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Jack Zaleski, Published October 15 2011

Zaleski: It’s not all smiles in North Dakota's Oil Patch

There’s trouble in paradise – that is, paradise as defined by North Dakota’s Oil Patch.

The initial bloom on the oil-boom rose is fading. An unprecedented industrial overlay on the western landscape and ranching culture is beginning to bear bitter fruit. Fears that were only whispered about when the promise of new oil revenues clouded judgment are beginning to drive public policy in overwhelmed local governments.

I get out there a lot. My wife’s family is in its fifth generation on a farm/ranch north of Sentinel Butte. A few weeks ago, we stayed at a friend’s home in the badlands west of Medora. Beautiful spot at the head of a wooded canyon, facing the sunrise, surrounded by the rugged, weathered landscape. Challenging, winding road cut into a low butte to get there.

The talk is all about oil and the problems the boom is generating. Conflicting emotions struggle with the contradictions: economic renaissance vs. cultural and environmental disruptions, neighbors and community vs. rent gouging and profiteering, bustling businesses vs. escalating crime and social service demands.

This stuff isn’t coming from a cabal of anti-oil outsiders. Local governments, responding to concerns of their constituents, are acting. Towns and counties are saying “Whoa!” to man camps. Williams County (Williston), for example, counts some 9,400 oil workers in man camps. The county commission there has imposed a moratorium on building more. The tiny town of Almont is trying to block renovation of an old school into an oil worker-occupied building. A neighborhood in Dickinson successfully blocked placement of a man camp nearby.

Stories of tripled rents causing residents to leave apartments or homes they’ve been in for years have become commonplace. Law enforcement agencies have been unable to hire personnel because they can’t match high wages in oil jobs. But even if they could, there is no affordable housing.

Traffic is way up on roads meant for much lighter loads and smaller numbers of vehicles. Accident rates are up. The truck traffic in places like Watford City is like nothing ever seen before. The attendant damage to highways, county roads and city streets is draining road repair budgets.

There is a sense that the state’s love affair with oil – oil money – is allowing the boom to escalate without sufficient regulation and oversight. The tendency of the industry to minimize real and potential damage to water, land, air and wildlife too often is reflected in inaction by state agencies charged with protecting those things.

Don’t believe it? Get out there. See for yourself. Talk to folks who have lived on the land or in small towns all their lives. The love-hate relationship with the oil boom is tilting ever so slightly away from love.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at (701) 241-5521.