Clay Jenkinson Column: Hand On The Lever, Not Head In The Sand


For what little it is worth, I am solidly in favor of the Bakken Oil Boom. I’m just one citizen of 700,000, of course, and I don’t regard myself as having any special insight. But I love North Dakota with all my heart and I want this our shared homeland to thrive in every sense of the term. I see prosperity and economic development as great things, but certainly not the only blessings of North Dakota life. Sometimes I think we are so benumbed by gratitude that this great economic miracle has come to us that we forget that we have the opportunity and responsibility to set the rules of engagement, and take special care of values in North Dakota life that are hard to quantify but essential to our long term happiness.

The Bakken Oil Boom is potentially one of the greatest things ever to happen to North Dakota, if we manage it right, and invest the windfall to create the best possible future for our children and grandchildren. If I could snap my fingers and make it go away, I wouldn’t do so. If I could snap my fingers and make it slow down a little, I probably would, but not if that would in any way jeopardize the continuation of serious economic development in North Dakota. Actually, at this point, I don’t see how it could be slowed down without violating the property rights of private mineral owners who have signed leases with oil companies, and I am certainly not in favor of that.

According to the experts I trust, the most hectic phase of the oil rush is now coming to an end and a more orderly and less frenetic phase is beginning. As the infrastructure starts to catch up with the volume of human and industrial traffic, the level of chaos and congestion should start to come down. As our law enforcement systems (town, county, state, and national) get the personnel, resources, and training they need to master varieties of anti-social behavior previously rare or unknown on the North Dakota prairie, criminal activity should begin to come down to less alarming levels.

I believe that I am like most North Dakotans in that I now spend a lot of time trying to make sense of what is happening to our beloved homeland, and I’m more often filled with ambivalence than pure joy. Some of what I see delights me. Some of what I see troubles me. Some of what I see horrifies me. Frankly, I’d rather not spend my time thinking about the oil boom. I prefer to think and write about the dance of cottonwood trees after the first freeze, the savagery of a great July thunderstorm, the chaffy smell of the wheat harvest, the way pronghorn antelope turn on their afterburners when they really decide to run. Or the fabulous campy joy of waiting for the Burning Hills Singers to rev up at the Medora Musical. You know: North Dakota.

But rather suddenly an Industrial Revolution has come to the northern Great Plains and like it or not we are in the thick of it. It is now impossible to ignore. The sheer oomph of it (the volume, the speed, the seeming recklessness, the glut of men and vehicles and camp followers) forces everyone who loves North Dakota to wrestle with certain questions—what this means for our character and identity as a people, how this boom will change our towns and cities, how it will transform our favorite landscapes, how this thing will affect outdoor recreation and the state’s cherished wildlife, how we should spend the vast private and public revenues, how this will affect our spirit of place. You don’t have go out of your way to seek these questions. They hurtle into your consciousness, like it or not, sometimes when you least expect it. We would not be good citizens of North Dakota unless we rise to the challenge of trying to manage our future rather than be steamrolled by it.

Most Bakken benefits should bring delight to every North Dakotan Full employment. Amazing budget surpluses. Tax relief. Full funding for our educational systems. Even more important: Rural renewal. An end to a very long era of depopulation, outmigration, rural strain, and rural decline. A new confidence in the step of virtually every North Dakotan. A belief that the Bakken may propel us into a much better future than we could have dreamed of without its gigantic infusion of energy and capital into North Dakota life. These are benefits of such value, and they solve deep systemic and historic problems of North Dakota life so convincingly, that it’s hard to see how any rational person could wish the boom to go away.

Troubling things: Train derailments. Accidental oil spills and water spills. Barroom brawls. Respiratory issues among livestock herds. Surface owners disrupted by oil development from which they get few or no benefits. Loss of wildlife habitat. Industrial encroachment on some of the most beautiful landscapes of North Dakota. Rushed and sometimes shoddy development in oil boomtowns. Skyrocketing rents for people on modest or fixed incomes. The loss of a sense of serenity and security among non-oil residents of our communities.

Horrifying things: Deliberate saline water spills. The spike in murder rates in North Dakota. Drug gangs and actual drug wars in the Bakken zone. Sexual assault, prostitution rings, sex trafficking (i.e., the rape of young women in Asia, Eastern Europe, and America’s Indian reservations, and their delivery into the oil fields). The number of traffic fatalities in which longtime North Dakota residents are killed while simply attempting to go about their lives in the suddenly industrialized landscape.

I do firmly believe that the benefits of the Bakken Oil Boom greatly outweigh the costs. But that doesn’t mean we should shrug our shoulders and accept the dark side of the boom as inevitable or “the cost of doing business.” The answer is not to decry the oil boom or to live in denial of the “costs,” but to address these problems with unblinking firmness, with the gumption and good sense that are the hallmarks of North Dakota life, and with a genuine sense of urgency.

We need to give the oil counties and cities absolutely everything they need to keep on top of this thing, no questions asked, no haggling or penny-pinching. We need to have zero tolerance for industrial negligence and stick it to individuals and rogue companies that violate our landscape, our farm fields, and (potentially) our water supplies. We need to bring in however many cops and federal agents it will take to crush the sex trafficking and the drug gangs. We need absolute transparency in our state agencies, no lies, omissions, or sugar coatings. We need more regulators to enforce North Dakota’s excellent regulatory laws. We need to do everything we can to diminish the impact on Theodore Roosevelt National Park and a dozen other very special places in our magnificent countryside.

And we need our state leaders to assure us (out loud) that they regard these problems as something deeper than “growing pains.”

This column was originally published in the Bismarck Tribune.