Aging of the Guard: Color Guards in southwest ND consist of mostly retired veterans

BELFIELD — Larry Johnson points to a grouping of six 4-by-6-inch photographs taped to a wall of a room in the Belfield American Legion Hall.

The photos show the Belfield Legion Color Guard in formation at different funerals.

After a moment, Johnson looks at fellow Legion and Color Guard member Larry Ewoniuk and says, “a lot of those guys are gone now.”

It’s the same story everywhere in southwest North Dakota, where aging veterans organizations mean fewer young members — especially those willing and able to be involved in activities such as Color Guard for funerals and holiday services.

Eleven members of the Belfield Color Guard showed up for Monday’s Memorial Day services. “A perfect number,” Johnson said. There was a common theme amongst the group though.

Almost all are retired. The two youngest members there Monday were 50 and 33 years old.

“Are any of these people coming after us, are they going to be there for us?” Johnson asked. “We don’t know.”

Color Guards in southwest North Dakota are typically run by the American Legion. The group’s duties are to advance and retire the colors, perform Taps, and often present American flags to family members at funerals.

All Legion Color Guards consist of veterans who served in a branch of the military during a time of war. But, as Vietnam War-era veterans age, there are concerns that a looming struggle to get members will become an enduring challenge.

Art Wanner, who organizes the Dickinson (N.D.) Legion Color Guard, said he’s fortunate enough to have a “good core group” that turns out 10 to 14 members for Memorial Day, Veterans Day and funeral services.

“The fellas who start doing it, they don’t want to give it up,” Wanner said. “They’re dedicated and the folks we do it for, they appreciate it and that’s what it’s all about. But it’s hard. It’s hard to find the people.”

Recruiting the next group of veterans may require some waiting.

Wanner and other Color Guard leaders in southwest North Dakota said they try to get non-participating veterans involved in the services with little success.

Two of the biggest challenges is convincing potential Color Guard members that they don’t have to be at every funeral or holiday service, and getting their employers to allow them more freedom to take off work for those services.

“The biggest thing that would help us is if the employers pushed it,” Wanner said. “They have those individuals working for them. If they allowed them a little bit of flexibility to give them some time off to perform that service as a patriotic thing to do, that would be the key. A lot of those employers are hesitant to give them that time off.”

Jessica Clifton, the veterans service officer for Stark, Billings, Dunn and Hettinger counties, said it’s a struggle for younger veterans to become involved in organizations such as the Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars because of the demand placed on them at home.

“They’re just too busy working and raising families,” she said. “They don’t have the time to join veterans organizations and Color Guard.”

Clifton, who is retired Air Force and has young children at home, said she would enjoy doing more with veterans organizations, but sees that as a part of her future.

Billy Hanson, the 84-year-old Legion commander in New England, said he speaks to younger veterans he knows, sends them letters and has even gone as far as having the club pay their yearly dues in an effort to get them more involved.

“We’ve got several of them here that were in different wars,” Hanson said of his local veterans. “They just don’t want to get involved.”

Hanson said, so far, his club has been lucky. They still get enough people together to perform Color Guard duties. Seven is the average number, he said.

“They’re all in their 60s or 70s that are all participating in the Color Guard,” Hanson said.

Kevin Carvell, Mott’s Legion commander, said about six months ago he convinced another veteran, a recent retiree, to join the club’s Color Guard. But that man came in on the heels of the group losing one member to health problems. Another, an 88-year-old World War II veteran, participated in Color Guard for the final time Monday.

“We’re maintaining,” Carvell said.

Wanner said while the Dickinson Color Guard gets a new member every so often, there’s a nearly universal fear of what they’re committing to. He said some are hesitant to join either because of the time commitment, or a fear they’ll be unable to properly carry out the duties.

“The older folks who have been away from the military for a while, they’re scared to try it,” Wanner said. “They don’t know if they can do it.”

Increasing age hasn’t stopped the Belfield Color Guard.

Minutes before the town’s Memorial Day services — and with a thunderstorm looming to the west — Johnson led seven riflemen, two flaggers and a bugler on a three-block march from the Legion Hall to the Belfield Theatre.

Along the way, the few people on the streets — including three young boys — stopped, removed their hats and paid respect to both the men and the American flag they were marching behind.

“I’m proud of my guys,” Johnson said.

