Meet the Real North Dakota Petroleum Council

The story behind the Bakken’s leading voice
By Staff | September 06, 2013


The North Dakota Petroleum Council isn’t your average state-based trade organization. On a mid-August morning, The Bakken magazine sat down with every member of the team to find out why. We talked about the daily challenges NDPC has in educating North Dakota citizens, business owners, community leaders and private investors on the oil and gas industry of the Williston Basin. The interviews revealed the NDPC’s accomplishments during the 2013 legislative session, the team’s reason for optimism in 2014 and why the Bakken shale play isn’t, as Ron Ness, council president put it, a western N.D. thing, a N.D. thing or even a U.S. thing. “This is a world game changer,” he said, sitting in his office that morning. “This resource is a game changer for the way the world will look at energy.”

Why Everyone Is Looking
Based on the average day for Tessa Sandstrom, NDPC’s communication’s manager, it is easy to see that the world is becoming fixated on the Williston Basin. The organization takes weekly media requests from Japan, Switzerland, Norway, England, Australia, Germany and others, she says, in addition to the national media attention the Bakken has received for the past few years. “A group of decision makers from California visited just last week. We don’t usually go to other states,” she says. “We have people coming here from around the world.”

For Ness, the reason for the global attention is simple. “They want to understand, is this Bakken real?” he says. “I had two executives here because this [the Bakken] is changing the way Toyota thinks about making cars and what their fuel of the future is going to be.”

The attention on the oil patch in western N.D., isn’t always positive however. “At times it gets overwhelming,” Ness says, “but then you look at this as an opportunity to attract the great minds here that can help us achieve successful results while proving out technology.” The technology in the play isn’t an element Ness is worried about. “People know that we are going to take this technology developing right here and we are going to be able to export it all over the world.”

To help the Bakken shale play truly blossom into a global leader for unconventional oil and gas retrieval practices, Ness and his staff have transformed their organizational objectives from those centered on member services and lobbying, to include education and diplomacy. According to Ness, the team has spent much of the past two years trying to educate people across the state about the opportunities created from the oil and gas development. “If we do this right, we will have generations of tremendous upside,” he says.

During the past year, Ness estimates he spent roughly 80 percent of his time working to educate the public, the media and foreign countries about the Bakken. Although the team continues to answer questions about the basics of hydraulic fracturing or the geological extent of the Williston Basin, Sandstrom says, the education efforts are helping in- and out-of-state individuals comprehend the magnitude and complexities of the play. During educational events, the halls and meeting places are always packed, Ness says, the communities are getting more educated and the questions are getting more sophisticated. “One of the great things about North Dakota is that we have been able to get across the state and educate people because they truly do want to listen,” he says.

The teaching efforts aren’t just about answering questions or explaining the industry’s processes. For Sandstrom, education means reaching out to young students and future grads on the opportunity of the play. The NDPC staff currently works with and targets every school grade class from third to seniors in high school. The goal is to highlight the multi-faceted nature of the oil patch, she says, including the job market. “There are more jobs than just those dealing with oil, dirt and heavy equipment. There are very technical jobs and employers are looking more and more for those with two-to-four year college degrees,” she says, adding, “there are a lot of people with degrees that are needed now and are going to be needed in the future.”

Goals for the Future
Although education has become a main staple of the NDPC’s focus and outreach efforts, the team also maintains its exhaustive work to provide solutions in the Williston Basin for everything from flaring to dust control. Kari Cutting, vice president of the NDPC, concentrates her time working on regulatory affairs and state issues.  Cutting, facilitates the work of the NDPC regulatory committee, a group of NDPC member company employees who are knowledgeable in issues of extreme importance to the state, including air quality, environment, and endangered species, among others.  Cutting’s work places her in contact with nearly every possible state and federal agency.  Cutting and the regulatory committee have established relationships with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the U.S Forest Service, U.S. EPA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as several state agencies. 

“Developing a working relationship with agencies allows you to collaborate towards a successful solution,” said Cutting “That is the purpose of all of NDPC’s efforts, whether it is government relations, education and outreach, or regulatory issues­­—find a solution to the challenges that come with the huge opportunity that is the Bakken.

“One of our member CEO’s said it best, ‘We sit down with all the stakeholders at the table, define the problem and then work together to come up with a workable solution.’ We are North Dakota nice.”

And the work rarely slows down. Topics that will define a Cutting’s agenda in the coming months include  mitigating wildlife impacts in areas of development and serving on a committee to discuss disposal options for naturally occurring radioactive material.

Alexis Brinkman, regulatory affairs manager, also works on regulatory and legislative issues. Brinkman spent many hours during the previous biennium lobbying at the Capital. Like Cutting, Brinkman can cite several examples of how an NDPC staffer has helped to solve an issue in the Bakken. Due to the attention on flaring in western N.D., Brinkman has had to help conquer easement fatigue, a term she says explains the fatigue landowners have experienced as pipeline installers request passage through a section of land. On any given tract of land, three to four pipelines could be planned, she says, and eventually landowners get tired and just say no. But, because pipeline infrastructure is the main element needed to reduce flaring, Brinkman had to find a way to ease the minds of those landowners and make it easier for them to say yes. In the 2013 legislative session, Brinkman brought together a group of landowners to help form the legislation currently in place that has helped easement fatigue and sped up the pipeline installation process without putting further stress on landowners.

The issue of flaring remains the number one issue for Brinkman, however, and she is currently working to find a solution to reduce the amount of flaring over the next two years. “We know that we are going to have to make significant progress in decreasing flaring or we are going to see more flaring legislation next session. We would love to deal with it prior to that,” she says.

The Main Message
Since the main installment of the Bakken’s development began roughly seven years ago, Ness says, the NDPC has grown significantly. In 2007, the council consisted of 150 members, and today the membership is closer to 400. The members drive Ness and his staff to put together community events ranging from city-wide BBQs, to golf outings to fundraisers. The message he hears constantly from his members is one of public education and more importantly he says, of being part of the solution to issues created by oil and gas retrieval. “When people ask us if they should become a member, I ask if they are part of the oil and gas industry and if they want to be part of the solution to any challenges,” he says.

As for the NDPC staff, there is one theme that seemed to be woven into every conversation we had during that mid-August morning behind-the-scenes look into the trade organization. Before Ness, Cutting, Sandstrom, Brinkman and Brittany Rud, member services manager, ended their conversations, they were asked what they believed was important to note about the Bakken, what they believed an article on the NDPC should include. “This is a substantial economic driver, a substantial resource that is going to have a long-term effect on what we do in North Dakota and every aspect of what North Dakota is all about,” Ness said.

Brinkman put it in real-life terms. “So many of the kids that I grew up with are able now because of the Bakken to make a home and a career in North Dakota, A lot the generations before me had to leave.”
Sandstrom shared the same sentiment. “The economic impact of this is just so huge. Sometimes I think it is understated,” she noted.

“We had exported all of these great North Dakota young people and now they come home to find work and that is not going to change,” Ness said as we ended our conversation. “There are issues with development, but we will figure it out. The rest is all semantics about how we make it work. That is going to solve itself over time.”