SIDNEY — Russ Atkins poured from a white plastic cup a loose, gelatin concoction that wiggled as Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer poked and pulled at it with his fingers.
"It feels like the tongue of a cow," Schweitzer said.
The gel is part of a slurry mixture that, along with millions of pounds of sand and water, gets pumped underground at extreme pressure to free up underground oil deposits.
It's a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and Schweitzer spent the day Tuesday touring a frack site 45 miles out of Sidney run by Continental Resources, one of the major oil production companies in the area.
He followed that visit with a meeting in Sidney, where he addressed the concerns of city leaders. They're eager to secure more money from the state to improve the city's strained infrastructure and better handle the influx of people to the area and the problems they bring.
At the frack site, Schweitzer praised Continental Resources' efforts and promised that the state would continue to support fracking in the Bakken oil play.
"We want to get as much of that production as we can," he said.
New technology that permits these companies to drill horizontally has opened up the area to new oil recovery over the past two years.
Atkins, the Bakken operations manager for Continental Resources, explained that the oil sits in a series of pockets underground. By fracturing the rock between the pockets, the company produces a large oil pool that can then easily be pulled from the ground.
"We're not cracking the Bakken," Atkins said. "We're making the cracks there bigger."
Schweitzer joined in with the officials from Continental Resources, assuring the public that fracking was safe and posed no threat to those living in the area.
"Look, 99.2 percent of what goes down that hole is sand and water," Schweitzer said.
And the gel — the other 0.8 percent of the slurry — is made mostly from plant material, he said. Montana requires oil companies to list all the materials they use in creating the slurry mix they pump underground.
Schweitzer calls Continental Resources the "big dog" in the Bakken. The company has 22 rigs running, three of them in Montana, and Schweitzer is as eager as anyone to see Montana's share of the oil boom nurtured.
The problem with the Bakken, he said, is that the deep end of the pool sits in North Dakota. Montana has the shallow end.
To compensate, Schweitzer said Montana's gas and oil taxes are lower — about 9 percent compared with North Dakota's about 12 percent.
The permitting process also moves faster in Montana than it does in North Dakota, he said. The state needs to be as competitive as it can, he said.
Atkins couldn't be happier to see the boom spill over into Montana. A native of Cut Bank, he's followed oil production all over the country until he was hired by Continental and was brought back to Montana.
"Now I tell the kids they don't have to leave the state of Montana to get a job," he said.
Standing in the buzzing, dimly lit control room at the frack site, Schweitzer asked the Continental officials what they wanted to see from the state of Montana.
"Just continue to support the industry," said Brad Aman, vice president of northern region production for Continental Resources. "We're all for doing the right thing."