Montana Energy 2012, the first exposition of its kind in Billings, sold out quickly as more than 350 people came seeking a piece of the oil riches flowing out of the Bakken shale formation.
Companies selling everything from shovels to the latest and priciest earthmover filled 196 booths for the two-day conference in the Expo Center at MetraPark.
Over coffee, business leaders traded stories of big oil profits spiced with oil patch problems. The two-day Montana Energy 2012 conference is sponsored by the Montana Contractors' Association, Big Sky Economic Development, Kadrmas, Lee & Jackson and the Montana Petroleum Association.
Sam Tallis, president and partner in Texas-based Shale Exploration LLC, said Tuesday that his company is moving five of its 10 employees from Scobey to Billings and will hire 10 to 15 more people to staff a new office at the Crowne Plaza Hotel.
On Monday, the Texas company working the Bakken presented a $130,000 donation to buy iPads for all the students in Scobey Public Schools.
Agricultural Express President Carl Baltrusch said sales for his Billings business jumped 70 percent last year and skewed his customer mix toward oil.
"We ran over 200 belly-dumpers last year in Bakken, mostly on the North Dakota side."
But Baltrusch couldn't find places to park an RV for his employees or scare up a hotel room in a town of 1,407.
"We were on a waiting list for a hotel room in Killdeer for six months," he said. "We've never let that room go."
Mike Waldenberg of Central Plumbing & Heating in Great Falls, was hoping to find partners to work in Cut Bank and Shelby.
"The big guys are the people doing this Bakken boom that we hope they will come to Montana," he said.
In the sunshine in front of the Expo Center, oil field players formed a cellphone circle and dialed for dollars.
Inside, all types of oil companies shared booth space with wind, solar energy and water clean-up companies. Even archaeologists showed off their services, all chasing some of the estimated 20 billion barrels of crude trapped deep in the Bakken oil shale in western North Dakota and Eastern Montana.
Tommy Nusz, chairman and chief executive of Oasis Petroleum, said since his company was formed five years ago, it has become one of the most active companies in the Bakken. Oasis has leased 330,000 acres in the Williston Basin and operates 19 drilling rigs punching 120 oil wells a year.
"There's a tremendous potential," Nusz said, saying Oasis agrees with Continental Resources owner Harold Hamm that the Bakken contains 20 billion barrels of recoverable oil, five times more than the latest official government estimates.
The deepest pool of Bakken oil lies in western North Dakota where there is oil everywhere, Nusz said. Pushing west into Montana and north into Canada moves away from the heart of the play, he said.
"You've got to be patient with it and create the environment for it to play out in Montana the way it did on the North Dakota side," Nusz said.
Ten years ago, the Bakken produced 120,000 barrels of crude a day. Today, production is 600,000 barrels and could jump to 1.5 million barrels per day in the next five years, Nusz said.
After his luncheon speech, a dozen people lined up by Oasis' top dog to shake his hand, slip him a business card and deliver a 30-second sales pitch. When his turn came, Republican State Sen. John Brendon of Scobey shared his Bakken riches dream.
"I'm hoping it's deep enough to reach our farm. Keep drilling," he told Nusz.
Then Brendon said he will work during the next legislative session to keep more tax funds in communities such as Scobey that are feeling the impacts, rather than sending half the money to Helena or Missoula.
A road from Scobey to Wolf Point can't handle all the oil and grain trucks now and there are no plans to improve the 23-mile stretch, he said.
"That road was built by donkeys and horses years ago. That road is going to be trashed pretty soon," Brendon said.
Sen. Max Baucus, who chairs the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, predicted the full Keystone XL pipeline will be built from Canada to Texas ports along the Gulf of Mexico because it is the "safest and cheapest" route to markets for Montana crude.
Montana exports five units of energy for every two it consumes, the opposite of most states and Baucus said that imbalance causes miscommunication.
"I sometimes find energy importing states understand Montana about as well as San Franciscans understand Sidney," he said.
Roundup native Kelly Kelly, who works for Cudd Energy Services of Houston in the oil fields around Williston, N.D., called Cudd employees "the Marines of the oil field."
But even the Marines storming the beachhead don't know how long the Bakken play will last, he said.
"How many years? If I knew that, we wouldn't have to worry about working again," he said.