Pakistani energy officials visit PSC

Hassan Mehmood, Director of Pakistan's Ministry of Petroleum & NR questions Public Service Commissioners Tuesday

Hassan Mehmood, Director of Pakistan’s Ministry of Petroleum & NR questions Public Service Commissioners Tuesday

Montana Public Service Commissioners Bill Gallagher and Kirk Bushman hosted a discussion Tuesday with high-ranking officials from Pakistan’s energy sector.

The eight Pakistanis are visiting the U.S. through the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program. The group is examining U.S. energy policies to gather ideas for improving Pakistan’s infrastructure. The country of 180 million people is wracked by power outages impacting entire cities and more on a regular basis. It also commonly suffers from shortages of commodities like natural gas.

The Pakistanis compared how the two countries organize utilities with the PSC. During the hour-long discussion,Pakistan’s Ministry of Petroleum Director Hassan Mehmood asked chairman Gallagher why the state doesn’t require Public Service Commissioners to have special education in a field related to utilities.

Gallagher said that is a challenge of the Montana system—but he says the PSC has that relevant experience on staff and, in the end, the elected commissioners are there to take the votes on subjects like rate changes.

“There’s a steep learning curve,” Gallagher said, “but we’re elected to be the ears and the eyes of the common people.”

The group is also learning about U.S. efforts to address the impacts of climate change and the Pakistanis are paying close attention to the American natural gas boom—in the Bakken and other shale formations.

Pakistan has a natural gas shortage right now, and Petroleum Ministry Director Hassan Mehmood said whether America decides to export its natural gas or not—it could bring prices down for his country.

“We are of the firm view that at least U.S. will not be importing gas, and that gas will become surplus and the suppliers will have to dispose of that gas for the other buyers and Pakistan can be one of the buyers,” Mehmood said.



Bakken boom increasing Amtrak ridership on Empire Builder

The westbound Empire Builder Amtrak train waits in the Shelby station Wednesday

Ridership is picking up on Montana’s only Amtrak rail service.

Ticket sales on the Empire Builder line have gone up steadily over the last few years.

It’s another economic impact of the Bakken oil boom.

At the boarding platform at the Shelby Amtrak station, smartly dressed train attendants are taking tickets and passengers are pulling luggage onto a shining silver two-story superliner.

The Empire Builder is heading East, eventually to Chicago, though not before stopping in Williston, North Dakota.

To find people going to Williston, I need to look for the letters WTN in the card on the luggage rack above people’s seats. I look to the seat right across from mine and see one. There’s one right ahead of me, two seats behind me, and dotted through the rest of this upper-deck coach seating.

Clarkston, Washington resident Jeff Port is building an RV park south of Williston. He’s been driving and flying back and forth sometimes twice a week.

“A buddy of mine goes ‘you know man you can take an Amtrak for $106 bucks, and I’d been flying for sometimes up to $1000 dollars,” he said.

This, right here, is his first ride on a train–ever.

“I’m 50 years old and like I was doing cartwheels yesterday thinking I’m gonna ride a train for the first time,” Port said.

He’s loving this, taking a nap and having some drinks.

“I’m jumpin up and down inside right now talking to you about how cool this train is, seriously,” he laughed.

Ken Homko works the cafe cart on the Empire Builder

Ken Homko works the cafe cart on the Empire Builder

Lead Service Attendant Ken Homko is prepping down in the café car for his busiest stop of the day, comin’ up soon.

“We get these chickens on from Havre,” he said. “It’s a local restaurant in Havre, they bring em fresh to the train.”

Homko has been working the Empire Builder on and off for three years now. He’s noticed a big influx of people heading to the Bakken, from both East and West.

In fact, Amtrak estimates ridership to the Williston station has quadrupled in the last decade. Those commuting to work and looking for work.

“The riders coming from the oil field, (are they a) rowdy group?” I asked Kumho.

Homko’s very careful in his word choice, saying they can get a bit excited.

“Where the trains running late, where they may be sitting in an establishment waiting for the train, they might be a little more excited about getting on the train, especially on a Friday or saturday night,” he said, also making sure to bring up  \it’s not just oil workers, it’s families too.

“I don’t work in the oil fields, my husband does,” said Amanda Zdanis. She moved to Sidney, Montana from New York a year ago.

“I take my daughter out to Kalispell. First it was a weekly basis,” she said. Now it’s more of a monthly basis, but she chose the Kalispell-Whitefish area because it’s on the Amtrak route. “For some culture and some normalcy, I guess.”

She describes living around the Bakken boom to be considerable culture shock. She’s used to hopping on the train—coming from a place where public transportation is a part of everyday life. She’s surprised to see so little of it here.

“It’s kind of unbelievable,” she said. But where Zdanis is from, some of the Amtrak lines pay for themselves.

Regional Amtrak Media Relations Manager Marc Magliari says the Empire Builder does not turn a profit.

“It is among our better performing routes nationally, but it is not paying for its costs of both operations and capitol,” Magliari said.

Magliari says that’s not necessarily the point—it’s a public service. One that costs the federal government $400 to $500 million dollars every year.

Steven McDuffie

“The new Amtrak slogan should be ‘well, you’re paying for it anyway,’ that’s the way I look at it,” said Edmonds, Washington resident Steven McDuffie, who works for a third party company that deals with drilling contractors in the Bakken.

Politically—he’s libertarian. He’s pretty much against the idea of government supported transportation, believing free market solutions bring prices down and quality up. He’s been riding the Empire Builder every two weeks since February. Some of the stereotypes about riding Amtrak, he says they hold up.

“This is the first time the train left Edmonds, Washington on time and the first time where we’re scheduled to get into Williston on time since I’ve been taking the train,” he said.

Overall though, he says his gripes are pretty minor. And, again, it’s cheap.

“I know this is ironic, because philosophically I’m opposed to public transportation but yet here I am having a pretty good time on the Amtrak train,” he said.”A convert, nah I wouldn’t say. Pleasantly surprised that it’s not as bad as I heard, yeah, that’s pretty fair.”

And with that he went back to reading his Kindle, his silver superliner cutting across the sparse Montana Hi-line toward the station labeled WTN.