Are Some In The National Media Rooting For A North Dakota Oil Bust?

Back in 2009 Rush Limbaugh stirred controversy, as he usually does, by telling his radio audience that he hoped President Barack Obama would fail.

Now, in Limbaugh’s defense, he was talking about his desire to avoid the sort of policy reforms Obama was intent on implementing. I don’t think Limbaugh was saying he wanted people to be hurt or to suffer. He just wanted to see Obama fail to do something he considered to be bad, which is advance a left-wing political agenda.

But now in 2015, after a fall-off and oil prices and as anxiety about North Dakota’s oil-driven economy abounds, I’m beginning to get an inkling of how the left felt when Limbaugh said those words about the then just-elected Barack Obama.

Case in point this Atlantic article by former Bismarck Tribune reporter Mara Van Ells headlined “A North Dakota Oil Boom Goes Bust.”

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]”It’s a great example of a ‘journalist’ writing the story she wanted to tell instead of the story she was told,” a friend who works at a newspaper in the state told me over the weekend.[/mks_pullquote]

“It’s a great example of a ‘journalist’ writing the story she wanted to tell instead of the story she was told,” a friend who works at a newspaper in the state and was a colleague of Van Ells told me over the weekend. I have to agree, and I must say that the tone of the article makes it seem a bit like Van Ells isn’t so much observing the failure of North Dakota’s economy but rooting for it.

Because, out here in western North Dakota, there’s no evidence of a “bust” in sight.

One source of evidence is my own eyes. On Friday I got a surprise visit from a fellow blogger on a cross-country road trip. He wanted to get a view of North Dakota’s oil fields so, after he left his car at a garage in Minot to get a tire fixed, we drove out west and I showed him Stanley, Tioga, Ray, and Williston.

While these communities clearly aren’t humming at the manic pace they were a year ago, they’re still bustling and they’re certainly in a different universe from the stalled, static communities they were a decade ago. I’ve spent a lot of time in these communities over the years, both before the oil boom and after it, and my eyes saw no bust.

But that’s an anecdote, so why don’t we go to the numbers? According to a UPI report today, “The exploration and production side of the North Dakota energy sector may be leveling off as the number of deployed rigs holds steady, state data show.”

“State government data show 76 rigs in active service as of Monday, one less than the number reported one week ago,” the article continued. That’s down significantly from a boom-era rig count of just under 200, but it’s also about as low as most observers expect the rig count to go. If that’s true (it might not be, nobody can predict the future), that’s hardly a bust.

Also, while Van Ells weaves anecdotes of declining employment into a tapestry of angst and depression, in the real world the state’s job market and economy remain strong.

Here’s a headline from Sunday’s Williston Herald: “Construction goes BOOM in Williston.” If there’s a bust going on, nobody has told Williston about it. Or Watford City, for that matter. Or other oil patch cities.

[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]Yes, North Dakota slipped from the lowest unemployment rate in the nation to…the second lowest unemployment rate in the nation. … How is it a “bust” to move from 1st to 2nd place on the unemployment rate list?[/mks_pullquote]

As for the jobs market, Van Ells exaggerates that as well. “For seven straight years, North Dakota boasted the lowest unemployment rate in the country,” she laments. “Early this year, it slipped from that coveted spot.”

Yes, North Dakota slipped from the lowest unemployment rate in the nation to…the second lowest unemployment rate in the nation. A 3.1 percent unemployment rate, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ June 19 release, while the national average sits at 5.5 percent.

How is it a “bust” to move from 1st to 2nd place on the unemployment rate list? Certainly it is a sign that North Dakota’s economy is cooling off a bit, but that’s relative. “We’ve gone from white to merely red hot,” John Sessions, an investor in a housing development in Williston recently told the Dickinson Press.

But “merely red hot” apparently means bust to Van Ells. Probably because, as my reporter friend said, that’s the story she really wanted to tell.

Which is too bad. The reality on the ground here in North Dakota is much more positive than Van Ells makes it out to be. She’s giving the readers of the Atlantic (which includes me, I’m a subscriber) a very distorted view of what’s going on here. What’s more, she almost seems to be rooting for our state’s failure. I think that’s what explains her decision to declare a “bust” where one doesn’t exist.

That’s just not very nice, but it seems to be in keeping with the national media’s narrative about North Dakota’s oil-driven prosperity. They sneered when things were booming, choosing to emphasize negatives like traffic and crime instead of opportunity and job/income growth. Now that the boom is over, they want to talk about a bust.

So far, it doesn’t seem as though North Dakota is going to deliver on that.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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