This article was co-written with Peter Tolton, and appeared on Last Best News on March 5, 2014.
When the CEO of a Denver energy company announced last fall that he’d like to “bring something like the Bakken, maybe something a little more orderly” to the Beartooths, many residents scrambled to head off what they feared would forever change their scenic landscape.
Just last week, when Energy Corporation of America received the go-ahead from the Montana Board of Oil and Gas to begin drilling for oil and gas near Belfry, it was seen as a major blow by many conservationists concerned about the development’s impacts.
What is now beginning in the Beartooths is a story all too familiar to their neighbors to the east. Tuesday evening in Dickinson, N.D., a town expanding rapidly in the midst of the oil boom, a small group of citizens gathered to hear a hometown celebrity speak on a heavy topic: the future of their state.
The mood that hung over the crowd was one of both unity and conservation. Clay Jenkinson, the keynote speaker, addressed the future of North Dakota and its “unparalleled natural resources.”
Jenkinson, a Dickinson native, lends a familiar voice to the cause. He is known across the state as a lecturer at North Dakota universities, a director of the Dakota Institute and a columnist for the Bismarck Tribune. He has even been known to impersonate Thomas Jefferson, in which guise he appeared on “The Colbert Report” in 2006.
The event was intended to educate and rally people around a ballot measure that would allocate 5 percent of the revenue garnered by the state’s existing oil and gas tax towards conservation efforts. But another issue upstaged the ballot measure at times: North Dakota’s proposed Extraordinary Places Initiative.
North Dakota’s Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem put forth the initiative in January to inventory certain treasures in the state’s landscape — 18 places in all — and enact an automatic notification system that would kick in when developers want to drill near these areas.
Plans to develop within a 2-mile buffer zone of these areas would be subject to a higher level of environmental scrutiny and a public comment period.
Developers and mineral rights owners groups came out against the proposal, saying it would violate private property rights and needlessly hinder oil and gas development.
Stenehjem said that’s not the case.
“Nothing is proposed to be off-limits,” he told Forum News Service on Monday. “It simply says if you’re going to have a well there, come in with a plan to minimize the impacts.” He said the Industrial Commission would still have the final say over drilling sites.
Jenkinson pointed to the ways conservationists and drillers have worked together in the past to mitigate effects of development, especially in the area around Theodore Roosevelt National Park. He said measures like redirecting roads to protect viewsheds are examples of what can be achieved through cooperation.
On Monday, state lawmakers removed all private lands from the umbrella of the proposed Extraordinary Places Initiative. In many places, the Badlands is a checkerboard of private and public lands. Jenkinson called that move a serious setback to the initiative’s usefulness.
“I believe North Dakota yesterday declared itself to be an energy sacrifice zone,” he said.
In his Jan. 26, column in the Bismarck Tribune, Jenkinson referred to the proposal as “the defining moment of North Dakota life in the 21st century.”
He went on to predict what would happen if the initiative failed: “It will be an unmistakable sign that nothing is sacred in North Dakota anymore, that everything is for sale, with the least resistance, to the highest bidder. It will be a license to the oil companies that they may have their way with us, because we are insufficiently committed to our own sacred landscape to make reasonable requests about how it should be stripped of its oil reserves.”
The Tuesday gathering was hosted by the North Dakotans for the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment. Keith Trego, head of the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust, introduced Jenkinson and later explained the details of the amendment to the crowd.
Despite his obvious sympathy for conservation efforts, Jenkinson was quick to clarify his stance on energy development in his home state.
“I’m not one of the antagonists. I’m actually a supporter of the oil boom,” Jenkinson said. “I just think it needs to be done with more intelligence.”
His speech centered around what he called myths about North Dakota’s oil boom. The first myth, he said, is “this is just another big oil boom.”
He explained that this boom is drastically different from those of the past, and not just in magnitude. He said that with drills hitting oil 99-100 percent of the time, what is going on in his state is “not oil drilling, it’s oil mining.”
Jenkinson said he had no plans to write about conservation and development issues when he returned to North Dakota.
“I didn’t come home eight years ago to write about this,” Jenkinson said. “Frankly, I wouldn’t have come here if I’d known this was going to happen.”
He said his North Dakota was a land of “buttes, cottonwood trees, the Little Missouri River, creeks, the wind on a September day, nighthawks, lying in the Badlands looking at stars, listening to coyotes.”
His mother, Mil Jenkinson, 82, still lives in Dickinson. He said she’s thinking about leaving because her town has changed so much. She complains of the rudeness and the traffic. Jenkinson caught a few laughs when he explained that Mil plans her routes so she only has to make right-hand turns to avoid the long waits to turn left.
Another myth, Jenkinson said, was that of the oil boom’s “light environmental footprint.” Despite what he called “very good” reclamation laws, he mourned the lack of regulators and the cumulative effects even well-regulated drilling has on North Dakota’s land, communities and people. Even if any given pad site is a great example of environmental stewardship, he said, the combined effect of thousands of them isn’t taken into account.
He also quoted the late Arthur Link, who, as governor of North Dakota, pushed for strong regulation and taxation from energy companies who were reaping what he called a “one-time harvest” of the state’s minerals.
Trego followed Jenkinson to the microphone to advocate for the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment. The amendment is a ballot measure intended for the November 2014 ballot. It would dedicate 5 percent of the existing oil extraction tax to fund projects that protect clean water, improve natural flood controls, establish fish and wildlife habitat and expand parks and recreation areas.
“It’s time for us to think long-term, big-picture — to dig deep and find what North Dakota needs to be,” Trego said.
So, what can Montanans learn from North Dakota?
“The more you do now, the better off you’ll be,” Trego said.
Jenkinson offered this advice to Montanans:
“Think about it now, because when it comes, you won’t be able to think about it. You’ll just be reacting. And reacting isn’t enlightened.”