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.

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