Booming North Dakota
What it’s like, what it means

(Thomas Fricke/First Light/Corbis)


Kathy Neset has been through boom before, and boom is often followed by bust: During the boom periods, you have to guard against it, to the extent possible. There are negative stories to be written in North Dakota. A headline in the New York Times said, “Even Boom States Get the Blues.” Another said, “A State with Plenty of Jobs but Few Places to Live.” A headline in the Los Angeles Times said, “Despite jobs, not all is rosy in North Dakota.” (Please point me to where all is rosy!) An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education worried about whether North Dakota’s new wealth would find its way to colleges: “Dreams of lavish support are limited only by a persistent midwestern frugality.” Yes, that midwestern frugality will screw you every time.

There are un-silver linings, sure. But the possibilities embodied by North Dakota are exciting. Many Americans dream of energy independence, a dream really within grasp. A headline in The New Yorker read, “Kuwait on the Prairie: Can North Dakota solve the energy problem?” A headline in Maclean’s said, “Bye-Bye, Sheiks.” While others talk about “energy independence,” Kevin Cramer prefers to talk about “energy security.” Like many another free-marketeer, he’s happy to import cheap oil from abroad. But it never hurts to have some in your own back pocket, just in case. Even in the rockin’ Bakken, oilmen are getting just a fraction of what’s there: between 6 and 8 percent. With future technology, who knows what will be possible?

But there are those who would keep the Bakken from rockin’, who would kill the goose laying the golden eggs. I ask several people what the biggest threat to them is, and they say, to a man or woman, “The EPA.” (Some say price collapse, too.) If the Environmental Protection Agency decides to ban or stifle fracking, “we’re out of business,” as Cramer says. The Obama administration is clearly no fan of oil. Dalrymple said, “The federal government is killing energy development with overly burdensome regulations. The best example of this is the Keystone XL pipeline which the Obama administration will not allow to be built. . . . We cannot effectively market our crude oil domestically without a large North–South pipeline.”

There are people who consider abundant American oil a mortal threat to their agenda: their agenda for “renewables.” As John Kemp of Reuters wrote last year, many lobbyists “fear rising oil production would relieve upward pressure on prices and remove the threat of energy insecurity.” He spoke of a “Manichean struggle,” in which “leaders in Washington and state capitals across the United States are being pressed to decide between embracing the job and income gains that come with drilling” and curbing those gains, to “focus on clean technology investments and employment.” President Obama has told Continental’s Harold Hamm, personally, that he sees essentially no future for oil and gas. Hamm has signed on as an energy adviser to Republican Mitt Romney. The Obama campaign ran a TV ad saying that Romney stands with “Big Oil.”

Okay, but is that bad, necessarily? Hamm’s a bigshot, sure — one of the richest men in America. But he didn’t start out that way. He was the son of a sharecropper, the last of 13 children. He knows what oil can do for people, in all sorts of ways.

“This is an upbeat story,” says Kathy Neset. It is. North Dakota, certainly in the west, is throbbing with life. On the Fort Berthold Indian reservation, there was 40 percent unemployment and “no hope,” as Lynn Helms says. Now there is virtually no unemployment and plenty of hope. People in North Dakota are feeling new pride. Someone tells me, “We were kind of the forgotten state on the prairie. Mount Rushmore’s not in North Dakota, it’s in South Dakota. But now we’re showing the way in domestic oil. We’re helping the whole country.” Someone else says, “People always made fun of us. Now it’s kind of cool to be from North Dakota, where all the action is.”

Forgetting what the boom has done for North Dakota, think once more about what it has done for others: all those Americans who are newly employed. Some of them were out of work for years. Unemployment can have nasty side effects, including depression, alcoholism, and divorce. It’s easy for the already employed to sniff at an oil boom. Men who have come to the Bakken are saying that, at long last, with work, they can look their children in the eye. That is really good news.

April 30, 2012    |     Volume LXIV, No. 8

Books, Arts & Manners
  • Patrick J. Deneen reviews Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, by Ross Douthat.
  • Matthew Continetti reviews The Lost Majority: Why the Future of Government Is Up for Grabs — and Who Will Take It, by Sean Trende.
  • Allen C. Guelzo reviews Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy, by Andrew Preston.
  • Andrew Stuttaford reviews Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations, by Norman Davies.
  • Ross Douthat revisits Titanic.
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .