Lesson: Be careful what you wish for

April 30, 2014

Watford City was, for the latter part of its 100 years of history, a sleepy little town on the North Dakota prairie. Then, a few years ago, the oil rigs arrived.

Sharon Cohen of the Associated Press reported in Tuesday’s edition that as the many efforts to attract business and industry to Watford City failed, its population diminished to 1,700 people. But the Bakken oil boom has brought sudden growth to that town, and along with it a great deal of pain. Residents who once complained about shuttered storefronts and the lack of jobs and services now gripe about traffic jams, long lines at stores, quadrupling housing prices and increased crime.

It’s estimated that within three years the population of Watford City will have increased tenfold to 17,000.

Though the boom we’ve experienced in this area from Marcellus Shale gas development in not quite so dramatic, the parallels are difficult to ignore.

McKenzie County, where Watford City is located, is North Dakota’s top producer of oil at some 300,000 barrels a day. Washington County, is a top producer of natural gas and is at the geographic center of the Marcellus Shale. Watford City’s population had dwindled, its young people forced to find work elsewhere. The city of Washington’s experience was similar. Starting with the decline of the glass industry, its population fell from roughly 25,000 to 15,000 over half a century. For years, the residents of both places yearned for jobs and the businesses that would provide them. They envisioned, perhaps, office parks and light industry, but what they got was something much bigger and dirtier. The lesson may be to be careful what you wish for.

The type of industry that came to North Dakota and to this area had come around before, caused a boom and then a bust when the oil and gas beneath our feet had been siphoned off.

Now, new technology has allowed the drillers to reach the resources that their predecessors could not. And there’s enough gas and oil down there to make the boom in both places last more than a few years this time, maybe as long as 25 or 30 years. So, we’re likely to experience the benefits of vigorous business activity – commercial development and an increase in population and the services it requires – but also the fallout that longtime residents of Watford City, and to some extent this region, are enduring.

Additionally, there is environmental damage to consider. Explosions at gas wells, noxious emissions into our atmosphere and the fouling of our drinking water with fracking fluids are serious threats to our quality of life. Only last week did we learn of a leak at a containment pond in Amwell Township, necessitating the removal of hundreds of tons of contaminated soil. The state Department of Environmental Resources is investigating why the leak went undetected for months and plans to punish Range Resources with a fine.

The benefits to this region and the nation from Marcellus gas are great, but they are negated if our health, safety and the air we breathe and the water we drink are endangered. The industry requires diligent oversight and regulation, not just to prevent today’s accidents but to ensure that the land, air and water of our children and grandchildren is not destroyed.

At the same time, we should looking to that not-so-distant future when the gas and all the people who extract it are gone. Who, then, will stay in all those new hotels? How will we pay to maintain expanded schools? What happens when what goes up inevitably comes down?

We should be thinking about the kind of industry needed to replace gas development and begin attracting it now. That would require a plan.

Do we have one?



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