UND's Grand Forks campus hugs northeastern North Dakota's state line. I arrive just after Veterans Day, with temperatures in the single digits and a winter sky so pale the main quad's white water tower nearly vanishes into it. A triceratops skull squats in the Leonard Geology building's foyer, and flasks of oil samples line a long glass cabinet. "BAKKEN" reads one typewritten card beside a sample the color of strong English tea. Outside the administrative office, a flat-screen next to a fading geological timeline announces: WELCOME TO THE HAROLD HAMM SCHOOL OF GEOLOGY AND GEOLOGICAL ENGINEERING.
Hamm is the nation's 35th wealthiest man, according to Forbes. His company, Continental Resources Inc. -- widely credited with starting the Williston Basin rush -- has grand plans here. Continental's engineers believe the Bakken may hold more than 20 billion barrels of recoverable oil, nearly five times the standard estimate.
Hamm recently backed that vision with cash, donating $10 million to UND's geology department. The state's Industrial Commission Oil and Gas Program matched that with $4 million from oil taxes and royalties. Roughly 80 percent of Hamm's gift will be used for two endowed professorships, in petroleum geology and engineering. The rest will fund scholarships and the digitization of UND's vast collection of geological core samples.
Hamm believes in training local engineers and workers, explains UND's Yarbrough, a stocky man with a pencil goatee and a wisp of thinning hair. Behind him hangs a black-and-white portrait of North Dakota's first state geologist, famed paleontologist A.G. Leonard -- a reminder that fossils, rather than fossil fuels, were once the school's main focus. Yarbrough says that undergraduate enrollment in petroleum engineering at UND is up tenfold, from around 10 in 2011 to 105 in 2012, with roughly 70 percent from North Dakota and surrounding states.
Others have traveled farther. Iranian Ph.D. candidate Hadi Jabbari was accepted to prestigious programs at Texas A&M and Penn State, but chose UND in 2009 because research funding had not declined here as elsewhere. Only after arriving did he realize the importance of unconventional oil plays like the Bakken -- which often are deep underground and require hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling to exploit. "Conventional oil (deposits are) past peak production. I knew this was going to be the future of the industry."
Jabbari and fellow Iranian Ph.D. candidate Mehdi Ostadhassan are developing software to enhance hydraulic fracturing and seismic imaging. Neither plans to stay in the oil patch after graduation in May. (Jabbari saw enough of that, working Persian Gulf oil platforms.) They hope to sell their work to companies and possibly join UND's faculty.
Though UND has not yet broken ground on its own high-tech energy facility, evidence of industry money permeates the old brick buildings. Yarbrough shows me a new "wired" classroom paid for by a local engineering firm. Denver-based Whiting Petroleum's logo hangs beside the door of another digital classroom. "Oil companies are eager to set us up with their software," says Yarbrough. "They really want our students to learn their systems."
We descend a staircase to a cluttered storage room. Rock fragments, dusty scales, goggles and cardboard boxes fill steel shelves. There, we find Carr, now comfortably settled after his first three months as a geological engineering master's student. From a foam-lined case, he carefully extracts what looks like a handheld retail barcode scanner. This X-ray fluorescence scanner –– purchased with UND's windfall –– can "read" a rock's elemental composition in seconds.
It's key to Carr's prospective master's project: the arduous task of digitizing the university's vast core-sample collection. Once that's done, industry engineers will no longer have to wrestle heavy lengths of rock from the shelves.
Still, research projects here face corporate obstacles rare in academia. Both Ostadhassan and Jabbari, who work at UND's quasi-public Energy and Environmental Research Center, were forced to sign confidentiality agreements. The center has a trove of industry data that would benefit Jabbari's fracking research, but much of it has been withheld, deemed proprietary. "It's been a big hurdle."