This is the first of two interviews with Bismarck Tribune columnist Clay S. Jenkinson. Jenkinson, a Dickinson native, returned to North Dakota six years ago after spending much of his career elsewhere. He is the Director of the Dakota Institute, and the Theodore Roosevelt scholar at Dickinson State University. He lives in Bismarck.
DI: Your weekly newspaper column in the Bismarck Tribune seems to be focusing more and more on the oil boom. Why?
CSJ: It’s not my favorite subject. I’m happiest when I am writing about the beauty and spirit of North Dakota, about thunderstorms, wind, buttes, the badlands, and the quality of light on the northern plains. But the Bakken Oil Boom is already one of the biggest stories in North Dakota history. My role is to reflect on this place, on North Dakota. As a citizen of North Dakota and a newspaper columnist, I’d be abdicating my responsibility if I did not pay attention to so huge and important a phenomenon. Like it or not, the rapid industrialization of our gorgeous landscape is going to dominate North Dakota life for the foreseeable future.
DI: So is the oil boom good or bad for North Dakota?
CSJ: Mostly good. Americans are carbon gluttons. We have carbon in abundance—in the form of oil, coal, and natural gas. Technologies now exist to get at those carbons. This means flush state coffers, jobs for everyone who wants them, the diversification of our historically agricultural economy, rural renewal in the part of the state that was in most serious demographic decline, tax relief for the citizens of North Dakota, and it may help us to achieve something like national energy independence. All great things. If we manage this right, the Bakken boom could be one of the best things ever to happen to North Dakota.
DI: And yet some of what you write in the Tribune is critical?
CSJ: Not critical. Concerned. I have four basic concerns about the boom. First, I think it is beginning to overwhelm North Dakota. All sudden growth is difficult to absorb. But I think it is going to get away from us in the next 18 months. Second, I worry that the boom is putting severe, and soon perhaps unbearable, pressure on the traditional rural habits and values of the people of western North Dakota. Already, Williston, Stanley, Watford City, and other communities are being strained in an unprecedented way. Third, I worry that it is going to create the “Saudi Effect,” in which we get smug about our wealth, lower or eliminate taxes, and allow the “funny money” that bubbles up from the ground to weaken the longstanding social compact of North Dakota—hard work, discipline, thrift, self-reliance, modesty of spirit. Fourth, I worry a great deal about the Little Missouri River corridor. I actually lose sleep over this. Medora and its larger environs are our number one tourism asset. They represent our spiritual sanctuary, our prime hunting grounds, our place to hike and commune with nature and with God in nature. I think we need to take careful positive steps to minimize the impact of this boom on the badlands (in the larger meaning of the word).
DI: If you were in charge of the universe, what would you do?
CSJ: 1. I’d slow the boom down. The last words I heard former ND Governor Art Link say, a few days before his death on June 1, 2010, were, “We don’t need to be any hurry. That oil’s not going anywhere. It gets more valuable every day.” I think we can safely slow the pace a little without losing the benefits of the boom and without driving the energy corporations away. (This, by the way, is easier said than done.) 2. I think we can work with industry to protect places of extraordinary beauty, fragility, or sacredness. For example, I think we should do everything in our power to limit the impact on the Little Missouri River badlands, not just in the vicinity of the National Park, but all the way from south of Marmarth to the mouth of the Little Missouri east of the “lost bridge” on ND highway 22. 3. I think we should create a special fund to offset negative impacts—particularly for those on fixed incomes in impact communities like Williston, Watford City, Stanley, Dickinson, etc. There is a role for the Bank of North Dakota here. We created the bank in 1919 for the benefit of the people of North Dakota. This would seem to me to be an opportunity to reinvigorate the populist mission of the bank. 4. I think we need to write new legislation to protect the rights and interests of surface owners who dwell on land for which they don’t own the mineral rights. 5. I think we need to create a ND Culture Fund (from oil revenues) to “seed” the 21st century, with performing arts centers, museums, art galleries, libraries, and senior centers throughout North Dakota, and not merely in the energy crescent. 6. I think we need a Citizens’ Commission to study the boom closely and to provide non-binding recommendations to the Governor and the ND Legislature. 7. I think we need to pay particular attention to water issues—where it comes from, where it winds up, and how it is delivered to the fracking wells. This probably means somewhat more rigorous regulations with respect to water. The Missouri River may seem to be an infinite resource, but it is not. We live in a semi-arid state.
