Column: We Need More Visits Like Giancarlo’s

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It’s easy to complain about the federal government — especially here in the upper Midwest.

We’re the forgotten country. The Flyover States. The reddest part of the nation increasingly regulated by a very blue 69 square miles on the East Coast.

So it was something of a pleasure to see federal commodities regulator

J. Christopher Giancarlo visit Dickinson on Monday for a conversation about North Dakota’s oil and energy industry.

Giancarlo, who sits on the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, got a crash crash course in North Dakota energy and the Bakken from Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, North Dakota Petroleum Council President Ron Ness and Justin Bethancourt, ConocoPhillips’s operations superintendent for the Bakken. For more than an hour, the four discussed just what the energy business means to the state.

Giancarlo’s take on the oil business is simple and, frankly, a pretty popular opinion. He believes it’ll stay steady and keep jobs plentiful in the Bakken, but he knows prices probably won’t be climbing back to $100 a barrel anytime soon.

He cited the sluggish world economy and the oil industry’s own technology improvements — such as the ability to drill more than dozen wells on one pad — as reasons why oil will likely never employ as many people in the state as it did a few years ago. He may have said it best when he said oil companies are a victim of their own successes created during the Bakken and Eagle Ford shale booms.

Still, Giancarlo is confident the oil business isn’t busting in North Dakota and beyond, saying that oil companies here can wait for prices to get back to more comfortable levels.

“Some of our overseas competitors are hoping we can’t wait it out — that we can’t wait out the low prices,” he said. “I think they’re going to be surprised when they see this type of ingenuity, preparing ourselves for the lower prices. We can wait it out.”

Most of what Giancarlo said, many already knew. He just helped reinforce it.

What we should really take from Giancarlo’s visit is that he came to North Dakota and other Great Plains states recently — he also met with wheat and cattle producers in both South Dakota and North Dakota — because he wanted to see what his commission is dealing with at the ground level.

He drove through the emptiness of western South Dakota, where cattle outnumber people. He spoke with farmers and ranchers, and oil rig workers — the people producing the commodities his commission is charged with helping regulate.

It’s promising to see a regulator like Giancarlo actually leave the Beltway and visit us simple folk here in the Plains states to learn more about what makes things tick around here and find out just how important this area is in powering the nation, be it by food or fuel.

The Obama administration’s push for more federal regulation hits us right at home, whether it’s the coal, oil or agriculture industries. Wouldn’t it be nice to see those charged with implementing that regulation be forced to walk a day in the shoes of an oil rig worker or a farmer before making decisions that affect their livelihoods?

We need more people like Giancarlo willing to get out of D.C. and see what people in this part of the country are doing to move America forward.

DirecTV Viewers in Western N.D. Still Without ABC Affiliate KMBY

It has been nearly two months and DirecTV customers in western North Dakota are still without local ABC affiliate KBMY.

DirecTV hasn’t been carrying KBMY — which is based in Bismarck — or North Dakota ABC affiliates WDAY in Fargo and WDAZ in Grand Forks since June 1, when contract extension negotiations broke down between the satellite provider and Forum Communications, which owns the three stations as well as The Dickinson Press.

With the blackout about to enter its ninth week, some southwest North Dakota viewers are beginning to express their frustrations.

Dave Holland, a Killdeer businessman who lives in rural Dunn County, said customers are caught in between a power struggle.

“When companies get so large, it’s all about power,” Holland said. “It’s all about controlling the market and the way they do business. The small person, the consumer, is always going to be the loser in these power struggles.”

Holland said his biggest issue with the loss of the channel was during the NBA finals, which aired on ABC in June.

Holland said it took a few calls and some personal negotiating with DirectTV before the satellite provider allowed him to replace the lost KBMY feed with the ABC affiliate feeds from Los Angeles and New York. Still, he has to pay an extra $2.50 a month for those channels and said he didn’t receive a discount in his bill for losing KBMY.

