Friday, May 16, 2014

Thoughts from the road: The Bakken Breakout

A bar in Montana is advertising that it has the "only shuffleboard in town" and has just installed a new Pac-Man machine.   A North Dakota college lists its curriculum offerings, a list that ends with "... welding and music."  Local talk radio is interviewing a person who goes around the state offering seminars on how to survive Obamacare.   

Ah yes, among Obamacare's faults, according to this fellow, is that it takes the health costs of high-medical needs people and transfers it onto the backs of the healthy.  One wonders if he even grasps the concept of insurance.  You know, where if your neighbor burns down his house, you have to pay for part of it because you have the same insurance company.  Sounds like socialism.  Sounds like an insurance plan.

But it is the far west corner of North Dakota that deserves a focus.  The explosion of oil field development is everywhere.  In Dickenson, the ground zero of fracking I picked up a copy of the "Bakken Breakout Weekly", a tabloid-sized paper devoted to chronicling developments.

Reading it, and driving through the region puts one in mind of a Colorado boom town in the late 1800s.  It's all here: rapid influx of unattached men (and some women) being put up in temporary field camps.  An explosion in rent and home prices (a two bedroom apartment is going for $2,000 a month in some places).   Cities scrambling to keep up roads crumbling under massive truck traffic, building schools, hiring police (and subsidizing their living expenses).  One school district is going to a 4 day week to save costs because they can't afford the operating expenses of a fifth day.

I didn't read about any gunfights over cheating at cards in a local saloon run by some modern day Miss Kitty, but I wouldn't be surprised if it had happened.

There are some differences: a company advertises its skill at helping oil companies comply with regulations regarding archaeological issues, historic preservation and consultations with Native tribes.  I doubt that happened a hundred years ago. 

And there is the environment.  Rapid development never looks very pretty.  Oil drilling equipment is strewn about everywhere.  Natural gas is being burned off in flares (something I hadn't seen in years) because there are no pipelines to capture it. 

I hope some sociologists and historians are out here doing research.  It would help us understand that Colorado boom town.

The weekly paper is shot through with issues of the relations of business to government.  The city is ticked that the state isn't giving them enough revenues back from what the state collects.  The Bureau of Land Management is being castigated for standing in the way of progress (cut the government!) – and for not inspecting oil wells fast enough because they lack the money to do so.   A school district, which had lost money due to sequestration cuts has made up for it by increased federal subsidies to districts that have to support students who live on federal tax-exempt land.  A third of its' budget comes from federal payments.  This school district is building houses for its teachers.  Residents of a local trailer court are protesting rent hikes and want – seriously – the government to impose rent control.  How socialist of them.

This paper, and the radio show just how impoverished our language is for discussing the economy's relation to government.  No matter what is happening, the government is wrong.  The talk show host is on a rant about how the BLM won't let you ride your four-wheeler on "your land", by which he means federal land, which he demands be "returned to the states" (that's another government, isn't it?), states that hadn't been formed at the time the feds gained control of the land.

Government is always wrong, even if it is one government complaining about another government.  And even when the demand is that the government do something – like stop letting people with less than a year of experience be in charge of inspecting a pipeline, or inspect those oil wells, or build some roads – the solution is never mentioned, because the solution is to fund those activities.  Then, after a short silence, someone goes on to demand that government get smaller. 

1 comment:

  1. A bleak account of a bleak land... I used to have faith in the Deweyian dream that a good education system would enhance the quality of democratic deliberation, but I am not so sure anymore...