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Davis Refinery to bring jobs, revenue to Billings County

BELFIELD—The proposed Davis Refinery has drawn ire from environmental groups who object to its close proximity to the borders of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. As the North Dakota Department of Health scrutinizes the refinery's permit application, William Prentice, CEO of Meridian Energy Group, spoke about why this refinery is going to be a "good neighbor" to the people of Billings County.

"The local community wants the refinery there," Prentice said in a phone interview. "We've conclusively demonstrated that the refinery cannot be seen from the park. We're having a hard time understanding the resistance...especially when the local community is behind the project."

Prentice estimates that the Billings' annual tax revenues will nearly triple when the refinery is open.

"Meridian has never asked for and will never ask for any tax breaks from the state or county," Prentice said. "Billings county has an annual budget of $2.3 million, the taxes we pay will bring that up to $6 million a year."

That money, Prentice said, would go to providing Billings County funds to improve schools, roads and anything else. The influx of money and workers could even help return a grocery store to the town, as Belfield has lacked one for years now, Prentice said.

"Everything needs a little bit of tender loving care," Prentice said.

The economic benefits to Billings would be quite large, by Prentice's estimation. Construction employment will peak out at 500 jobs and there will be 200 permanent employees at the refinery. However, in terms of broader impact to the local economy, Prentice said that they estimate the presence of this refinery will generate between 2,500 to 4,000 jobs in the area, to a ratio of approximately 12 jobs to every 1 refinery position, based on data from a study of petroleum work in Washington State by the Washington Research Council that Prentice cited and provided to the Press.

"You add one refinery employee (then) they have to hire somebody extra over at the Roughrider Restaurant, somebody else gets hired at the Starbucks in Dickinson," Prentice said. "Refinery positions are very high paying, require a higher level of education and training (and) those types of people tend to spend more money."

These jobs will be tailored towards hiring workers from North Dakota, whose work ethic Prentice praised.

"Meridian was founded by ... the Davis family partnership," Prentice said. "The founder of the company wanted to make sure that the people who are a part of that partnership are descendents of people who are from North Dakota. The purpose ... was to create opportunity in North Dakota, high-paying opportunities that college graduates could take advantage of."

Out of 200 permanent refinery jobs, Prentice estimates 180 will be local hires. Creating opportunity, he said, would entice young people to stay in North Dakota.

"We don't want to be located where all the other refineries are on the coast," Prentice said. "We like Bakken crude and (would) build a nice, lanky refinery that can refine that crude and serve local markets.The benefits stay local. It's a good solution to what I think is a bad resource allocation model."

There will be many technological innovations involved in this refinery, which is the first complex oil refinery to be built in the United States in over 50 years, Prentice said. Those innovations include optical sensors for detecting even slight leaks in oil pipes, which themselves will be constructed using more modern machining methods and will be of a higher quality.

"By the time you'd notice some leaks in an old refinery you're probably already in danger of a fire," Prentice said. "We don't wait for those things to happen. You actually have an optical sensor that looks for leaks...when you have a leak it'll sense it immediately and somebody goes out to fix it. So you don't have fugitive emissions."

Prentice directly challenged assertions made that there should be more federal overview brought into the permit approval process in a major environmental review.

"One of the implications of that comment was that the health department was not capable of doing this adequately, that we were somehow getting away with something," Prentice said. "The rigor of the analysis (that) the North Dakota Department of Health has (shown) ... would not support that contention. The North Dakota Department of Health is as knowledgeable, if not more knowledgeable than any other agency we've worked with on a complex project, including federal agencies. They are a world-class organization."

The refinery will be located north of Belfield, about three-and-a-half miles away from the park's borders. Depending on when the permit is approved, Prentice hopes to begin work as soon as possible, and anticipate the first phase of the refinery, producing 27,500 barrels of gas and diesel a day, to be operation in early 2019.

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