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Tester at energy forum

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., spoke at an energy forum Friday at Montana State University Billings in downtown Billings. Other members of the Billings community and surrounding towns talked about jobs and opportunities at the Bakken oil play.

The Bakken oil boom that has turned Williston, N.D., into a chaotic circus offers Billings and Eastern Montana both opportunity and challenges, said business and community leaders who gathered Friday in Billings for an energy forum.

A dozen panelists, including Billings Area Chamber of Commerce members specializing in energy or development, talked about the necessity of preparing for the boom before the worst of it arrives.

The boom in western North Dakota that is moving west is so crazy that someone needs to put “a rope around this chaos for a while,” said one panelist.

About 110 people attended the forum at the downtown campus of Montana State University Billings.

Mike Sanderson of Sanderson Stewart Engineering in Billings said the oil and natural gas boom has been “very successful” for his company, which opened a small office in Williston.

But he asked attendee U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D.-Mont., to get Silver Airways (formerly Gulfstream International Airlines) to add a direct flight from Billings to Williston because his company is spending so much money transporting its engineers from headquarters in Billings or from Bozeman to the oil patch.

“It’s a challenging place to do business. You can’t find places to live and energy companies are waiting to steal your talent,” he said.

Silver Airways is considering adding three additional direct flights from Billings, including to Williston, that would not be subsidized by federal money.

Roads are taking a “tremendous beating” from the heavy trucks, Sanderson said, and roads in Eastern Montana aren’t ready for that kind of abuse.

Nancy Weaver of Lewistown said an oil company has already bought a historic building in town and oil giant Halliburton is nosing around town. One of her concerns was protecting the major spring six miles south of Lewistown that produces 90 million gallons of pure water daily.

“If drilling should occur at the base of the Snowy Mountains, this would drastically affect the Madison aquifer we depend on for all of Montana,” she said.

On the other hand, half her town’s population is over age 50 and the high-paying oil field jobs will give young people a reason to stay or move to Lewistown, Weaver said.

Kendall McCrae of Synergy Station in Billings is developing a website that would link business opportunities and jobs in the Bakken with Montana companies.

Chamber president John Brewer said there are wonderful opportunities to increase tourism. One company is bringing 20 out-of-state workers to Billings every week and putting them up at a hotel to train them before shipping them off to the oil patch, he said.

“Tell them to get their workers here,” Tester said.

Tester is running for re-election against U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., in Montana’s 2012 Senate race.

Steve Arveschoug, who heads Big Sky Economic Development, said that to get ahead of the rapid development, Billings needs an industrial park with pre-built infrastructure like Bismarck, N.D., has. That and a regional development plan would help Billings become an energy distribution center, Arveschoug said.

The state also needs to move utility lines so there is a clear, unobstructed route to Williston and the tar sands of Canada, he said.

Tester said that would be expensive and that money is difficult to come by in Washington, D.C., these days.

First Interstate Bank panelist Bruce Parker said as much as one-quarter of the vehicle loans his bank is making are due to energy paychecks from the Bakken and other areas.

“If we want our kids to stay at home and have a good job, this is a huge opportunity,” he said. “But, again, we have to do it right.”

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