The Saudi Arabia of the Great Plains
For most of the 20th Century North Dakota claimed the unenviable distinction of being the one state in the nation that regularly experienced declining population. In 1930, as drought and depression ravaged the Upper Great Plains, the population in North Dakota was just a shade north of 680,000 souls. By 1970, that number was about 618,000. By 2000, North Dakota’s population was back to the level it had been in 1920.
Now oil and gas exploration and development in the northwestern corner of North Dakota seem sure to drive population growth, state revenues and change in ways not experienced since the 1930’s. The state legislature last week both projected an oil and gas fueled $1.5 billion – with a “B” – budget surplus and passed what a critical spokesman for the oil and gas industry called the most stringent rules regarding hydraulic fracking anywhere in the country.
“They are the most onerous regulatory changes we’ve ever seen,” Ron Ness of the North Dakota Petroleum Council told the Associated Press. Ness’s group represents more than 200 companies working in the North Dakota oil patch. “I’m a bit concerned about the cost of doing business in the state and that it could begin to discourage activity.”
The new rules require higher levels of bonding by industry, faster clean-up of fluids left from the fracking and disclosure of the chemicals used in the process.
The rules were put in place by a Republican legislature in a deep red state with a Republican governor. North Dakota is clearly embracing its new role as the Saudi Arabia of the Great Plains, but one also gets the sense that the state is wary about the gusher of social and economic change the energy boom brings. In January, North Dakota reported more than 6,000 active wells that produced nearly 17 million barrels of oil. The state once best known for wheat and spring flooding is now a bigger oil producer than any state save for Texas and Alaska. All this is happening, of course, while the national campaign trail is full of hot talk about soaring high gas prices and the alleged anti-energy development policies of the Obama Administration. Newt Gingrich – Mr. $2.50 a gallon gas – clearly hasn’t found his way to Williams County, North Dakota.
In Williston, once a sleepy cow town just east of Montana and south of the Canadian border, you had better know someone with an inside track or you’ll never find a motel room. The oil companies have reserved everything for miles around for months, while five new hotels are under construction. Wages and the cost of living have skyrocketed in western North Dakota, as have other measures that the Chamber of Commerce isn’t bragging about.
One recent account of life in the oil patch – in Indian Country Today - noted: “The Williams County Sheriff’s Office in Williston reports that there are as many DWIs issued at 10 a.m. as are issued at midnight. Jail bookings have increased 150 percent, and bonds as large as $10,000 are routinely paid in cash. (One person paid a $65,000 bond by pulling the cash out of a Walmart shopping bag.) Law enforcement can no longer do anything but answer calls, make arrests and investigate crimes. The proliferation of strip clubs and “babe buses”—which are basically strip clubs (or worse) operating out of an RV—has also added to the frontier-town atmosphere, according to the Williams County Sheriff’s Office.”
The Fargo Forum, one of the better newspapers in the upper Great Plains, has started a new website to cover “the patch” and assigned a reporter to live and work in the area. One of reporter Amy Dalrymple’s first stories from Williston featured a former Spokane, Washington couple who are spending nearly $2,400 a month to live in their RV parked in a local lot. Jayson Jarvis says he came to the patch to find better work and is still waiting. “The work here has been way too inconsistent to make enough,” he said. That said unemployment in North Dakota is about 3% and virtually non-existent in the western part of the state.
The other big story in North Dakota – if you don’t count the University of North Dakota’s march through the NCAA hockey tournament – is a raging debate over whether the university in Grand Forks can continue to use its nickname – The Fighting Sioux. Some time back the NCAA said UND could not compete in certain collegiate athletic events as long as the school used the Native American nickname. Ironically to many in North Dakota, the NCAA wants to nix the use of a nickname that local Sioux tribal leaders contend is just fine with them. The issue made it to the North Dakota Supreme Court last week and, depending on how the Court rules, the logo war may be decided by voters later this year.
In the farm depression days after The Great War and before The Great Depression, North Dakota’s rich soil gave rise to a remarkable populist/progressive political movement known as the Nonpartisan League. Farm prices were awful, farm foreclosures were epidemic and a certain prairie radicalism seemed to meet the needs of many farmers. The opportunistic NPL, with many former Socialists under its big tent, came to dominate the Republican Party in North Dakota, a dominance that continued until the 1950’s when the League, more or less, came to identify with Democrats. North Dakota’s Democratic Party today is official the Democratic NPL Party. If that sounds like North Dakota’s politics are a bit unorthodox that is because they are. The state tends to elect Republican governors, while often sending Democrats to Washington. Bill Clinton wouldn’t waste his time in most red states, but he keynoted the Democratic NPL convention last weekend in Grand Forks were his response to devastating floods is remembered fondly.
North Dakota will almost certainly put its three electoral votes in the Republican column come November. The state – like Idaho – hasn’t voted for a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Rick Santorum did well in the recent North Dakota caucuses, in part, by making the effort to visit the booming oil patch. But, North Dakota is also unpredictable. There is a certain creative and political tension at play in the state that finds citizens and politicians both embracing the oil boom and yearning for the old-style symbolism contained in that UND logo. One senses the small town simplicity that really does have its appeal is rapidly changing – even disappearing – in “rural” North Dakota.
So while you can buy an oil and gas motif necktie in the gift shop at the North Dakota Heritage Center just across the parking lot from the high rise state capitol building you may soon only find Fighting Sioux tees and sweatshirts in a second hand store. North Dakota is drilling its way into the 21st Century, but its quirky political and social history means that while they gingerly embrace an oil soaked future these salt of the earth flatlanders still steal a glance over their shoulders at a simpler, slower time.
North Dakota is the center of the energy boom in the United States and how this 21st Century story plays out here will say a good deal about the country’s march to something closer to energy independence. North Dakota is still a very rural state where radio stations supply farm market news in and around the commercials for a new harvester or a better herbicide. Energy will change North Dakota. It remains to be seen if the fans of the Fighting Sioux will like all the change that is just beginning.