. Menter isn’t sure if he’ll actually sleep in the tent or go back to his camper, but he wants to be in the tent during the peak of the storm.

If the blizzard proves to be stronger than the tent, Menter has his RV just feet away with enough propane to last him for two months.

“I’ll be warm,” he said.

Menter moved to Williston from Decatur, Ill., in late April to look for work. But this is not his first winter in North Dakota.

He moved to Grand Forks in the fall of 1998 to gain experience as a carpenter while people rebuilt after the 1997 flood. He returned to Illinois after deciding it was too cold.

“Now I’m back here again,” Menter said.

Until about a week ago, Menter lived in his pickup, sleeping on foam mattresses in the bed of his pickup that is covered by a topper. Menter, who works at Walmart, moved into the RV about a week ago after buying it from a co-worker who moved into an apartment. He rents a spot for $700 a month in an RV park on the northwest edge of Williston.

“I’m so comfortable now compared to what I had in that truck,” Menter said.