DI: You have called for “leadership” on the oil boom. Do you blame Governor Dalyrmple for the way he has handled the boom?
CSJ: Not at all. He’s an agrarian. He’s highly educated. He has a great interest in history. His family is as rooted in the pre-oil North Dakota tradition as it is possible to be. Frankly, I’m glad he is in the governor’s chair. I don’t know him very well, and I certainly cannot claim to be an insider, but my intuition is that he is probably as surprised at the magnitude of the boom as everyone else. We have all been caught off guard, because our “oil boom template” comes from the 1970s, and this is a very different critter. I think all of us, including North Dakota’s elected leaders, are scrambling to stay on top of this wave. In the end, I think all North Dakotans are basically alike in their core values. We are all, in a sense, Art Link. We want to cooperate with energy development, but we want to do it right. We want to enjoy good times, to prosper, to benefit from the natural resources that lie under our soil, but we want to insist that deeper values—of stewardship, of community, of rootedness—dominate our thinking and chasten the boom somewhat.
DI: Then why have you called for more “leadership?”
CSJ: Two things. First, I think Governor Dalyrmple needs to use the bully pulpit more. I sense widespread and increasing anxiety among the people of North Dakota, particularly the people of western North Dakota, about whether we are managing the boom or it is just rolling over us. I have lived in a number of states, but never in one where the bully pulpit is used less than in North Dakota. I would just like the Governor to get on statewide television to explain to us how North Dakota government is managing (and intending to manage) the oil rush. I think that would be incredibly reassuring to the people of North Dakota. Second, I would like the Governor to charge the heads of every state agency, from the health department to game and fish to commerce and tourism—every single agency—to prepare a Bakken Impact Report, explaining how the boom is affecting its mission, budget, and staff. The reports would be updated every year until the boom ends. I think such reports would be extremely useful to the people of North Dakota as they think through the boom.
DI: What concerns you most?
CSJ: I’m more concerned about the social costs of the boom than I am of the environmental costs, but I am concerned about both. Because I have written about the boom, people tend to reach out to me (mostly by email) to express their concerns. There have been distinct phases of public response. First there was moderate disbelief: “Oh sure, 4 billion barrels, I’ll believe it when I see it.” Then there was delight: “This is going to be fabulous for North Dakota. We have a budget surplus.” Then ecstasy and intoxication, and among some, the kind of militant lust and greed that all “rushes” (gold, oil, copper) create. (Some people never transcend this phase, and they are angry at anyone who calls the boom into question at any level.) Then the first low rumblings of anxiety from people whose quality of life has been adversely impacted by the boom. And then cries of pain from the majority of people in the impact zone who are not benefitting from the phenomenon. I think that is where we are now—I am hearing strong cries of anguish and frustration, from law enforcement officials, educators, families with young children, county commissioners, people who have lived in Williston and Watford City all their lives and now find it hard to like those communities anymore.
I wish we could all agree upon the following Mission Statement for the Bakken Oil Boom: “We welcome this phenomenon. We intend to manage it intelligently. We want it to benefit everyone in North Dakota, even those who do not live in the carbon counties, and our goal is to limit the negative impacts as much as possible. We recognize the need for careful management of the boom. We agree to try to spare certain special landscapes from industrialization. We intend to do what we can to preserve the special character of North Dakota and its remarkable and beautiful plains landscape. When the boom ends, we want the people of North Dakota to feel that it was a good thing and that it helped to set up North Dakota for a prosperous, and culturally enriched 21st century.”
DI: Think that will happen?
CSJ: Yes, I’m a Jeffersonian optimist. But it takes leadership, and a great deal of enlightened engagement by the citizens of North Dakota.