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MSU Profiles

Hometown mayor's determination triumphs over adversity

As the Williston mayor, a Minot State University grad has been at the epicenter of the Bakken oil boom and subsequent slowdown.

Regardless of world's fluctuations, Howard Klug tries to make positive contributions, a mindset he developed as a co-captain of the MSU football team and president of the Sigma Tau Gamma Fraternity, a fraternity celebrated for its charitable projects in the late 1970s.

Williston, Klug's hometown, has experienced several oil booms in its history. The first occurred in the early 1950s, when oil was discovered in the Williston Basin near Tioga. The second arrived in the early1980s.

"Back in the '80s, it was all wildcatting," Klug said. "They'd drill a hole straight down and hopefully hit oil. When the boom quit, the next day there was no more drilling. It just stopped."

Williston was left with millions in infrastructure debt that wasn't paid off until the early 2000s. The region sank into economic and demographic stagnation for the next two decades.

But Big Oil came roaring back in 2007, bringing with it a box of shiny new tools to ensure success — hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling and pad drilling.

"They got smarter and smarter and the technology got better and better," Klug said. "Things really took off. There was a 99.9 percent chance that they were going to hit oil."

Soon, more than 200 rigs were drilling in the Bakken formation, producing over a million barrels of oil a day. Oil topped $100 per barrel on world markets. Williston's population jumped from 12,000 to nearly 40,000 between 2007 and 2014. The city's budget soared from $40 million to $240 million. The region saw 25,000 jobs created, 1,300 businesses launched and 10,000 apartment units built.

Klug was serving on the Williston City Commission when the oil boom began. Undeterred by the increasing time demand and workload, Klug ran to replace retiring mayor Ward Koeser in 2014. He promised to diversify the economy, improve the quality of life and preserve Koeser's vision of Williston as the "best little city in America."

To accommodate the needs of a growing population, Williams County and Williston officials built facilities. New projects included a $77 million recreation center, $57 million high school, $55 million jail expansion and $250 million airport to replace the current overstressed facility.

The new mayor also learned that local government must closely monitor a volatile industry like Big Energy.

"The oil business moves a lot faster than government," he said. "We need to provide oversight because there's so much money out there. There has to be some checks and balances."

When global oil prices began to plummet in late 2014, drilling activity slowed considerably. Williston's population settled at 30,000. City officials welcomed the respite as an opportunity to reweave the fabric of their city. The mayor, reflecting Midwestern optimism, expects global oil prices to climb over

the next year and a half, prompting a resurgence in oil activity. He foresees Williston becoming a regional hub, offering educational, medical, retail and transportation services to western North Dakota and eastern Montana.

"They know where the oil is," Klug said. "They know how to drill it economically. They're ready for when the price rebounds. Williston will start growing again, and we're building toward a 50,000 population."

His ongoing civic and political involvement derives from lesson he learned decades earlier at Minot State.

"I was always going to be involved," he said. "I figured I could contribute in one way or the other."