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A tribal-owned oil and gas company is partnering with San Juan College in Farmington, N.M., to help Native American students interested in energy and business careers.

Dave Williams, CEO of Three Affiliated Tribes’ Missouri River Resources LLC in New Town, said despite the current downturn in oil and natural gas prices, there is a good future in the energy industry.

Williams and COO Ron Kaler both worked for Gulf Oil and Chevron Corp. in the ‘80s. They were on the same rig together and moved into midstream and lease operations over the course of 30 years.

“That’s how we learned the business,” he said. “Training is so imperative. … Our people have a better chance to get with a major (oil company) if they have a degree and have training.”

The partnership, started by Roz Baker-St. Claire, is about two years in the making. Pete Sorensen, MRR workforce development director, was hired in January to reach out to communities, starting this spring, to recruit high school graduates to enroll in the San Juan program.

There are multiple options for students, including attending classes at San Juan or taking their core classes remotely. But ideally, they would take general education classes at local tribal and community colleges with the possibility of videoconferencing with San Juan professors “so the student doesn’t have to go too far afield,” Sorensen said.

Then, the students would go to San Juan to finish off their associate degrees with hands-on lab courses.

Sorensen said this would increase students’ success by allowing them to build confidence and gradually “spread their wings.”

“I’m excited for the opportunities I think this will create,” he said. “To me, it’s a huge deal.”

Sorensen, a registered MHA tribal member, said he got his own start in the oil industry as a drilling hand, working his way up to directional driller and then senior directional driller, specializing in directional drilling for river crossings. His career took him around the world, from western Europe to Siberia to Mexico and back to the United States.

Sorensen said he noticed very few Native Americans in middle- and upper-level management in the oil field, and he felt his skill set should not be an oddity among tribal members. So he jumped at the chance to make a difference when Williams hired him, with the hope that his efforts would strengthen the tribal workforce and economy.

Williams said there are many Native Americans who would want to work in the oil business.

“We’re just doing our part to help,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to teach the new millennial group.”

As one of the few Native Americans working for a major oil company, Williams said he knows how hard it can be.

“We just want to give them a good chance,” he said, adding that this accredited degree program could open doors for Native American students to work anywhere in the world.

The partners are also working on developing a bachelor’s degree program for tribal energy and management that would qualify graduates to manage a tribe’s natural resources. They expect it to take about nine to 12 months to get the program started.

Beyond helping the tribe, Sorensen said, the partners hope the degree will put graduates into a position to run their own businesses, fostering an entrepreneurial spirit. For example, a graduate might want to start a water-hauling business if that would serve a need within his or her tribe.

So far, the partners have a memorandum of understanding with Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College in New Town to provide general education courses and remote core classes. They are also in talks with United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck.

Degree programs within the San Juan College School of Energy include petroleum production operations, industrial processing, instrumentation and controls, occupational safety, and industrial maintenance mechanics. The School of Energy is housed in a new, nearly $16 million facility with the latest technology and equipment, including a fully functional well site.

“We have a world-class center for energy education that was built in collaboration with the industry,” SJC President Toni Hopper Pendergrass said in a prepared statement.

Sorensen plans to visit high schools and career fairs. He is also trying to build a consortium of private companies and federal entities to provide financial aid.

“This year is a building year. I’ll be very happy with 10 (students),” he said.

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Reach Jessica Holdman at 701-250-8261 or jessica.holdman@bismarcktribune.com