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Allen I. Olson, Published January 06 2013

Olson: In North Dakota: That was then, this is now

In January 1931, the United States Geological Survey announced a location near the city of Rugby in Pierce County, N.D., as the designated geographic center of the North American continent. The decade-long Great Depression accompanied by devastating drought was just gaining momentum but, nevertheless, the good residents of Rugby built a modest monument to this designation near U.S. Highway 2, then and now a major east-west transportation corridor across northern North Dakota. Passersby may notice that, for a fleeting moment, they are located where the United States, Canada, Mexico and Central America are in geographical balance.


The remainder of that decade was a social and economic disaster, particularly for North Dakota and the Great Plains. The year 1936 was the coldest (-60 F in February), the hottest (+121 F in July) and the driest (8.8 inches of rainfall) on record in North Dakota. Grasshoppers ravaged crops and clothing. Occasionally, dust storms changed day to night. From time to time, one could jump across the Red River without getting wet.

For most of the 1930s, North Dakotans’ per capita income was 47 percent of the national average. Approximately, 40,000 residents decamped during the decade, leaving 650,000 or so folks behind. The population continued to gradually decline to somewhat more than 630,000 recorded at the turn of the century in 2000.

That was then.

Eight decades and 82 years later, this is now: January 2013.

Amazing change

The most recent federal demographic statistics find North Dakota leading the nation in population and per capita income growth, the exact opposite of North Dakota in the 1930s.

Between 65 billion and

85 billion years ago, a semi-tropical sea covered most of North Dakota. Thanks to that and intervening changes of climate since, oil was discovered in the Williston Basin in 1951. By 1992, North Dakota was ranked ninth among the 50 states in the production of crude oil. Ten years later, in 2012, it leapfrogged Alaska and California to second place behind Texas.

Oil production in 2013 is projected to exceed 800,000 barrels per day. The population of the city of Williston, epicenter of the Oil Patch, is projected to double by 2020. New refineries and intra and interstate pipelines are planned and, barring a major international economic catastrophe, will be built.

Energy diversity

North Dakota has, arguably, the most diverse and comprehensive energy resources and production in the U.S. In addition to the oil and gas, vast reserves of lignite coal fuel electrical generation and provides the feedstock for the only operating gasification plant in North America that also pipes sequestered carbon dioxide to enhance production in the southeast Saskatchewan oil and gas fields.

Hydroelectricity is generated at Garrison Dam on the Missouri River. Wind has powered water wells and produced electricity for generations of farms and ranches. Now, large “wind farms” produce electricity that finds its way to the national grid. While less than commercial volume, solar and geothermal energy are produced and consumed in the state. North Dakota hosts several ethanol production facilities, an industry that suffers currently from the uncertainty. And North Dakota was host to early research and development of synthetic fuels.

The ag mainstay

While North Dakota’s energy resources and production attract national and international attention, renewable crops, food production and processing is, and will always be, the mainstay of the state’s economy. Climate change has expanded the state’s growing season and together with improved plant varieties, has pushed durum and hard wheat production westward, making way for production of corn, soybeans and edible beans. A major agricultural cooperative with global reach has announced a commitment in excess of a billion dollars to construct and operate a fertilizer plant in central North Dakota.

So, that was then – the “Dirty Thirties” – when North Dakota was recognized as the general center of the continent but was in major decline. And, this is now – January 2013 – the month and the odd-numbered year when the Legislature convenes in biennial session with a historic opportunity and challenge to achieve the right balance between development and conservation of use of the land, its surface and sub-surface.

Olson, Chanhassen, Minn., was North Dakota attorney general from 1972 to 1980, and governor from 1980 to 1984. He also served as a commissioner of the International Joint Commission of the U.S. and Canada.