It’s about 500 miles of almost featureless, late-spring-snow-covered prairie miles from Minneapolis to Minot, N.D. (That’s Minot, rhymes with “why not.”) It’s also cold and windy and, at least until we crossed the Minnesota-North Dakota border at Fargo, it’s snowing, so 50 mph is about as fast as we dare, even with the big, American SUV hauling us westward. Once into North Dakota, the sun shines. It’s still cold and windy, but mostly blue skies, and the 75-mph speed limit makes the miles roll more quickly.
I learned to drive as a kid in Montreal, and the special rules for driving in snow stay with you. Don’t use your brakes when you cross a patch of ice, for example. That experience comes in handy when the clear, dry highway is suddenly covered with wind-blown, drifting snow and you spot numerous cars off the road in the ditches at the end of their slide tracks.
It’s pretty empty out here, with few cars or trucks sharing the road. There are plenty of state police cars, and you can catch wildlife out of the corner of your eyes: a few herds of deer, hawks circling above, and a few partridge foraging along the edge of the highway. This was buffalo country once, but the closest we came to seeing one was passing the National Buffalo Museum in Jamestown, N.D.
Sam Ruda, chief commercial officer at the Port of Portland, Ore., and I are on our way to Minot, near the heart of the Bakken Oil Fields and deep into the upper Midwest grain-growing, breadbasket region of America. Although the fields are covered in snow on this mid-April day and we don’t see any oil wells, we know we’re there because we see dozens of grain silos and elevators and hundreds of gondola, hopper and oil tank railcars on sidings near the highway.
The next day, it’s 18 degrees Fahrenheit and sunny. We’re off to visit a grain handler and then North Dakota Port Services. Interestingly, at 118 tanker cars each, an “oil train” isn’t unlike a container unit train. At the facility we visited, which also loads similar-sized trains of grain, the goal is set at eight oil trains a week. Each of those 118 tank cars holds about 700 barrels of crude oil (42 gallons per barrel), and this is only one of many such facilities. The grain loads are more difficult to quantify because the facilities do their calculations in bushels, and each grain product (wheat, barley, oats, corn, peas, beans, lentils and others) has different weights.
Suffice it to say, there is a lot of oil and grain coming from the land in North Dakota.
Incongruous as this may sound, North Dakota Port Services, our second visit, is set up as an inland port, similar to others in “non-port” cities such as Chicago, Dallas and Kansas City. Shipment balance is the basis for their existence and their goal and, although NDPS is still in the development stage, more than 3,000 acres of land has been secured and construction is scheduled to begin this year. Rail and road connections are in place and non-oil cargo, mainly agriculture, is plentiful.
This is a big deal and important because North Dakota is a monster agriculture production and export state. It ranks second in wheat production (first in durum wheat) and first in the production of barley and sunflower seeds. For the 12 months ending last Nov. 30, North Dakota exported the following volumes of major crops: 157,000 tons of pulses (peas, beans, lentils), 45,000 tons of wheat, 14,000 tons of soybeans, 8,000 tons of barley and almost 19,000 tons of other major crops — all from a state ranked 48th in population.
And don’t forget the oil. Although it’s not exported, there is lots of it. In August 2012, North Dakota produced more than 701,000 barrels per day. If the state were a country, it would rank somewhere between 25th and 30th on the list of global oil producers.
We won’t even discuss natural gas, which is so plentiful that much of it is just “flared off” — burned at the wellhead because there’s nowhere to store or ship it, at least at today’s prices.
So that’s the story of our brief two-day road trip of more than 1,000 road miles. The country is beautiful, even covered in snow, and we learned an amazing story that’s just beginning to unfold. Why not Minot, indeed!
Barry Horowitz is the principal of CMS Consulting Services. Contact him at 503-208-2232 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.