The downside of the boom -- or, chickens home to roost

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Posted 3/22/16 (Tue)

Whines & Roses
By Cecile Wehrman

I was reminded this week of a column I wrote almost five years ago -- one which garnered a great deal of attention around the state -- but one that made absolutely no difference in the direction our state was taking with the unchecked impacts of an oil boom.
Titled, “Disaster declaration is the only reasonable action left,” it was published Nov. 30, 2011. The premise was that the state should cap the number of drilling rigs operating at any given time at 200 in order to allow infrastructure straining toward chaos the time to catch up.
What prompted me to write the column was news that, on top of what at that time was almost unbelievable strain on emergency services, roads and water supply, not to mention PEOPLE -- old people forced out to make room for oil workers, young adults unable to live anywhere but with their parents, business operators ripping their hair out for lack of bodies to hire -- the state was touting as a positive development the need to assimilate another 4,600 oil workers.
I pointed out that 4,600 workers was the equivalent of the entire existing population of Burke and Divide counties combined. At that time in 2011, the very orderliness of our communities -- from city government to our personal safety -- felt under assault.
A number of people to whom I launched my theory of permit limiting told me I was nuts. The state couldn’t limit the number of permits because that might cost the oil companies the ability to maintain their leasehold. It would mean mineral rights owners might have to wait for a royalty check. The mantra, “Drill, baby, drill!” ruled the day.
Whether you want to consider it a hallmark of liberalism or simply the nature of those not in power to lament the danger in irrational exuberance, I care not. We need only look at the fiscal situation our state government is in today to wonder at the wisdom of the path our state leaders followed at the start of the boom. Could Democrats have handled it any better? Maybe not. This isn’t about politics, it’s about stewardship.
Did we act as good stewards of our state’s resources in the midst of the boom, or did we sell out our safety, the future health of our environment and build a house of cards that can’t be sustained now that the rig count is closer to one-tenth the level once lamented?
I submit that, before there is a next time, we need to understand how we handled the boom and employ our best minds toward ensuring we come up with a better solution than, “Drill, baby, drill!”
There is no question our communities, even in the midst of this contraction, are more vibrant than they were before Bakken development. But I also believe we’ve contributed to our own hardship now, by turning an industry loose to inflict such unchecked pandemonium on every facet of our once delicately balanced economy.
How many millions have we spent simply trying to keep up? Are we really ahead? 
Even in my own business, the numbers don’t lie. We may have done more business during the boom, but it was so costly it actually made our fiscal health less stable instead of more so.
Oil prices will rise again and we know the oil isn’t going anywhere. We will be faced with these challenges again.
At the same time, we’ve got an agriculture economy that reaps a harvest every year and it is that foundation we need to protect above any industry’s interest to make money so quickly it puts our very society at risk of collapse. I am thankful for the time to develop better regulations, better responses to this sort of bonanza before it returns once more to potentially turn lives upside down.
Our townships, cities and counties were in an impact funding deficit throughout the entire boom cycle. That they remain so at the completion of it is an injustice that must be remedied and never repeated.