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A train carrying crude oil passes through Williston, N.D., on Friday, May 12, 2017. Forum News Service file photo

Williston, Texas city reaping benefits of smart moves, oil exporting

WILLISTON, N.D.—The Permian came to call on the Bakken Thursday afternoon, May 31, and what followed was an interesting exchange of information and a lot of "me too" moments.

The story of how Williston handled its boom has played out in a very public way, with many national media parachuting into the area to write stories about the community's growing pains.

Officials from Midland, Texas, organized the visit with Williston so they could learn more about how city leaders handled the boom, coming out the other side with what Williston Mayor Howard Klug called a "lot more lung capacity."

"I like showing off our town," Klug said. "We are a lot better than we were six or seven years ago."

The event kicked off with an introduction by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who talked a about the impact lifting the oil export ban has had on Williston. The Democratic senator was instrumental in working with her colleagues to convince them to lift the decades-old ban. She suggested that has been crucial in helping communities like Williston and Midland avoid the bust.

"I love the subject of this meeting," she said. "This is the kind of long-range planning that communities need to do and that industry needs to do and that public officials and policy makers need to do to help stabilize and level economic activity as it relates to the oil industry."

Technological breakthroughs have led to a shale revolution, one that has made America a dominant energy player on the world stage.

"That has really helped level the peaks and the valleys, too," she said. "We don't see what we saw in the '80s, when I was taking phone calls as the tax commissioner from people in Williston whose property taxes had tripled, and they didn't know how they were going to keep their house."

Heitkamp said each boom-bust cycle has taught communities like Williston and Midland important lessons. "And we can learn more from talking to each other, too," she said.

The oil export ban played a particularly important role in helping American oil and gas companies during the downturn, Heitkamp said.

"If we couldn't export American oil today, we'd have a 3 million barrel surplus of oil," she said. "What would that mean to the price and the economic activity in your community?"

Infrastructure has been another key to avoiding the bust, Heitkamp said. "We have to be able to move energy and make sure it's the safest method possible," she said.

And the third key has been investing in workforce.

"This isn't some kind of second-choice job," she said. "This can be a first choice, and you will get paid really well. (Oil industry officials) need to talk about what kinds of good-paying jobs you pay to American workers. You don't talk about that enough."

Oil companies also weighed in on key steps they felt Williston has taken to come through the boom years well. Among those was the TrainND center, which provides customized workforce training, mostly to the oilfield, but also for other sectors such as health care.

John Lee, with Oasis, said the job specific training from TrainND was crucial to their efforts to gear up a capable and highly trained workforce, in part because it can respond so quickly to workforce needs. Companies cannot wait for a "next semester" to start training. They have to get their employees trained while the market bell is still ringing.

"We use them for safety training pretty much across the board," Lee added.

The director of TrainND, Deanette Piesik, said the industry in turn was a critical partner in making the center what it is today.

"They shared their safety trainer with me," Piesik said of Oasis.

That was during a labor shortage that made it difficult for everyone to hire key personnel. "That was a great partnership," Piesik said, noting that since TrainND must hire industry experts, so must offer a salary commensurate with what industry pays.

TrainND was created in 1999 after it was realized that industry were sending thousands and thousands of workers outside the state for such training.

"The state saw an exodus of business personnel and workforce leaving the state for training, and then not coming back to do the jobs," Piesik recalled. "Halliburton alone was spending $25,000 to send people out of state for five weeks to get training."

By working together, oil companies, city leaders and college officials were able to forge a powerful partnership to make the case for a training center in Williston. Oil and gas contributions to the center are about $7.5 million, Piesik said, and have helped make the award-winning center possible.

"I get funding based on the number of employees in my region," Piesik said. "And we are accountable for providing numbers to the state about how many are trained for the northwest region."

City department heads also weighed in on Thursday's discussions, talking about what issues they decided to invest in first, and why.

Williston city commissioner and state Rep. Brad Bekkedahl ran through revenue sources that helped Williston accomplish its infrastructure improvements.

Williston chose to address infrastructure needs first, Bekkedahl said, and then work on quality of life issues. Watford City, meanwhile, looked at some quality of life issues first. He suggested only time would tell which approach had been the best.

Klug acknowledged that building for the boom has meant substantial debts for the city.

"Brad would say our debt is probably $240 million," the mayor said. "And we will probably add 60 to that when we get our airport built. But it is manageable debt, as long as we maintain the Hub City funding."

Bekkedahl said the city had no choice but to act at the time, and that all of the debts the city has incurred to date were necessary.

"We had people living in tents in the Walmart parking lot," he recalled. "It was deplorable."

But, he added, there is a plan to bring the debts back down, one that is working.

"And it's going to pay big rewards in terms of attracting people," Lee suggested. "There are tons of great things to do here."