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New oil conference connects Grand Forks to the Bakken — again

GRAND FORKS — Do business in the west, network in the east.

Grand Forks will be home to the second major oil industry-related conference in a matter of months when the inaugural three-day Bakken/Three Forks Shale Oil Innovation Conference and Expo opens Monday in the Alerus Center. Hundreds of attendees will learn about new technology and government policies affecting the extraction of oil and gas.

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The event is being organized by BBI International, a Grand Forks-based media and event-organizing company. BBI publishes several energy-related monthly trade magazines, including one focused on businesses in the Bakken oil region.

CEO Joe Bryan said both their conferences and publications offer a platform for businesses in the energy industry to connect. That’s especially important in the rapidly growing Bakken region.

“A big part of doing business out there is getting to know people that you need to know,” Bryan said. His brother, Tom, is the company’s president and editor-in-chief.

The event’s organizers are trying to make the event different from the North Dakota Petroleum Council’s annual meeting that took place at the same venue in September. They say the conference will focus on emerging technologies related to the industry that can be applicable to oil plays across the country, not just the ones found in western North Dakota.

Nearly 700 attendees from 41 states and five Canadian provinces are signed up, said John Nelson, BBI’s marketing director, as are 160 exhibitors.

BBI began as a consulting firm to the ethanol industry in the 1990s, about a decade before the federal government’s renewable fuel standard led to some ethanol being blended into gasoline, which boosted the industry.

“We’ve seen the whole evolution of ethanol,” Joe Bryan said.

The consulting business involved doing feasibility studies for proposed ethanol plants, he said. Originally, their conferences and newsletters were meant to promote their consulting work.

“And both the conferences and the media side of the publications just took off, so that’s what’s left of the company,” Joe Bryan said. ”We still do some consulting, but it’s a small portion of what we do.”

BBI has between 30 and 40 employees, Bryan said. The company’s headquarters was moved to Grand Forks just a few years ago, around the same time the two brothers took it over from their father and stepmother.

Today, BBI publishes Ethanol Producer, Biomass, Biodiesel and Pellet Mill magazines. In May 2013, it launched The Bakken Magazine, which is geared toward those doing business in one of the nation’s fastest-growing oil plays.

Keith Lund, vice president of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp., said their focus during next week’s conference is to promote the region as “a staging area for western North Dakota activity.”

“And it’s our hope that companies recognize the value of northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota as a place to possibly expand,” he said.

Lund will moderate a panel of several companies that have done just that. Steffes Corp., based in Dickinson, but which purchased a plant here in 2012, will be one example. The company, which manufactures steel oil field products such as tanks and walkways, had trouble finding enough employees in the saturated workforce in western North Dakota, and looked to expand here.

Joe Rothschiller, Steffes president and chief operating officer, said they have 80 employees currently in Grand Forks, and will likely add 20 to 30 this year. In addition to the workforce here, Grand Forks offered educational institutions and relatively affordable housing, he said.

“I believe that many companies here in the west, their growth is limited by the labor pool,” Rothschiller said.

Other events include a keynote speech Tuesday from Bruce Hicks, assistant director of the Oil and Gas Division of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, as well as panels on natural gas flaring and energy policies and regulations.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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