Mike Jacobs, in his 1975 book One Time Harvest, wrote “The coal industry has come west in search of four basic resources: cheap clean air, cheap coal, cheap water and cheap politicians. They’ve found each of these in North Dakota.”
If he were to write another book in 2012 (and I wish he would), he might write the same words, substituting “north” for “west” and “oil” for “coal.”
The oil and the politicians are a little more expensive now. Especially the politicians. But they’re affordable. And they can be bought. And it looks to me like they ARE being bought.
It was not the same in 1975. Earlier, a company named Michigan Wisconsin Pipeline Company had announced plans for massive coal development in western North Dakota. I attended a press conference in the community room of the First National Bank in Dickinson in 1973 at which a fellow named Noel Mermer, a PR flack for Michigan Wisconsin Pipeline Company, announced the company’s plans to build 22 giant coal gasification plants in western North Dakota.
Shortly after the announcement, they applied for a water permit to use 375,000 acre feet of water per year to supply the 22 plants. According to Jacobs’ book, each coal gasification plant would need more than 10,000,000 tons of coal a year, which would mean the strip mining of about a section of land per year per plant. The announcement sent shock waves through western North Dakota, much like the Bakken oil boom has done today. The level of coal development needed to “contribute to national energy self-sufficiency,” sociologists predicted, would cause the population of the 18 counties in southwestern North Dakota to double by the year 2000. In addition, Jacobs wrote, “particulate matter emitted by coal conversion plants reduces visibility and may be responsible for substantial changes in climate.”
Population explosion? Climate Change? Is any of this starting to sound familiar?
But here’s the major difference between then and now: Then, we had Art Link.
Governor Art Link looked the coal gasification company squarely in the eye and said “Not in my state, you’re not. At least not right now. Not that fast.”
Art Link’s ace in the hole was the water permit. Without the water permit, the plants could not proceed. And he chaired the State Water Commission, which granted water permits. After careful consideration, Art Link’s staff wrote 17 (I think that’s the number) conditions, which he attached to a water permit granting the company 17,000 acre feet of water per year, enough to fuel one coal gasification plant. In the end, one plant, half the size of each of the 22 proposed plants, was built. And no more.
That plant still operates today, owned by Basin Electric Power Cooperative of Bismarck, and just recently I heard a PR flack tell a group that the reason only one half a plant was built is that the economics weren’t there—natural gas was so cheap that artificially produced gas could not be produced profitably. And she was right. Because the energy industry in this country is driven solely by money, not by any sense of national duty. Only Basin, a cooperative, with government assistance, was willing to proceed, eventually, with synthetic natural gas production, to help the nation’s energy needs. The private energy industry turned its eye to wherever it could make money—and that was not producing synthetic natural gas in North Dakota.
Coal development did proceed in North Dakota into the late 1970s, but at a manageable pace. The conditions that Link and his Water Commission placed on that water permit became the basis for state laws on clean air, mined land reclamation, and a state water policy. I don’t have access to records from the 1976 election campaign, but I am pretty sure that Art Link never took a dime from the energy industry for his governor’s campaign that year. How unlike today.
I’ve been thinking about all this today because of what North Dakota’s current governor, Jack Dalrymple, did last week. On his behalf, the attorney general of the state of North Dakota filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service to force the Forest Service to open the only currently protected wilderness (small “w”—for now) areas in the Bad Lands to oil development. There are five tiny areas, totaling about 60,000 acres, in some of the most spectacular areas of the Bad Lands, still temporarily protected from development, out of the total of more than a million acres of federal land in western North Dakota. That’s less than four per cent. So 94 per cent of our National Grasslands in the Bad Lands are open to oil development. There is a proposal put forward by citizens of the state to have them designated as official Wilderness Areas, offering permanent protection. If this lawsuit succeeds, that proposal is dead, and we will have no new Wilderness in the Bad Lands. In addition to the million acres of federal lands already open to drilling, about 2.5 million acres of state land, managed by the North Dakota Department of Trust Lands, most commonly known as school sections, are open for oil development. Put another way, Dennis Anderson, outdoors editor for the Minneapolis Star Tribune noted recently that the oil patch, including not just public land but private land as well, all of which is open for drilling, consists of about 14,000 square miles, or about 9 million acres. The 60,000 acres under temporary protection is less than one half of one per cent of the oil patch. About 99.4 per cent of the oil patch is available for drilling.
But that’s not enough. Not for the greedy oil industry. And if it’s not enough for them, it’s not enough for Jack Dalrymple. Because they own him. According to Project Vote Smart, oil and gas companies and their executives had contributed more than $150,000 to Dalrymple’s campaign as of his last report in May, and that figure is likely to climb over $200,000 by Election Day.
