North Dakota Oil Expo Comes Amid Troubled Times for Industry

The three-day Williston Basin Petroleum Conference and Expo starts Tuesday in Bismarck

By James MacPherson, Associated Press
An oil rig in North Dakota. Shutterstock photo

BISMARCK, N.D. – North Dakota’s oil expo and conference kicks off at a troubled time for the industry, with depressed prices and a drop in drilling activity that has hurt both oil companies and oil-producing states like this one. The three-day Williston Basin Petroleum Conference and Expo starts Tuesday in Bismarck with a theme of “Bakken Forward,” featuring seminars and talks aimed at making it through the rough patch. The event closes with an address by Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump.

A rundown on what’s on tap:



North Dakota Petroleum Council President Ron Ness said some 2,800 people are expected to attend the conference, down from a record 4,300 two years ago. At that time, oil was about $90 a barrel and nearly 190 drill rigs were active in western North Dakota’s oil patch. North Dakota oil is now fetching less than half of that, and the number of drill rigs has slipped to 25, the lowest in about a decade.

But expo-goers are still bullish on the industry, said Ness, whose group represents about 500 companies working in the state’s oil patch. Engineers, geologists, investors, CEOs and government officials from almost 40 states and a few countries will take part in seminars and networking.

“We have the best speaker lineup in history, with about a dozen CEOs focusing on key issues facing the industry and how we move forward,” Ness said.



Started in 1993 with just a handful of attendees, the expo is sponsored by the Ness’ group, the state Department of Mineral Resources and the Saskatchewan Ministry of Energy and Resources. The event grew alongside with the explosion of activity in North Dakota’s oil patch, which lies within the Williston Basin, a 134,000 square-mile-area that includes the Dakotas, Montana and the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

The gem of the basin is the Bakken formation that encompasses some 25,000 square miles within the Williston Basin, about two-thirds of which is in western North Dakota. The oil is trapped in a thin layer of dense rock nearly two miles beneath the surface. The U.S. Geological Survey has called the Bakken formation it the largest continuous oil accumulation it has ever assessed.



The event has alternated in recent years between locations in North Dakota and Canada. Two years ago, the conference in Bismarck injected more than $2 million into the city and neighboring Manda, said Sheri Grossman, chief executive officer of the Bismarck-Mandan Convention and Visitors Bureau.

This year’s estimated impact is about $900,000, Grossman said.

Still, she said, the conference still will be the biggest draw to North Dakota’s capital city this year. Bismarck airport manager Greg Haug said the airport will be busy with largely booked flights in and after the conference. However, hotel rooms were still available in town late last week, due to a drop in attendance and an increased number of rooms that have been added.



The address from Trump is included in the expo’s $400 registration fee, but a ticket for his address alone is $30. The speech will be preceded by an address by former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz, who is a Trump supporter.

The expo has drawn some star power in recent years, including conservative radio and television host Sean Hannity, who drew standing ovations for his pro-oil address two years ago. Among the attendees in 2012 was Tony La Russa, the former St. Louis Cardinals manager who guided the team to the World Series title the year before. La Russa was invited by billionaire oilman Harold Hamm, the chairman of Oklahoma City-based Continental Resources Inc., the largest leaseholder of oil-drilling rights in North Dakota.