North Dakota, our official energy-sacrifice zone

 

It wasn’t unexpected that Big Oil would run rampant when it first started fracking the Bakken in western North Dakota in 2008.  The region had been steadily losing population and suffering from a stagnant economy since the 1930s, so it was in no position to reject the high-paying jobs that accompanied the boom. 

North Dakota’s conservation community was also small and underfunded, which meant that the few existing organizations could not possibly compete with Big Oil in either research or public relations. And because the state’s population is concentrated on its eastern border, far from the impacts of fracking, most North Dakotans were able to benefit from the increased tax revenue without having to live with the pollution and congestion of the boom.

But with the novelty of the boom wearing off, you might suppose North Dakotans were ready to resume some environmental control over what has become the state’s largest industry.  Over the past six years, oil spills have become weekly events, and wrecked trains have resulted in massive fireballs towering thousands of feet over sleepy North Dakota towns. Wildlife habitat has disappeared along with wildlife populations, and the panoramic views from Theodore Roosevelt National Park now include the sight of oil wells in every direction.

But no, the midterm elections made it clear that things were fine. In addition to re-electing pro-business Republicans in every statewide race by large margins, North Dakota voters roundly rejected Measure 5, a ballot initiative known as the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment. It would have dedicated 5 percent of the state’s existing oil extraction tax to conservation as a way of protecting the state’s water, land and wildlife for future generations.

Considering that the measure, which lost by a huge margin, would have utilized existing taxes paid by the booming oil and gas industry, it should have been relatively uncontroversial. But once the oil industry opposed it, the measure stood little chance. The ease with which Big Oil was able to defeat it and help re-elect incumbents indicates that North Dakota’s fate as an energy-sacrifice zone is now official.

Throughout most of the campaign, the Petroleum Council stayed in the shadows and let organizations like the Greater North Dakota Chamber lead the opposition to Measure 5. Only in the final weeks did the oil industry trade its anonymity for the opportunity to throw around its financial weight. The American Petroleum Institute dedicated $1.2 million to a no-holds-barred campaign, which included telling outright lies -- such as charging that money allocated by the fund would leave the state -- plus launching smear campaigns against the measure’s supporters.

“For all we can tell, the American Petroleum Institute ran this like a U.S. Senate campaign,” said Steve Adair of Ducks Unlimited, the measure’s main proponent. “They flew in a bunch of field operatives and called almost every phone number in the state.”

Though an out-of-state oil lobby fighting hard against an environmental measure might be cause for concern in many places, the 80 percent of North Dakotans who voted against Measure 5 seemed none too concerned by this. Referring to the American Petroleum Institute, Adair later added, “I think they were able to scare people and it’s always easier to get a ‘no’ vote if you’re able to do that.”

What’s even more amazing is that the defeat of Measure 5 was no anomaly.  In 2010, the state discovered a pipeline that had been operating for two years without a license, but last year, the Public Service Commission decided not to fine the company: It “might deter other companies from considering investment in North Dakota.” 

With two of the three members of the PSC up for re-election, North Dakota voters had an opportunity to change the board, yet both incumbents -- heavily funded by energy interests -- won by 20-point margins.

You might think farmers would be concerned about the heavy influence oil companies enjoy in the state. After all, wastewater spills have poisoned land for generations, while rail traffic has become so heavy with the influx of oil being transported across the state that farmers sometimes cannot get their grain to market. Nonetheless, incumbent Agricultural Commissioner Doug Goehring won his re-election bid by a solid 14 points.

North Dakota now enjoys a $6 billion surplus, and without the burden of pesky conservation programs, oil companies are in a fine position to convince lawmakers to lower their taxes. North Dakotans apparently agree. They already sent a strong message to elected officials in November: Business as usual. 

Michael Dax is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He writes about the American West in Missoula, Montana.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • CLIMATE JUSTICE FELLOW
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks applicants for a climate justice fellowship. The fellowship...
  • YELLOWSTONE TREASURES: THE TRAVELER'S COMPANION TO THE NATIONAL PARK
    Dreaming of a trip to Yellowstone Park? This book makes you the tour guide for your group! Janet Chapple shares plenty of history anecdotes and...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...