North Dakota Roughrider Award Winner Louise Erdrich Trashes Oil Boom


The Theodore Roosevelt Roughrider Award “recognizes present or former North Dakotans who have been influenced by this state in achieving national recognition in their fields of endeavor, thereby reflecting credit and honor upon North Dakota and its citizens,” according to the state website. Those honored with the award are selected by the Governor with concurrence from the Secretary of State and the head of the State Historical Society.

Past honorees include Roger Maris, Lawrence Welk, Louis L’Amour and Eric Sevareid. The portraits of those honored hang in the state capitol.

In 2014 Governor Jack Dalrymple chose long-time state Supreme Court Justice Gerald Vanderwalle as his honoree. In 2013, Dalrymple’s pick was author and activist Louise Erdrich, who was born in Wahpeton.

When Erdrich accepted the award she got in some jabs at Dalrymple over energy issues and abortion legislation the state had recently passed. Now Erdrich is calling on Dartmouth College, her alma mater, to divest itself of investments in fossil fuel energy companies.

The justification? Erdrich’s observations of energy development in North Dakota. Here’s a taste of how she describes it:

“Big energy companies aggressively do not care what they’re doing to the climate,” says Erdrich, a longtime resident of Minneapolis. “You have to stand watching the tankers roll all day, every day across Indian land to realize how brutal this process is and how much money is being made. You have to see clean natural gas flared, just burned off, because the oil companies won’t spend the money to cap and use it. The land is becoming utterly fouled. Nobody drinks the water, reservation ditches have become dumps for radioactive material too expensive to dispose of properly and there are accidents almost every day, often agonizing fatalities, involving oil tankers.”

Nobody drinks the water?

While there have certainly been some incidents of illegal dumping and environmental problems, I don’t think many people who actually live in western North Dakota are seeing anything like what Erdrich is describing.

The water is fine. State officials have taken action to stop the dumping of low-grade radioactive material after a few incidents garnered headlines. Flaring rates have been falling. And no, the land is not “utterly fouled.”

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t perfectly valid environmental concerns about western North Dakota. Recent oil and salt water spills in the oil patch indicate that we can do a better job out there. But Erdrich’s hyperbole just isn’t based in fact, and that’s disappointing given the disservice it does to the state that was proud enough to honor her with its highest award.

I’d go so far as to say that Erdrich’s exaggerations are counterproductive to her own goals. Wild-eyed fictions aren’t going to inspire much confidence in your calls for action.

Here’s video of Erdrich’s Roughrider Award ceremony.