Mari Ossenfort, vice president for broadcasting at Forum Communications and WDAY’s general manager, said DirecTV pays a per-subscriber fee for the rights to broadcast local affiliates of ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and the CW.

She said DirecTV is unwilling to pay the fee Forum Communications is asking for its ABC affiliates.

Ossenfort said while she can’t share the Forum’s asking price because of confidentiality agreements, she did say “the price we are asking is far less than $2.50 a month.”

“DirecTV refuses to pay us a market-based fee for the right to resell our stations’ signals to its subscribers and is insisting on a variety of other oppressive contractual demands that no other distributor of our stations has demanded,” Ossenfort said.

Nolan Dix, the station manager for KNDC-AM radio in Hettinger, is a DirecTV customer and said the world of broadcasting can be fickle — especially when it comes to broadcast rights.

“It’s just frustrating that somebody holds that much power that you flip on a channel and it’s like, ‘Oh wait, I don’t get it?’” he said.

Jill Eckroth said she and her family have had DirecTV since they moved to Flasher in 2006 and have received local channels since about 2010. She said while DirecTV has always provided them with good service — including hooking up their service following a recent move to a new home outside of the small Morton County town — she said the inability to watch some of her favorite TV shows, including summer hit “The Bachelorette,” has been frustrating.

“We can’t get it unless we have an antenna, but it’s not easy to do that either because it’s not always good reception and service,” Eckroth said.

DirecTV was purchased in 2015 by AT&T — one of the largest companies in the world. Since then, the satellite provider has blacked out markets far beyond Bismarck and Fargo because of prolonged contract negotiations.

On July 16, the satellite provider dropped the NBC and CW affiliates in Boston and the Fox affiliate in Miami. Last year, it had a three-month dispute with the ABC affiliate in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Ossenfort said Forum first proposed a new agreement with DirecTV on Jan. 27. The existing agreement expired March 31, but an extension was granted as the two sides negotiated. That extension was terminated June 1, when DirecTV turned off viewers’ access to the channels.

She said the ABC affiliates owned by Forum cover in the entire state of North Dakota, eastern Montana, northwest Minnesota and northern South Dakota, as well as parts of Canada.

“We understand the viewers’ frustration as we are frustrated also,” Ossenfort said. “The demands DirecTV is making exceed those of any other agreement we have with a distributor. We need to be fair to all our distributors. We have commitments that we need to make to our programmers.”

Attempts made via email to contact AT&T DirecTV for this story were not returned.

Federal Commodities Regulator Believes US Oil Industry Can Wait for Prices to Improve

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One of the nation’s leading commodities market regulators said Monday he’s confident the American energy industry can remain stable through the current period of lower oil prices, despite what overseas competition believes.

Christopher Giancarlo, a commissioner on the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, discussed North Dakota’s role in world oil markets with Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and two of the state’s energy industry leaders at the Dickinson Public Safety Center before getting an oil rig tour in Dunn County.

“Some of our overseas competitors are hoping we can’t wait it out — that we can’t wait out the low prices,” Giancarlo said. “I think they’re going to be surprised when they see this type of ingenuity, preparing ourselves for the lower prices. We can wait it out.”

Giancarlo received a crash course in the state’s oil and gas industry Monday as part of a visit to the upper Midwest that also included agricultural stops in western South Dakota and northwest North Dakota.

“You can’t really understand how to assist a business with the regulatory concerns if you don’t actually understand how they make their money, how they get up in the morning and put food on the table at night,” Giancarlo said.

‘All about survival’

North Dakota Petroleum Council President Ron Ness and Justin Bethancourt, the Bakken operations and maintenance superintendent for ConocoPhillps in Dickinson, gave Giancarlo a nuts-and-bolts walkthrough of how the North Dakota oil industry came to be and how its economy has been shaped by the most recent boom of the past decade.

Giancarlo said a sluggish world economy is keeping oil prices from climbing back to levels seen when the Bakken oil play boomed. He said volatile currency prices around the globe have spilled over into commodity prices of all kinds and has forced producers to hedge their risks.