Western North Dakota energy service leaders, legislators optimistic after oil conference

BISMARCK — As the price of oil hovered around $50 a barrel last week, many western North Dakota oilfield and energy service companies turned to the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference to try to get a feel for where their industry is headed.

Most said they now feel better about the future of their businesses, as do state legislative leaders.

“What stood out to me was really the positivity,” said Matthew R. Kostelecky, president of B. J. Kadrmas, a Dickinson oilfield service company. “I really thought we’d be coming here with a lot of doom and gloom, obviously. But after listening to a lot of these CEOs and important people in business, it really just seems like this is the time to be efficient, smart, creative, kind of weather the storm, and it’s all going to come back.”

The past two years have been the 37-year-old Kostelecky’s first oil price downturn. He took over the business midway through the boom, only to watch work slow after a couple years. He paid close attention to what Whiting CEO Jim Volker and ConocoPhillips Lower 48 President Don Hrap said when they spoke at the conference.

“The attitude is that ultimately there’s a positive outlook for the future, but I think this is a new normal,” Kostelecky said. “For my generation, this is the first time that we’ve seen this. So it’s new to us, but the industry veterans, they’ve been there, they’ve done that. It’s just like anything else. You have to get past these difficult times.”

State Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson, said he felt conference attendees left invigorated by Thursday speeches from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and former college football coach Lou Holtz.

He said Trump’s energy platform resonated with the industry folks in the building, and tied into themes he heard throughout the week.

“We need consistent, reasonable regulation that protects the environment while allowing people to do business,” said Armstrong, the NDGOP chairman and son of Dickinson oilman Mike Armstrong. “All they want is tax certainty and regulatory certainty. That’s what they want. Especially for some of these tertiary things for the oil industry.”

Along with an industry push for better regulations, innovation at the wellhead and the future of value-added petroleum byproducts and industries were focused on throughout the week.

North Dakota Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, a Dickinson Republican, sat through multiple sessions, listening to everything from the future of natural gas liquids to industry price predictions. He said he feels that while recovery may time some time, “things are looking up for the industry.”

“I heard this: $65 oil is the new $100 oil because they’ve now got so many efficiencies,” Wardner said. “Technology is moving forward in allowing the industry to get more oil out of the rock.”

Paul Steffes, CEO of Dickinson-based Steffes Corp., said many industry leaders anticipate gradual uptick in work. Hearing that, he’s a more enthusiastic about business prospects.

Steffes Corp. manufactures equipment used at the wellhead during the extraction process, most notably its engineered flare systems that have decreased the amount of natural gas flared throughout the Bakken.

Steffes said he spoke with several people who said their companies will need more equipment to support their drilled but uncompleted wells (DUCs) once they’re put into production.

“It certainly has a possibility that we could be spiked and be much busier than we have ever planned we were going to be, as soon as they finish these DUCs,” he said. “It is possible that we’ll be busier than we’ve ever been. That is kind of a scary thing.”

KC Homiston, the co-owner and president of Highlands Engineering in Dickinson, said he’s accepted the oil industry’s “new normal.”

The oilfield aspects of Highlands’ business have declined during the slowdown because, as a civil engineering and land surveying firm, they service companies who put up rigs. There are less than 30 rigs in North Dakota today. Throughout much of 2014, there were more than 190 rigs.

“That’s the bread and butter of what we do for them,” Homiston said. “A lot of our work is dependent on the number of rigs that were in play.”

Homiston said he thought the conference had “less buzz” and fewer people compared to the one he attended in May 2014, when the price of a barrel of oil was around $109 and there were 191 drilling rigs in the state. Still, he’s more optimistic about the industry than he has been.

“You talk to people, I think they still have a smile on their face and they think the long-term optimistic conversation is still there,” he said.

Homiston said he anticipates a slow uptick in business once DUCs starting going into production.

Referencing speeches given by from MBI Energy Services CEO Jim Arthaud and other industry leaders, Homiston said the overarching message from the conference was simple.

“Hang in there. It’s coming back.”

Watch: Trump answer our questions

Forum News Service reporter Amy Dalrymple, who is a lot smaller than me, were front-row at the Donald Trump press conference Thursday. In a room full of national and state media, Amy kept getting overlooked by Trump. So, she showed me the question she wanted to ask and, moments later, the Republican presidential candidate pointed to me and I asked what the federal government’s role should be in the oil industry.

