BUTTE – The oil-and-gas boom in far eastern Montana has shifted to a steadier, more sustainable growth mode – but still needs government investment in everything from higher education to infrastructure to help it along, industry officials and others said here Monday.
Speaking at the Montana Economic Development Summit in Butte, they said all levels of government must work together to tackle the evolving needs of the industry workforce and communities where they live.
“People coming in here want a life,” said Niles Hushka, president of Kadrmas, Lee & Jackson, an engineering firm. “They want to live in these communities. … How do we give these people something to do? …
“We need to plan for the new, challenging workforce that is coming in, the new dynamic. … We need to look at ways to make sure we can keep them there so the industry can continue to grow.”
Hushka said much of the focus has been on building physical infrastructure, such as expanding schools and improving roads. While those aspects are still needed, they won’t be as critical in coming years, because the growth of the past decade will slow to a steadier pace, he said.
Still, some on the panel said Montana needs to invest in or assist in developing basic infrastructure needs, such as schools, sewer-and-water systems and affordable housing, for the influx of workers in the Bakken oil fields along the Montana-North Dakota border.
“We think the state of Montana has an obligation to provide some infrastructure for these rural communities,” said Cary Hegreberg of the Montana Contractors Association. “We cannot expect corporations to invest capital here if there is no place for their employees to live, no place for them to flush their toilets and no place for their kids to go to school.”
Hegreberg said his association is working on proposals to bring to the 2015 Montana Legislature to address the issue.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed a bill this year that would have created a multimillion-dollar state fund to finance infrastructure improvements in parts of eastern Montana impacted by oil development. He said it was too costly for the state budget.
Hegreberg said the projects are a “huge opportunity” for Montana contractors to work and provide jobs.
Panel members and oil industry officials also said Monday that Montana needs to invest in “human infrastructure” as well, including social services and education.
Ryan Lance, the CEO of ConocoPhillips and a petroleum engineer graduate of Montana Tech, told reporters that 14 percent of the petroleum engineers in this country graduate from Montana Tech, and that the state’s university system should continue to bolster that program at the Butte campus.
Hushka also said not just anyone can come to the oil fields and find a job any more, and that education programs must prepare more workers that match the needs in oil-and-gas production, which is seeing big leaps in technology, such as electronic controls and diagnostics of oil wells.
The easing of the boom and the move to a more sustainable growth pattern should give the state and local communities more time to collaborate and plan these efforts, he added.
“I want to say that (the development in Montana) is on a stable path,” Hushka said. “That accelerated growth curve is gone. … Don’t hitch your wagons up and come to eastern Montana and expect to find jobs, because they’re not there anymore.”