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Published January 14 2012

Forum editorial: How much damage is too much?

Two stories from North Dakota’s Oil Patch last week confirmed what some observers are describing as an infrastructure and social disaster. The first involves housing shortages and traffic snarls; the second is about the apparent flight of older residents from oil towns because of skyrocketing rent and other costs of living.

State officials got their ears filled during a tour of oil cities and counties last week. The concern rising from local governments gave substance to anecdotal evidence of the troubles associated with an uncontrolled and accelerating oil boom in western North Dakota, most notably in the northwest. As the months roll on, there are more and more signs of the dislocation and anger brewing in the patch.

For example, Williston Mayor Ward Koeser said the spike in rental costs “is just killing us.” Not one for hyperbole, the mayor knows his city. He is witnessing an exodus of residents who have lived there for 30, 40 or 50 years. “I don’t know what the right term is,” the mayor told state officials, “but the impact on our community … they’re the kind of people you want, and they have to move.”

He’s not alone. The same story is being repeated all over oil country, from Watford City and Stanley to Kenmare and Tioga. It’s mostly anecdotes thus far, but be assured that more focused demographic studies will confirm the trend.

Well, say officials and others rubbing their hands together over the prospect of gouging renters and taking in unprecedented oil-related tax revenues, it’s all to be expected. It’s the price of development. North Dakotans should suck it up and let the market adjust.

That’s not good enough.

Williston’s Koeser and mayors of other oil-impacted cities can’t do it alone. The state’s efforts to date, while impressive, fall short. The reluctance to intervene in an out-of-control “free-market” rental sector is forcing North Dakotans out of their homes and communities. For them, oil development is a disaster, and one of government’s roles is to help people through disasters.

A little more than a year ago, one of the major corporations pulling oil out of the Bakken Formation said the company would not move so quickly as to overwhelm the capacity of oil-impacted communities to cope with traffic, housing, roads, law enforcement and the inevitable assault on cultural values. That was at best a misstatement of intent, at worst a cynical lie.

Elected state officials and regulators need to get a better handle on what’s happening out there. If the past two or three years become the model for energy development, the damage to land, water, wildlife, entire communities and the cultural heritage of the ranching and farming west will be irreversible.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.