“You guys have done enormous, fantastic work in supply — both in terms of discovery and production, and then also in terms of productivity and efficiency,” Giancarlo said. “So the supply side of the equation is in really good shape. The problem is the demand side. The demand side is caught in this sort of sluggish global growth that we’re seeing across the western world, across the developing world. Part of the times we live in right now is that anxiety over that missing global growth.”

Ness and Bethancourt said an oil producer’s ability to drill more than a dozen oil wells on a single well pad, an unheard of practice of at the start of the Bakken oil boom, has helped drive profits while lowering production costs.

“I do come away proud of American ingenuity,” Giancarlo said. “The ability to first ramp up and then build this amazing infrastructure. Then, almost as a reward for their success, to see the fall in prices and then once again readjust to that is tremendous. I don’t know if any other country in the world could have done what we’ve done. But we’re a victim of our own success in some ways.”

Ness said oil companies involved in the Bakken shale play are in a better place now than they were at the beginning of 2016.

“The independents, their stock value has been decimated, their balance sheets have been decimated,” he said. “If you would have been here in January or February, we were at risk of losing two or three of our top-five producers to bankruptcy.”

Ness added later that one of the latest trends in the state’s energy market is that operators are selling interests in their drilled-but-uncompleted wells to hedge funds as a way to finance wells that haven’t been brought into production.

“At this point, it’s all about survival,” he said.

Saudi Arabia’s role 

Heitkamp and Giancarlo also delved into Saudi Arabia’s role in guiding the world oil markets. The senator said she frequently hears from North Dakotans who are quick tell her the Saudis are forcing oil prices down in an effort to push the American shale producers out of the market.

“I think the Saudis have been driving the market down. I’m not convinced the Saudis can drive the market back up,” she said. “At some point, they’re going to have more competition than what they want.”

Giancarlo and Heitkamp both said the Saudis, much like North Dakota, are creating value-added industries to help them move past this period of lower oil prices instead of relying solely on crude oil production.

Heitkamp said she also believes the Saudis have recalibrated their long-term price expectations.

“They’re looking at this as transitional,” she said. “They’re trying to figure out what the new Saudi economy is going to look like. They look at the long-term trends in supply and demand.”

Giancarlo added that the Saudis are fine with prices where they are right now “because it’s causing all this pain in the most innovative oil production area in the world, which is right here. It’s causing a lot of pain. It’s an ideal situation for them to be in. They want to maintain their distribution relationships.”

‘Pokémon Go’ Craze Strong in Dickinson, Causes Few Problems

Ashley DeWitt and Alyss Kovash walked about Prairie Outpost Park on Thursday afternoon, their heads bobbing up and down between the historic buildings and their smartphones.

Soon, one pointed to the west and they picked up the pace.

After all, they wanted to catch ‘em all. Pokémon that is.

The pair — two of hundreds in Dickinson and millions around the world — were playing the augmented reality video game “Pokémon Go,” a smartphone app that makes users leave their couches and head outside to play.

“It’s addicting,” Kovash said with a laugh.

The game has taken ahold of Dickinson’s gaming community. John Odermann with Badlands Comics and Games estimates hundreds around Dickinson are playing the game. He’s even has seen multiple people of all ages playing “Pokémon Go” in the evenings at certain locations around Dickinson, including Prairie Outpost Park and Dickinson State University.

“You’ll see clusters of teenage kids, college kids and adults just walking around because there’s so many Pokéstops at those two places,” he said. “It’s crazy.”

“Pokémon Go” is a variation on the popular Nintendo video game franchise “Pokémon” (short for Pocket Monsters) which hooked gamers and casual fans 20 years ago and spawned games in multiple formats, a TV show and movies.

The game uses the GPS in a player’s smartphone to place them on an actual map of the city they’re in and has them physically walk around the area to try and find “Pokémon” characters to “catch.”

