Opportunity knockin’ in the Bakken

4. Jon BennionBy Jon Bennion, Government Relations Director of the Montana Chamber of Commerce

Known as the “Treasure State,” Montana is celebrating 150 years of resource development this year as it commemorates the arrival of tens of thousands of miners in 1862. These new arrivals came in search of gold and silver, and within a few years, the territory of Montana was established in the Rocky Mountains.

Several decades later, a new sort of gold rush once again spells opportunity for the state. At the center of this opportunity is the Bakken oil formation in eastern Montana and western North Dakota. While this is not the first time that this “black gold” resource has been a significant factor in Montana’s economy, new technology and global oil prices have created more interest and activity for this area of the state.

But with increased opportunity comes increased risks and problems. A spike in population growth in rural eastern Montana creates new issues for infrastructure, schools, housing and community services. These issues can bring such rapid change that many long-time residents may no longer recognize the communities they have known for years.

What do regular Montanans think about these new opportunities and potential risks?

As part of its annual polling of Montana voters (600 likely voters, 4.1 percent margin of error), the Montana Chamber asked respondents whether they would like to see the state government promote more oil and gas development or discourage it because of potential impacts to the environment. The results were beyond what we expected.

Most could have predicted that a majority of Montanans would favor more oil and gas development. However, few could have imagined that more than three-quarters, or 76 percent, would feel that way. It’s hard to find anything in polling where people agree so much on a question.

We’ve seen this support translate into positive action as well. For decades, the environmental obstructionist crowd has been effective in mobilizing its small minority to appear like a noisy bunch. With their tiny numbers and big out-of-state budgets, they have been able to stop a number of big resource projects around the country and within Montana.

But times appear to be changing, and the silent majority seems to be more aware of how they can have a positive impact in bringing more good-paying jobs to the state, more government revenues, and better energy security for our country.

Case in point was the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline. The proposed pipeline would not only carry crude oil out of Canada into refineries into the U.S., it would also have on-ramps for Montana and North Dakota crude from the Bakken.

This project required federal State Department approval since the pipeline would cross an international boundary. This brought about a public input process, which usually is overwhelmed by negative comments from the environmental community. Instead, businessfolks, unions and regular Montanans stepped up to the challenge and produced more positive comments for the pipeline than probably any other proposed project. In fact, at a federal hearing in Glendive to receive public testimony, the number of pro-pipeline attendees far outnumbered the obstructionists.

While residents of eastern Montana are largely supportive of new oil and gas development, they are anxious to deal with issues that come as a result of spikes in population. North Dakota, seeing new opportunity, has taken new oil revenues and made significant new investments in infrastructure, schools and tax relief. In the 2013 Montana Legislative Session, the Montana Chamber of Commerce and other pro-development groups will encourage lawmakers to tackle the same issues.

Without question, Montanans want to continue to see their state be the “Treasure State” through responsible development of these significant resources. They see long-sought opportunities that will bring new good-paying jobs, increased funds for schools, and energy security for America.

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