University Gets in on North Dakota Fracking Boom

The oil drilling boom in North Dakota has been transformative for the state, for good and ill. One side effect has been a corresponding rise in students pursuing petroleum engineering at the University of North Dakota. The school's College of Engineering and Mines recently landed $7.5 million from an oil company grant and and matching state funds to build up the program.

New York-based oil and gas firm Hess Corporation donated $5 million to the college to support its Collaborative Energy Complex, which will primarily serve as headquarters for the rapidly expanding Department of Petroleum Engineering. Part of its mission is to promote collaboration between the energy industry and the school. The state offered up $2.5 million in matching higher education grants.

The growth of the engineering program and the CEC corresponds with the tremendous boom in oil extraction happening in western North Dakota in recent years. The industry has drilled 7,000 wells in the state in just six years, causing safety, health and environmental concerns, but also a huge economic boom for the state. 

The Complex will serve as a way of linking up UND with that industry explosion, with the aim of "stimulating innovation, problem-solving, and futuristic ideas, and creating hands-on experience, outreach, enriched lab experiences and industry partnerships between the University and the energy profession," according to the school’s release. Features will include multiple labs in Hess’s name, including a “Hess Drilling Simulation Lab,” and a “History of Oil and Gas atrium display.” 

The message here is pretty clear: The oil and gas industry has been very good economically to North Dakota, and the state and university are welcoming it with open arms, working to staff up for continued growth. It’s even a little surprising how unsubtle that message is. Granted, a lot of engineering education will be happening at the center, but it’s definitely driven by a desire to train engineers and other staff for oil drilling. 

That’s not to say the need isn’t real, or that the corporation is pushing an unwelcome agenda. The university points out that the Petroleum Engineering program is “bursting at the seams,” having expanded from four students in 2010 to more than 200 in response to the drilling rush. And oil drilling has left North Dakota with the lowest unemployment in the nation. The state in many ways is moving ahead full throttle. 

Read IP's coverage of a similar situation happening in Texas here.