BISMARCK – The group charged with crafting a comprehensive energy policy for North Dakota is recommending state lawmakers spend nearly $1 billion on roads and bridges in the next two years and fast-track funding for upgrades in western counties affected by oil and gas development.
The 16-member EmPower North Dakota Commission, which was created in 2007 and is made up of representatives from all of the state’s energy sectors, will present its 2014 policy updates and recommendations Thursday to the Legislature’s interim Energy Development and Transmission Committee.
The recommendations – some similar to the panel’s 2012 report – include funding transportation infrastructure to the level identified in a study released in July by the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute.
The study estimated that the state needs to invest $548 million in unpaved roads, $377 million in paved roads and $70 million in bridges during the 2015-17 biennium.
Western North Dakota experienced a 25 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled in 2013, and as oil and gas activity continues and agricultural products are moved, the increased traffic will require additional and more-frequent repairs and replacement, the EmPower report states.
The 2013 Legislature made “substantial progress” toward meeting critical infrastructure needs by investing $2.5 billion in oil- and gas-impacted areas, nearly double the amount appropriated in 2011, the report notes.
However, “continued growth of our energy industry and the state’s economy are leading to infrastructure shortfalls and more must be done to assist communities in closing the gap,” it states.
The EmPower group is urging the state to pass legislation within the first 30 days of the 2015 legislative session to provide adequate funding for oil- and gas-impacted areas so they can bid projects early enough for the 2015 construction season. The session begins Jan. 6.
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, chairman of the interim energy committee, said lawmakers are working on proposals to address road needs in oil country right away next session.
But whether the Legislature will fund roads and bridges statewide to the tune of $1 billion, he said, “There are some other things we have to take a look at.”
“No. 1 is the western counties. They need to be taken care of,” he said. “We need to make sure the feeder routes coming into those state highways are taken care of.”
EmPower ND also recommends the “immediate” creation of an authority focused on regional infrastructure – roads, airports, emergency and medical services, water and wastewater – to coordinate strategic planning efforts the hub cities of Dickinson, Minot and Williston and the top oil-producing counties of Dunn, McKenzie, Mountrail and Williams.
Other areas of the report suggest continuing the state’s Housing Incentive Fund program to support the workforce; boosting funding for research and development of lignite coal and oil and gas; and providing incentives to grow the energy sector, including sales tax exemptions for oil-gathering lines and value-added energy facilities.
EmPower ND Commission members met Tuesday for a final walk-through of their recommendations and legislation they’d like to bring forward.
Mark Nisbet, Xcel Energy’s principal manager for North Dakota who represents wind energy on the commission, said that while infrastructure is a big issue, members also are proposing greater access to career and technical education programs and training facilities to help fill the state’s job openings, which numbered 23,500 in July.
They’re also urging the state to commit more research dollars to improving carbon capture technologies and enhanced oil recovery using carbon dioxide or other gases, and to ensure tax certainty for wind energy to encourage future investment.
“We think because of the unique position the state is in, we have the opportunity to look forward and ask, ‘What could we do?’ ” Nisbet said.
Nisbet credited Department of Commerce Commissioner Al Anderson, who chairs the EmPower ND Commission and will present the report Thursday, with bringing together energy interests “that are sometimes at different ends of the spectrum.”
The EmPower report is available athttp://www.business.nd.gov/uploads/14/empowernd_finallowres.pdf, and the UGPTI report can be found at http://www.ugpti.org.
Reach Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.