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Study: 9 out of 10 approve of ND oil production

FARGO -- The oil boom in western North Dakota caused chaos for many rural communities, but in just the past year considerable progress has been made in areas such as housing and road improvements.

That's according to a group of petroleum industry officials who met Thursday with members of The Fargo Forum newspaper's editorial board.

Steve McNally, a general manager for Hess Corp., said when he arrived in North Dakota in January, finding a place to stay in cities such as Minot and Williston was nigh impossible.

"At that time in Williston, I think there were zero homes on the market. Now, there are more than 100," McNally said.

The situation has also changed in Minot, where last January hotel rooms and apartments "couldn't be found for love or money," according to McNally.

Now, he said, Hess Corp. has surrendered the hold it had on apartments and hotel rooms because development has resulted in many more hotel rooms being built.

"The occupancy rate is something like 85 percent," he said.

Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said companies working in the Oil Patch want people to know there are still tremendous employment opportunities, but he had a specific message for schools looking to help graduates seek their fortunes there.

Ness said business training is good -- companies need accountants and specialists in human resources and safety -- but graduates don't have to have energy backgrounds.

"These guys will teach them energy," Ness said, referring to the oil company executives.

Ness unveiled a recent survey the Petroleum Council conducted to gauge perceptions of oil and gas development in the state and to identify areas of concern.

Statewide, 84 percent of respondents indicated the state is headed in the right direction and 89 percent indicated they favor oil development, according to the survey.

The survey's statewide findings were based on telephone interviews with 600 North Dakotans. The results had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

Roughly three-fourths of respondents statewide indicated truck traffic from oil production was a concern, while 30 percent said they felt hydraulic fracking was a worry.

The oil industry executives said they give credit to local officials for their efforts to improve and expand infrastructure, and they said all too often problems in the Oil Patch get more attention than the positive things going on.

"We don't want the community leaders to feel like they're getting beat up. They have a tough job," said Mark Johnsrud, CEO of Power Fuels, a trucking firm based in Watford City.

According to Ness and others, issues the oil and gas industry is dealing with include:

r Finding ways to increase the efficiency of oil and gas extraction, as presently only 2 percent to 7 percent of what's in the ground is reachable;

r Convincing Congress of the economic benefits of oil industry tax breaks and that they should be off-limits in the federal cost-cutting debate;

r Expanding pipelines as a way to reduce road traffic as well as the "flaring" of natural gas at oil drilling sites.

"It's a waste," Ness said, referring to the practice of burning the natural gas that rises to the surface along with the oil because the sites lack pipelines or other means of transporting gas.