Multiple Dickinson attractions — such as The Brew coffee shop, the Biesiot Activities Center, most churches and even Walmart — are either “Pokéstops” or “gyms,” which are digital arenas overlaid on the real locations. Players must actually go to these places in order to play the game.

Dickinson law enforcement and DSU security have had a crash course in the game since it debuted earlier this month.

But unlike other cities, where law enforcement have encountered issues with trespassing, Dickinson authorities say they’ve only had a few concerned citizens call in reports of teens and 20-somethings wandering around seemingly aimlessly outside of churches and in parks late at night.

Jack Schulz, director of security at DSU, said on a nice evening, as many as 50 “Pokémon Go” players can be found traversing the campus.

“We haven’t had any issues,” he said. “The only thing we ask them is when they’re driving, don’t be using it, because it’s like texting. Watch what you’re doing.”

Dickinson Police Capt. David Wilkie also urged players to be mindful that someone may be watching them while they’re “hunting” for Pokémon.

“Don’t be surprised if the police show up, because people (in Dickinson) are still a little leery of people doing strange things,” Wilkie said. “In a big city, people are used to seeing people doing weird things. But here in Dickinson, if people are sitting out in front of their house or in front of a business in the middle of the night, they tend to be more on the cautious side than not.”

One thing is for certain though — “Pokémon Go” is doing exactly what it aimed for.

It’s getting gamers off the couch and outside this summer.

DeWitt, a 26-year-old from Gladstone, said she has been playing some version of “Pokémon” since she was a child and owns the first set of “Pokémon” cards. She said she downloaded “Pokémon Go” immediately when she heard it had come out and said enjoys how interactive the game is.

“When you’re little, you’re like, oh I want to be this,” DeWitt said. “Now that it’s out, you’re like, wow, I can actually do this. It’s fun. It’s something to do to pass the time.”

She and Kovash, 19, said they walked from Villard Street to Museum Drive while playing the game Thursday and had more walking to do. Along the way, they met other “Pokémon Go” players.

“There were guys walking in the center of the road,” Kovash said with a laugh. “They’re like, ‘Are you collecting Pokémon? Have you found any?’”

Nathan Jones, a 25-year-old maintenance technician from Dickinson, said there’s a lot of nostalgia in playing the game.

“Growing up as a kid, it’s every little kid’s dream to play ‘Pokémon’ in the real world and now you have the ability to do so,” he said.

Jones said he has been all around Dickinson and even went to Bismarck to play “Pokémon Go.” He and a group of friends are even discussing a trip to Las Vegas in part because of the high volume of Pokéstops along The Strip.

Jones said he’s pleased with how socially interactive the game makes users be, as well as the positivity it brings.

“It gives a good reason to bring people together,” he said. “Most of the time it’s people sharing secrets, or little tips and tricks they’ve learned along the way. There’s a whole ’nother aspect of it.”

Odermann, who is also the head football coach at Trinity High School, called the game “a great opportunity for people to get outside and do some physical activity.”

He also believes the game could bring forth a change in how some video games are played.

“Nintendo, a couple years ago with the Wii, revolutionized gaming,” he said. “This may be another way they’re doing it. You’re not sitting on a couch anymore playing this game. You’re actually out walking around getting some physical exercise.”

Convicted Murderer of Dickinson Woman Dies in New England Prison

NEW ENGLAND — A woman serving life in prison for a 1990 murder of a Dickinson woman died this week at the New England women’s prison, just days after she was denied parole.

Jayta (Christopher) Schmidt, 52, was found unresponsive on Tuesday at the minimum-security Dakota Women’s Correctional and Rehabilitation Center, where she was an inmate.

Schmidt was convicted in 1991 of murdering Dickinson resident Cindy Owen on Feb. 7, 1990. She was serving life in prison and had twice been denied parole, according to court records. The state Parole Board denied her most recent request on Sunday and deferred her next hearing parole until 2031, according to board records.