So the lawsuit filed last week by the State of North Dakota to open up previously protected lands for oil development (here’s a link to a Forum Communications story, but because they take the stories down after just a few days, I am reprinting the entire story at the end of this article) was no surprise. The state joins the county commissioners of four oil patch counties, who filed their own lawsuit a couple of months ago. The leader of the county commissioners who filed the earlier lawsuit is Billings County Commissioner Jim Arthaud. The same Jim Arthaud who is chairman of Jack Dalrymple’s 2012 campaign committee. The same Jim Arthaud whose family and company wrote more than $15,000 worth of checks to Dalrymple’s campaign, and who regularly donates $10,000 a year to the Republican Party in addition to his support of Republican statewide candidates.
It’s no surprise, but it is so disappointing. There are precious few acres left in the North Dakota Bad Lands that remain undisturbed by the oil rigs. Do they really need them all? Every one? Couldn’t they just leave a few for the deer, and the eagles, and the coyotes, and the people who like to visit and enjoy the spectacular Bad Lands solitude, the fiery sunset landscapes, and the welcoming gaze of those critters who live there?
Some North Dakotans care for the land, and the sky, and the animals, and the precious heritage of our people, all of which make this the greatest state in the nation. Others care only for the dollars that feed their bank accounts. How much do they need? How can they care so little about what is really important?
Here’s the Forum story about the lawsuit:
Battle for building roads in the Badlands intensifies
By: Patrick Springer, Forum Communications
FARGO — A legal battle is intensifying to decide if roads can be built in areas of the Little Missouri National Grasslands now managed as roadless and eligible to be protected as wilderness.
The dispute started this summer when four North Dakota counties sued the federal government, asserting they have the legal right to build roads along section lines.
Advocates of a proposal to designate as wilderness several pristine pockets of federally-owned grasslands have said the lawsuit, if successful, would nullify the suggested Prairie Legacy Wilder-ness, which so far lacks congressional sponsors.
Now the state of North Dakota has entered the battle, with a separate lawsuit claiming a similar legal right to build section-line roads on the three national grasslands in the state.
Both lawsuits are playing out in U.S. District Court in Bismarck amid rapid oil and gas drilling in western North Dakota’s Bakken Formation, part of which lies within the 1.2-million-acre Little Missouri National Grasslands.
The U.S. Forest Service, which manages the federal grasslands, recently denied permission to some state mineral lease holders to build access roads to drill for oil or gas.
The Forest Service has not recognized what the state contends is its right to build section line roads, authorization North Dakota claims under an 1866 federal law as well as a state law dating back to territorial days.
Wilderness advocates said the state’s entry into the legal feud is discouraging. The Prairie Legacy Wilderness proposal could include state or school lands adjacent to national grasslands holdings.
“This is very disheartening,” said Jan Swenson, executive director of the Badlands Conservation Alliance, a group pushing the proposed wilderness.
The state appears more interested in helping petroleum companies to develop every possible area than in preserving the few small pieces that remain eligible for wilderness protection, she said.
“One can’t but believe that it goes back to what Mr. Helms has said — that they want to drill and hydraulically fracture every square mile out there,” she said, referring to statements by Lynn Helms, who directs state regulation of oil and gas.
She noted that Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which is surrounded by Little Missouri National Grasslands, was listed as one of the 10 top ecotourism destinations in the Great Plains.
“One has to wonder how long that can possible last,” Swenson said. “Unless we make an effort as a state to hang on to some of it.”
Ninety-five percent of the Little Missouri National Grasslands is eligible for oil and gas drilling, and 84 percent has been leased, although not all of it has been developed yet, she said.
“Watch,” Swenson added. “It will come. They will drill.”
The U.S. Forest Service manages four parcels in the Little Missouri National Grasslands totaling almost 40,000 acres as eligible for wilderness.
Altogether, including state and private lands and one parcel in the Sheyenne National Grasslands in southeastern North Dakota, the wilderness proposal totals about 67,000 acres.
Mike McEnroe, another wilderness advocate, said he was not surprised the state has joined the four counties — Billings, Golden Valley, McKenzie and Slope — in seeking authority to build roads.
“I think the state has always wanted more say-so on national grasslands,” he said, adding that oil companies undoubtedly would prefer state regulation to federal oversight.
But McEnroe agreed with the federal government in asserting its authority over federally-owned public lands.
“They are federal lands,” McEnroe said. “They are there for all the public, for the whole country. They should manage them from a national perspective, not a state perspective.”
Although both lawsuits assert the right to build section-line roads — which follow the orderly survey grid — the rugged Badlands terrain means few roads follow section lines for any length, McEnroe said.
“They call them Badlands for a reason,” he said.
Wayne Stenehjem, the North Dakota attorney general, declined to comment on the state’s lawsuit.
Similarly, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service declined to comment on the pending lawsuits. Federal lawyers, citing the complexity of the counties’ lawsuit, are asking a judge for additional time in answering the lawsuit, and have not yet responded to the lawsuit filed by the state.