Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Where's our piece of N.D. oil boom?

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One of the biggest industrial booms in several decades is transforming North Dakota from a sparsely populated backwoods hinterland into a busy, prosperous state with no end to the growth in sight.

In some western North Dakota counties, worker camps are swelling the population by as much as 50 per cent.

Roads built to handle 10 trucks a day are crumbling under the wheels of hundreds a day.

North Dakota is now the third-largest oil-producing U.S. state -- ahead of California -- and is expected to surpass Alaska this year to become second to Texas.

What's surprising is whatever regional economic spinoffs might normally be expected from such a massive boom in a neighbouring jurisdiction are not really being felt in Manitoba.

There are stories coming of out of the Bakken basin towns of Williston and Dickinson, N.D., about crisis-level housing and labour shortages, sky-high wages and massive investment in oil production.

This week, the Black Hills Bakken Conference in Spearfish, S.D., is being held to figure out how South Dakota can take advantage of the boom.

Later this month, the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference is expected to attract about 3,500 people to Bismarck to talk shop.

Manitoba's provincial petroleum branch will make a presentation there, but Keith Lowdon, director of the branch, said the North Dakota oil business is not really interested in Canadian players.

And the fact is, oilpatch operators in Manitoba already have a lot on their plates.

"The trouble is we're so busy here we don't even have time to look at them," Lowdon said.

Resources available to develop Manitoba's small oilpatch in the southwestern corner of the province are tapped. In 2011, there was a record $1.1 billion invested in the oil industry in Manitoba.

In North Dakota, one company alone, Oasis Petroleum out of Houston, recently said it is looking to invest $1 billion in the region in 2012.

Winnipeg-based Tundra Oil and Gas, a wholly owned business of James Richardson & Sons, Ltd. has about 1,800 operating wells, mostly in Manitoba, and accounts for about 40 per cent of the provincial production.

Dan McLean, Tundra's president and CEO, agreed with Lowdon the company is so busy in its own backyard it's not looking to its neighbours'.

"We hope to drill about 225 new wells this year," he said.

Those wells in Manitoba cost about $1 million to drill. In North Dakota, new rock-fracturing technology that blasts away rock as deep and long as 3,000 metres -- three and four times deeper and longer than the wells in Manitoba -- means a single well can cost more than $11 million.

The activity may be happening in a state that's just an hour's drive away, but the actual oilfields are quite a bit farther away.

Williston is due south of Regina, making it easier for Saskatchewan and Alberta companies from the much larger oil industries in those provinces to take part.

Klaus Thiessen, president and CEO of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp., said he sees the Saskatchewan and Alberta licence plates.

"I am a little surprised there aren't many Manitoba companies around," he said.

Meanwhile, Grand Forks is launching its own Bakken initiative to take advantage of the economic boom happening a five-hour drive away.

Thiessen said the idea is to market Grand Forks as a staging centre for Bakken.

"We want to position Grand Forks as a place for western North Dakota companies to expand to," he said.

Grand Forks will target oil-service companies that can't find people or want to avoid the sky-high cost structure and lack of housing in the oil basin in the western part of the state. It will also market its city as a location for senior management who want to move their family closer to their workplace, highlighting Grand Forks' highly regarded school systems. And it's even going to market the city to long-time residents in western North Dakota who are getting fed up with rising rent and congested towns where the infrastructure is getting stretched to the limit.

It may be more obvious and easier for Grand Forks to make such a pitch, but it's hard to imagine there are no opportunities for enterprising Manitoba companies to get in on one of the biggest booms in the United States in the last half century, happening just south of the border.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2012 B4

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About Martin Cash

Martin Cash joined the Free Press in 1987 as the paper’s business columnist.

He has spent two decades chronicling the city’s business affairs.

Martin won a citation of merit from the National Newspaper Awards in 2001 for his coverage of the strike and subsequent multi-million-dollar union settlement at the Versatile tractor plant. He has also received honours and awards for his work on agriculture and technology development in Manitoba.

Martin has written a coffee-table book about the commercial and industrial make-up of the city, called Winnipeg: A Prairie Portrait.

Martin Cash on Twitter: @martycash


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