Continue reading “Convicted Murderer of Dickinson Woman Dies in New England Prison”

Convicted Murderer of Dickinson Woman Dies in New England Prison

NEW ENGLAND — A woman serving life in prison for a 1990 murder of a Dickinson woman died this week at the New England women’s prison, just days after she was denied parole.

Jayta (Christopher) Schmidt, 52, was found unresponsive on Tuesday at the minimum-security Dakota Women’s Correctional and Rehabilitation Center, where she was an inmate.

Schmidt was convicted in 1991 of murdering Dickinson resident Cindy Owen on Feb. 7, 1990. She was serving life in prison and had twice been denied parole, according to court records. The state Parole Board denied her most recent request on Sunday and deferred her next hearing parole until 2031, according to board records.

The North Dakota Highway Patrol stated in a news release that after Schmidt was found, she was airlifted to Bismarck and was pronounced dead at CHI St. Alexius Health. The case remains under investigation by the Highway Patrol, the Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the State Medical Examiner’s Office. The Hettinger County Sheriff’s Office assisted in the case.

Sgt. Chris Messer of the Highway Patrol, an investigator on the case, said he could not confirm how Schmidt died.

Schmidt was 26 years old when she killed Owen, 30, by shooting her three times in the abdominal area with a .44-caliber Ruger magnum, according to court documents.

The murder happened in Owen’s 1979 Plymouth sedan near what then known as Johnston’s Inc., a beverage distributor on 23rd Avenue East. Schmidt then took the car and headed west on Interstate 94 before she was arrested in Golden Valley County.

Owen was once the girlfriend of Schmidt’s brother, William Sandoval.

Her trial and hearings — highlighted by Schmidt’s attitude and the threat of a media blackout — lasted much of 1990 and drew large media attention in western North Dakota leading up to her conviction.

Post-Oil Boom, There’s ‘More Dope Than Ever’ in Bakken

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The Bakken oil boom may be over, but people on the front lines of fighting crime in western North Dakota say drug trafficking here is worse than ever.

The price of drugs is dropping and an influx of out-of-state gangs are intensifying the problem, a lead agent with the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation says.

“Because the oil industry has slowed down, people automatically assume the drug world has slowed down. What we’ve found out is that’s absolutely not the case,” said Rob Fontenot, a BCI agent and member of the Southwest Narcotics Task Force. “There’s more dope here now than there ever has been.”

There’s been a 75 percent drop in the price drug traffickers are getting for methamphetamine, Fontenot said. Plus, deadly fentanyl-laced heroin has spread from eastern North Dakota to the Bakken.

The plummeting price of meth because of its prevalence in western North Dakota has led to it being trafficked and sold in greater quantities. Fontenot said meth that was going for $3,300 an ounce in the height of the oil boom is now worth about $800 an ounce on the street.

“I never imagined in my law enforcement career — and I’ve been working dope for 14 years — that I would see meth for $800 an ounce,” he said.

U.S. Attorney for North Dakota Chris Myers said it’s obvious by his office’s caseload that drug cases in the Bakken aren’t slowing down.

“There’s a myth outside of our state,” Myers said. “People believe that because oil activity has slowed, that the criminal activity has stopped. That’s just not true. It definitely has not slowed down and there’s a good argument to be made that it’s continuing to increase.”

 

Gangs at the center

Dickinson Police Capt. David Wilkie said the known gang activity in the city isn’t stereotypical of what most people think it would be.

While there are gang members in Dickinson, he said — notably, the Country Boy Crips out of Bakersfield, Calif. — they’re not here in droves.

“The gang is down in (California) and they’ve got a couple guys up here that are accepting packages for when they send dope up here. These guys are using the local guys, or doing it themselves, to sell drugs,” Wilkie said. “They’re not out recruiting, they’re not taking up turf and they’re not embezzling or asking for protection money from people. But they’re definitely here.”

Fontenot said many one-percenter motorcycle gangs — the clubs who self-identify as outlaws and criminals — have a presence in western North Dakota as well.

