WDAY: The News Leader

Published May 13, 2012, 10:21 AM

Bismarck Booked for Big North Dakota Oil Expo

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Restaurants, rental cars and hotels are already booked and Bismarck's airport is expecting an impressive fleet of oil company-owned business jets to crowd the tarmac.

By: JAMES MacPHERSON, Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Restaurants, rental cars and hotels are already booked and Bismarck's airport is expecting an impressive fleet of oil company-owned business jets to crowd the tarmac.

Officials believe a three-day expo later this month spotlighting North Dakota's prosperous oil patch is bringing the biggest influx of visitors to the state's capital city since a professional bowling tournament rolled into town more than 30 years ago.

The Williston Basin Petroleum Conference and Expo is set for May 22-24 at the Bismarck Civic Center. The event, the biggest ever scheduled in Bismarck, is expected to inject about $1.7 million into the city and neighboring Mandan, said Sheri Grossman, Bismarck-Mandan Convention and Visitors Bureau's director of sales.

"We're really excited," Grossman said. "It's really a nice way to showcase Bismarck and Mandan, as well as the entire state."

Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said some 4,000 people are expected to attend the conference. People are coming in from more than 40 states and countries as far away as France, Norway and Nigeria, he said.

The expo will feature some 70 speakers, from politicians to top oil company executives, and industry-specific seminars. Officials from Montana and South Dakota, and from the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and .Manitoba, are slated to give updates on oil activity in those areas, which border North Dakota.

Started in 1993, the expo is sponsored by Ness' group, the state Department of Mineral Resources and the Saskatchewan Ministry of Energy and Resources.

The event has alternated in recent years between locations in North Dakota and Canada. It was last held in Bismarck two years ago when about 2,750 attended the event.

Ness said the 300 booths that were available this year sold out within minutes of going online in February.

Grossman said all 2,500 hotel rooms in Bismarck and Mandan have been booked, as have rooms in most communities within a 100-mile radius of Bismarck.

"We're sharing the love," she said.

Dozens of dormitory rooms also are being used to house expo-goers at Bismarck State College and at the University of Mary in Bismarck.

The Pirogue Grille, an upscale 70-seat eatery in downtown Bismarck, normally is closed on Mondays. But owner and chef Stuart Tracy said he'll open the restaurant on the Monday preceding the expo, which begins on a Tuesday.

"Some people will be arriving early and looking for option and we'd like to be one of those options," Tracy said. "For us, it's almost a no-brainer to have a chance to grab some of that revenue stream."

Bismarck airport manager Greg Haug said the airport will be busy.

"Pretty much everything is sold out, from rental cars to seats on airplanes," he said. "Everything is full."

The airport also is expected to be crowded with private business jets, Haug said.

"We'll see a lot of expensive, heavy iron on the ramp over the days of the conference," he said.

Haug and Grossman, of the convention and visitors bureau, said the previous biggest event to come to Bismarck was a women's professional bowling tournament in 1979. That event, which lasted several weeks and drew thousands of bowlers and fans, is expected to be bested by the oil expo in just three days.

The 20th annual conference drew only a few hundred attendees until just a few years ago. The event has grown with the explosion of activity in North Dakota's oil patch, which lies within the Williston Basin, a 134,000 square-mile-area that includes the Dakotas, Montana and the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

The gem of the basin is the Bakken formation that encompasses some 25,000 square miles within the Williston Basin, about two-thirds of which is in western North Dakota. The oil is trapped in a thin layer of dense rock nearly two miles beneath the surface.

The U.S. Geological Survey has called the Bakken formation it the largest continuous oil accumulation it has ever assessed.

North Dakota's oil production has increased exponentially in the past decade with improved horizontal drilling techniques into the Bakken shale and the Three Forks formation below it.

North Dakota was the ninth-largest oil-producing state in 2006, but has risen to No.3. The state is expected to surpass Alaska within a year, trailing on Texas.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.