Tribal-Based Exploration

Missouri River Resources looks to become the first tribal-owned and operated Bakken exploration and production company led by an oil industry veteran.
By Emily Aasand | September 17, 2014

Missouri River Resources, the only Indian reservation oil exploration and production company in North Dakota, is taking full advantage of the Bakken oil play.

David Williams, a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes located in Western North Dakota, has 20 years of experience in the oil field and is heading the production and exploration efforts. Williams began working for Gulf Oil in the early 1980s and split 12 years working for Gulf Oil and Chevron, before moving back to North Dakota to work in education.

A graduate of New Town High School, was teaching and coaching in New Town, N.D., just before the Bakken came to flourish. With his experience working on oil rigs, he knew he needed to take advantage of the opportunity to start an oil and gas production company on the Berthold Reservation.

“I thought it’d be more valuable to help our people with this oil and gas issue and see what I could do,” says Williams, president and CEO of Missouri River Resources. “I started looking for experts and I actually went down to Colorado to visit the Red Willow Production Company—a very successful oil and gas company on an Indian reservation—and asked for their business plan of how they created their company and they gave me it.”

Williams used that business plan as a model for his own but he knew it’d be a challenge without having easy access to petroleum engineers or tenured geologists.

“First you need resources, but you also need expertise,” says Williams. “That’s been my primary objective—to hire as many experts as I can find from attorneys and petroleum engineers to geologists and landmen. Five years ago there wasn’t a petroleum engineer line. Opportunity only comes where you look, and I actually went to Calgary for a petroleum conference and found my first board member and expert in Regina in 2009.”

After adding another expert from Calgary to the team, the three of them created a business plan in 2010 and Missouri River Resources was officially formed in 2011.

“We have four petroleum engineers that are working for us,” says Williams. “Three in the midstream, and then one in exploration and production. We have our COO Bill McCabe, and we have John Kingsley who is our lead petroleum engineer in the midstream and one of the original founding guys.”

“We’re spending $10 million a well, so we’re very frugal and we want to make sure we do this right,” says Williams. “We want to be quick here, but we’re not going to hurry. We want to make sure that we do this right so that we have the ability to show the people—the industry—that the Three Affiliated Tribes can operate its own wells.”

Two of the hardest obstacles for the company to overcome were finding land to drill on and getting capital. Missouri River Resources has about 30 wells they have working interest on, but are getting ready to drill their first wells as an operator.

“Finding land that wasn’t leased out in 2007 has been difficult, but we do have a 300 acre parcel and we’re working on drilling our first four wells,” says Williams. “We’re working with service company Baker Hughes out of Texas.”

With a limited supply of unclaimed land, Missouri River Resources is focusing on looking for ‘flips’ in the area. Flips are when oil companies look to sell the land that they’re producing on.

“We’re looking for someone reselling their land so that we can buy it and drill our own wells,” says Williams. “The greatest value of this oil is at the wellhead and, sure, working value is nice, but it’s nice to get 100 percent of the profits too.”

The other issue Missouri River Resources has faced is acquiring enough capital, but they do have the tribe’s support behind them.

“We had to overcome a huge credibility hurdle and prove that we could do this first and foremost, so we went to our investors and with the tribe, and they had faith in us to help us move forward,” says Williams.

All of Western North Dakota ––including Missouri River Resources–– has faced a battle with having enough infrastructure to keep up with the increased traffic that comes with oil production. 

“We’re working on a truck route around New Town,” says Williams. “There’s been a lot of good work as far as roads, but we’re battling housing and traffic, so it’s a process, but it takes  leadership from our side to initiate stuff. Our leadership is doing a good job and we just have to keep it up.”

The North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources recently issued restrictions regarding flaring and the tribe has to have a gas and oil take-away plan before they can start drilling.

“We’re working on creating more pipeline on the reservation with a group called Paradigm Midstream Partners,” says Williams. “We’re focused on pipeline and eventually getting that oil to a refinery.”

Impacting the future
Having worked on wells for 15 years, Williams decided to start teaching classes on oil and gas at the Fort Berthold Community College to help educate people about the oil and gas industry.

“For the last three years, I’ve been teaching there and we’ve incorporated a workforce development program within our company,” says Williams. “We want to be an overall company for our people and we’re looking to get that program off the ground.”
There has been an increased interest in the oil field, and Missouri River Resources wants to properly train those interested.

“We’re taking the TrainND program the state colleges have created and tweaking it to be the TrainIndian program,” says Williams. “There’s a lot of interest and people really want to know what’s going on. The next step, the huge step, people have to take is getting out there. I think we have a responsibility to our own people to train them. We want to make sure that we start this workforce training development from square one and we want to include, not just our tribe, but all of the reservations.”

Williams and his team wants to create a place where people can come and have the ability to make a great living for themselves and their families.

“We want all of the tribal members to come and have a place to stay and to make a good living so they can go back to their families and take care of them,” says Williams. “I’ve been in the business for 20 years and it’s a great, honest living, but it is hard work.”

Author: Emily Aasand
Staff Writer, The Bakken magazine