He said the Hells Angels have an interest in the state, and the Bandidos and the Outlaws are already here. Wilkie added that the Prairie Rattlers gang has also taken up shop in western North Dakota. The Chicago-based Gangster Disciples street gang is also in the state, Fontenot said.

“They’re not out flying their colors, but they are here,” Wilkie said. “Anytime they are here, they have the potential to do gang activity or be the front for the club.”

The Country Boy Crips have had a presence in the area since the summer of 2013, according to federal court documents. Many with that gang affiliation were indicted on drug-related crimes during an Bakken Organized Crime Strike Force sweep of 29 defendants in August 2015, Myers said.

Gang-related gun crimes also consistently happen in western North Dakota, though they rarely lead to arrests.

There was a brief shootout on April 30 between multiple African-American men with alleged gang ties in a Dickinson mobile home park. The incident left a 59-year-old man, who was in his home during the shootout, injured by stray bullet. Dickinson police say while they continue to investigate and search for the suspects, they’ve made no arrests in the case and have encountered several uncooperative witnesses.

In November 2015, 30-year-old Roger Falana — who Minot police say had gang ties in Florida — was shot and killed. The murder suspect, 26-year-old Johnny Cleveland Norwood Jr., was finally arrested Friday in Las Vegas.

The most public gang-related crime in Dickinson history — the drive-by shooting murder of 37-year-old David Porter outside of Century Apartments on Nov. 16, 2014 — has still not been solved.

“A lot of times, this stuff is retaliation over a business dealing they had or a disrespect,” Wilkie said.

North Dakota Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, a Dickinson Republican, said he’s encouraging local law enforcement and the BCI to be transparent about incidents like these because, he said, “the community needs to know.”

“We have to work with the law enforcement to know what we can share with the public,” Wardner said.

 

Prosecuting cases

Myers, who was appointed as the U.S. Attorney for North Dakota last October, said the Bakken Organized Crime Strike Force — a collaborative law enforcement program in North Dakota and Montana between federal, state and tribal law enforcement agencies — has been successful in prosecuting drug traffickers and other crimes in western North Dakota since it was formed last June.

“We’re planning to have meetings this summer in Bismarck and revisit where we’re at, where we’re headed and what we’ve achieved,” Myers said.

In June alone, three people were sentenced in federal court for crimes involving meth trafficking in western North Dakota.

Two Dickinson men — Rocky Laurence Fowler and Laquan Andre Thomas — are in the process of being indicted by a federal grand jury after their March arrests for the possession, distribution and intent to distribute heroin containing both fentanyl and furanyl fentanyl, a designer version of the powerful opioid.

Myers said every prosecutor in his office — including himself — carries a large caseload. The U.S. attorney’s office has prosecutors in Minot, Williston and Dickinson — the Bakken’s three largest cities — as well as in Bismarck. Bakken Strike Force supervisor Rick Volk is the prosecutor in Williston and works alongside the Federal Bureau of Investigation at its office there.

Myers said while he doesn’t have concrete figures, his office has prosecuted or is currently prosecuting “many large-scale, multi-defendant drug trafficking cases.” He believes when they compile figures later this summer, they’ll see an increase in cases involving transnational organizations doing business in North Dakota.

Wilkie said Dickinson police are trying to be more proactive in thwarting drug trafficking alongside the Southwest Narcotics Task Force, but is “just trying to keep our head above water with these issues.”

Wardner said he and other legislators are hoping that despite across-the-board cuts to state agencies, the BCI can maintain its current budget.

He and other legislators met with BCI agents on Thursday to discuss funding and learn more about crimes the agency is investigating.

“They’re concerned about losing people,” Wardner said. “They are now finally in a position where they can confront this stuff. So if we can keep the BCI and local (law enforcement) — and the FBI is here now — and we can keep all those people working together, it’s going to help.”

Methamphetamine also known as crystal meth
Methamphetamine also known as crystal meth