FBI plan to put agents in Bakken Shale sparks flap

BILLINGS, Mont. — The FBI’s possible plan to station permanent agents in the Bakken oil patch of Montana and North Dakota as the drilling boom drives crime rates higher has sparked a dispute between lawmakers from the two states over where the agents should be located.

Crime on both sides of the states’ border has spiked as thousands of new workers brings drug traffickers in their wake.

Since July, two FBI agents and an agency intelligence specialist have been stationed in Sidney, Mont., according to authorities. But those postings have been temporary, and a request is pending to make them permanent, FBI spokesman Kyle Loven in Minneapolis said Friday.

North Dakota Sens. Heidi Heitkamp and John Hoeven want the agents moved about 45 miles northwest to Williston, N.D., considered the heart of the oil patch. Montana Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. Steve Daines want the agents to remain in Sidney.

Loven said a final decision will be up to FBI headquarters. He could not offer a timetable.

“The FBI understands that the Bakken area is changing and changing rapidly and we have a responsibility there as far as federal crimes and to assist state and local partners,” Loven said. “Wherever that permanent presence ends up, the hope is the FBI is able to permanently maintain a cadre of agents in the area.”

Although the FBI’s numbers in the Bakken are small, local law enforcement authorities describe the agency’s help as crucial given the more sophisticated nature of crime rings seeking their own piece of the region’s oil riches.

In October, state, local and federal agents announced the arrests of four people in North Dakota and a dozen in Montana as part of two separate drug investigations. And in July, 22 people in North Dakota were arrested and charged with conspiracy to sell heroin and other drugs on an Indian reservation that’s been caught up in the Bakken boom.

Montana U.S. Attorney Mike Cotter said he supported putting FBI agents in eastern Montana but added that the proximity of Williston and Sidney means they could work both sides of the border from either location.

“It’s always great to have increased the number of agents in Montana, but that doesn’t mean they will always work in Montana,” Cotter said.

But on the political front, disagreement has been simmering.

Heitkamp and Hoeven sent a December letter to FBI Director James Comey asking for the agents to be moved to Williston. They wrote that Williston “provides your agents the most optimal operating location to carry out their duties.”

Tester followed up with his own letter to Comey earlier this month. He said moving agents from eastern Montana to western North Dakota “is not an effective response to our region’s growing crime problems.”

Daines weighed in Friday with another request to keep agents in Sidney.

More than 20,000 people have poured into eastern Montana and western North Dakota since oil production began its meteoric rise in 2008, according to state officials. Tens of thousands more are expected in the next several years as the boom continues.