Down on the Farm: Hitting a gusher
Turns out, finding oil on your land is a little like winning the lottery.
Everybody dreams they'll win the lottery, but most all lottery winners soon come to rue the day they bought the winning ticket. Friends expect freebies. The winners' jobs becomes meaningless. Their daily life loses focus. Calls come in from worthy causes the world over.
So, too, with the discovery of oil North Dakota has won the lottery. The state's once abandoned western counties now bustle like California during the gold rush of 1849.
Of course to hear North Dakota politicians tell the story the state is prospering like no other because the politicians, in their infinite wisdom, "created a friendly business climate."
North Dakota's entry into the Miss American contest chirped on national television that her state is "leading the nation out of the recession," implying that North Dakota has pulled itself up by the bootstraps and the rest of the nation should follow its virtuous example.
Budget problems? Unemployment? Solved. All you have to do is find billions of barrels of oil. Just win the lottery and your state will prosper.
Yet, winning the oil lottery is as dangerous as winning the regular lottery, perhaps even more so. People are dying.
Traffic accidents in western North Dakota are way up. Crime is way up. Drilling for oil is risky. The oil patch is a dangerous place!
A way of life is dying. Rent and property values have risen so fast that many elderly locals on fixed incomes in western North Dakota towns such as Williston and Dickinson have been forced to leave town.
Some western North Dakotans have gotten rich, others have not simply because somebody sold the mineral rights to their land decades ago.
A newspaper editorial in Western North Dakota recently argued that the region should be declared an economic disaster area. Cap the drilling, the writer stated, or we will be overwhelmed!
Circulation of the smartly-written, courageous editorial was soon quashed by the publisher of the newspaper. We can't come out against progress!
It is well-established that winning the lottery is one of the most destructive things that can happen to a person.
Yet everybody thinks when they win it themselves, they will be the exception and will survive, even thrive, with their newly-found millions.
It never, ever works. Ever. Why should an entire region that has won the lottery be any different?
Oil field investors constantly worry that the mighty feds will stop the drilling due to the possible effect of fracking (high pressure fracturing of the rock which contains the oil) on ground water quality.
Who is anybody kidding? Do you think the Environmental Protection Agency is going to simply call a halt to the exploitation of the biggest domestic oil find in decades?
Think again. Money is at stake, and when money is at stake, the people with the money eventually get their way.
So, fracking is safe. By that, I mean fracking is safe from long-term interference by the feds. The political pressure is as high as the pressure required to frack a well.
Whether fracking harms well water may never be objectively known. The truth will likely spend decades buried beneath a checks from lobbyists.
As a small-town booster, I am always thrilled when economic activity awakens long dormant communities.
We always hope for a factory, or a visionary entrepreneur, or something to descend from the sky to rescue us from our century-long economic decline. The discovery of oil underfoot would seem to be a boon on all counts.
However, winning the lottery can be too much of a shock, whether it be to the mental make-up of a grandmother on social security or to an entire stagnant region that discovers it is sitting on a sea of black gold.
Those of us in Minnesota small towns might think twice before getting oil envy.
Rather than wait for a winning ticket, we might relish the opportunity to write the next chapter of our economic history at a rate we can handle, control and enjoy.