Yo-Yoing Through the Bakken Debate in the American Outback

Everywhere I go now the first thing I am asked about is the Bakken Oil Boom. But before I have the chance to stumble out a few uncertain sentences, the people who bring up the Bakken interrupt to tell me everything I need to know.

In Red Cloud, Nebraska, at a literary conference, I met three or four biology professors from Nebraska and Iowa. They didn't ask a single question, but they told me with a degree of righteousness that immediately set my teeth on edge, that fracking is an environmental disaster, that man camps are dens of iniquity, that the water supplies of North Dakota will be poisoned for hundreds of years, that oil extraction is an unsustainable form of economic development, that industry doesn't give a damn about the communities of North Dakota. Etc.

When they stopped raving to catch their breath, I tried to say, "Well, you have to understand that for a very long period of time (1930-2005) North Dakota has been undergoing an agonizing rural outmigration and decline, and the oil boom, however overwhelming it may seem, has stopped the hemorrhaging, given us full employment and…" But they didn't want to hear what I had to say. They didn't even try to listen. They interrupted me before I had even begun to try to explain our situation. "Unsustainable." "Fools gold." "Whatever its temporary benefits, it's definitely not worth it." They were angry at the state of North Dakota, and angry at me because I was apparently some kind of pro-development stooge.

Their arrogance and condescension were enough to make my skin crawl. I wouldn't let myself be as rude as they were, but I wanted to say, "Hey, unlike you I actually live in the state of North Dakota and I love it with all of my heart. I want the best for my homeland, even if it thwarts my personal mythology of the state. Since 2005 I have spent almost endless amounts of time trying to make sense of the boom, struggling to figure out what it will mean for the future of North Dakota and the Great Plains. In fact, I now spend so much time brooding over the fracking boom that is has damaged my life and cut into my pursuit of happiness. As far as I can tell it is a very, very complex phenomenon that does not lend itself to simplistic pronouncements either way. Surely it can only be understood in the context of the strained economic and political history of the Great Plains, which I'm guessing is why you are attending a conference on prairie literature." It was no use. Their minds were closed, not open. It was as if they were condemning a dental root canal as an intrusion on the sanctity of the mouth, without bothering to ask what set of needs or problems it was intended to solve.

Then I went to Omaha. My hosts were bankers and investment councilors. They asked me about the Bakken. But before I could even open my mouth, two or three of them said, "You guys are the luckiest people in America. Jobs, opportunity, budget surpluses. You North Dakotans must be doing something right. If that moron in the White House were not waging his war against carbon, we'd be able to tell them Arabs to shove it." (They used somewhat more colorful terms).

I tried to say that the man in the White House doesn't seem to me particularly anti-carbon, once you look at the facts--that was the end of the conversation for some of my hosts. I started to say that while the Bakken is on the whole a wonderful thing for North Dakota, it was putting some pretty considerable pressures on our communities and our landscape. But I was not permitted to utter two complete sentences. "You'll get over it," one man said. "Every other state should be so lucky, beginning with the People's Republic of California." Another man said, "You know what they say about methane flaring, don't you? Smells like money!"

If they had been willing to listen, I would have said something like. "You should come to take a look for yourselves. The Bakken oil boom has solved many fundamental problems for North Dakota, and the people of the state overwhelmingly support it. We're rich, and thanks to the boom we have opportunities unprecedented in our history. But one of the very best things about North Dakota is the quiet sweep of the landscape, particularly west of the Missouri River. On the whole, humans have, until now, imposed a light footprint on the prairie. There is a subtle beauty in the land that grows on you. It's primordial. It has helped to create the character and the spirit of North Dakota. We have deep agrarian roots. If you want to see what we have valued, just visit the state fair. It's true that the spirit of the buttes and the badlands and the Little Missouri River cannot be measured in dollars and sense, but we all need to remember that the value of a civilization (or a community) comes from intangibles that cannot be measured or put up for sale."

They didn't want to hear any of this and, had I uttered these words, they would have said, "Are you nuts? What have you been smoking?"

In Reno, this morning, I was leading a public discussion of the life and work of John Wesley Powell (1834-1902), the one-armed Civil War hero who floated the Colorado River canyons in 1869, including the Grand Canyon. The conversation almost immediately turned to the Bakken. "What would Powell have to say about it?," a woman asked. "I don't know," I said, "he died before oil was a serious fuel in the industrial world."

But this much I do know. Powell, who addressed the ND Constitutional Convention in 1889, had three core values. First, he was a Jeffersonian who believed that America (including its natural resources) belonged not to corporate interests but to the broadest possible middle class. Like Jefferson he believed that family farming was the highest and best use of land.

Second, Powell was a utilitarian. Every form of development should benefit the broadest number of people possible. All resource questions should be decided for the benefit of the commonwealth, and government should be an absolutely neutral referee. Although he loved the romance of the Colorado River, Powell came to believe that any cubic inch of water that reached the sea without being used for irrigation was being "wasted." Lake Powell is named for him.

Third, Powell believed passionately that humans have the right and the duty to manage their resources in the most enlightened possible way. He believed that every form of economic development can be managed for the benefit of mankind, but if we simply fold our arms and let the Titans of Industry have their way with us and the land, we will all be complicit in the desolation of the American Garden of Eden.

As I left the sweet independent bookstore where the discussion was taking place, I saw a Prius and a Ford F-250 in the parking lot, each with a bumper sticker. Ones said, "There Is No Planet B." And the other said, "If You Can't Farm It, You Have to Mine It."

I leave it to you to determine which vehicle each sticker adorned.