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Toward the end of the press conference, I had the chance to ask him what North Dakota Congressman Kevin Cramer’s role would be in a Trump administration, as Cramer has been eyed as something of an energy advisor by Trump. While Trump didn’t answer that question, it created an interesting moment where Trump brought Cramer to the podium to speak in front of the national media.


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This is everything we compiled from Trump’s visit to North Dakota, including the protests outside.

Holtz motivates energy conference in leadup to Trump

BISMARCK — Lou Holtz joked Thursday that the last time he was in North Dakota, oil was $100 a barrel and he wasn’t homeless.

The former college football coach and ESPN commentator, who lost a Florida home in a fire last summer, encouraged energy industry leaders and workers to take the recent oil downturn in stride during a speech preceding Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s appearance at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference.

“Quitting is a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” he said. “Until you fly on solar energy, oil is going to continue to be very, very important.”

Holtz, a former board member for Watford City-based Nuverra Environmental Solutions, only lightly touched on energy in his speech and went through standard motivational material that has made him a sought-after speaker nationwide.

Holtz peppered multiple jokes throughout his 40-minute speech. His few moments speaking about oil were tied into his motivational theme, and for a moment, Holtz even got political.

“We all have injustices done,” he said. “It would bother the daylights out of me in this oil business, where our government subsidizes all kinds of fancy things and puts all kinds of restrictions on me. But you can’t be bitter about it.”

Continue reading “Holtz motivates energy conference in leadup to Trump”

Whiting CEO: We believe in the Bakken

Volker says oil companies still profiting despite lower oil prices

BISMARCK — The chief executive of North Dakota’s largest oil producer said Wednesday that his company is still making big money on Bakken and Three Forks wells despite the industry’s economic downturn.

Whiting Petroleum Corp. President and CEO Jim Volker said during the second day of the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference that he foresees a gradual upturn for the state’s oil industry as crude prices steadily creep upward and more drilled but uncompleted wells are slowly brought into production.

“We’re a big believer in the Bakken, not only its future but even where we are today,” Volker said. “This is why we believe so much in the Bakken. We put our money where our mouth is here.”

Volker pointed to technological improvements for allowing production companies to operate with fewer rigs, allowing them to continue investing in the North Dakota Oil Patch — even if it’s not at the same rapid pace as years prior.

Volker said even at Wednesday’s price of about $50 a barrel — a comment that drew applause from the crowd — a Whiting well is still projected to produce a future net revenue of $27 million at a cost of about $7 million.

Whiting produced more than 4.1 million barrels of crude from nearly 1,500 active North Dakota wells in January 2016. In Stark County, the company had 131 wells that produced around 180,000 barrels.

“This is all happening with improvements in technology and improvements in the way we drill and complete,” Volker said. “Not only are we cleaner, we’re more efficient and we’re doing it for less money.”

Don Hrap, president of the Lower 48 states for ConocoPhillips, echoed that in his keynote address later in the day, as he said innovation and entrepreneurialism created out of necessity by the 2015-16 oil price downturn will make the industry “smarter, better and more efficient.”

“I think that technology innovation is what brought us this renaissance and also it’s what’s going to support us as we move forward,” Hrap said.

Hrap showed charts detailing the ups and downs of oil over the past 150 years, and said while this recent price drop is one of the most sustained in history, it could lead to more level and sustainable long-term prices.

“As we adapt and adjust, we have a tendency to provide the supply that’s needed that kind of moves us to a lower price,” he said. “That’s important to us, because it says we can’t count on $100 oil. We need an industry that’s supportive of a price that’s more moderate.”

Volker, meanwhile, wrapped up his speech with a summary of how Whiting recently paid down $500 million in debt.

Paul Steffes, CEO of Steffes Corp., a Dickinson manufacturing firm heavily invested in the production side of the oil business, said hearing that “certainly makes me feel good.”

“They’re a major player in the Bakken, so it’s an important piece for North Dakota to see Whiting be healthy,” Steffes said.

Lynn Helms, director of the state Department of Mineral Resources, said Volker’s optimism about pushing forward with a slow ramp-up is “consistent with what all the other operators are saying.”

Volker pointed out Whiting’s obligation to continue drilling wells, especially those on federal and tribal land, or risk losing their leases. Helms said those comments prove that rigs will continue to operate in the state, even if there’s only around 30. North Dakota had 28 drilling rigs as of Tuesday.

“I think that’s going to help the state to stay in this 30-rig paradigm that we’re in, because those drilling obligations are really expensive to walk away from,” Helms said.