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Forum editorial: ND's new anger coach

Come on, North Dakota, you really should be angry. That's the urging of TV comic John Oliver, who last week devoted 20 minutes of his HBO comedy show to lambasting the state for its business-friendly regulation of the petroleum industry.

Come on, North Dakota, you really should be angry. That’s the urging of TV comic John Oliver, who last week devoted 20 minutes of his HBO comedy show to lambasting the state for its business-friendly regulation of the petroleum industry.
Oliver’s indictment of the state, relying heavily on old broadcast clippings, was a recitation of evils that are by now well familiar to North Dakota residents. He focused on oil and salt water spills, which have risen with soaring production, and oilfield worker deaths, which also have gone up with the increase in output.
As fodder for humor, the subject matter of Oliver’s profanity-laced rant was actually quite serious. In a connect-the-dots moment, he pointed out that the state lacks an office for enforcing ethics in government. Nothing funny about that.
Some noted with irritation the British funny man’s mispronunciation of Bakken, while others rushed to serve as apologists for anything that the petroleum industry has done in the state. His act was a bit overblown.
But Oliver has put his finger on an interesting phenomenon: Why aren’t North Dakotans angry about troublesome changes sweeping the state?
For the most part, North Dakota’s response to the problems Oliver highlights, exposed earlier by journalists inside the state and visiting from outside, has been to shrug. Or to let out a collective yawn. As judged by election results, North Dakota voters are quite happy with the way the state’s being run. Statewide candidates who have run on platforms of more aggressive regulation of the oil industry have run aground.
In recent years, those who decry the environmental consequences of the oil boom have written tributes to the late Gov. Art Link, who pushed in the 1970s to enact strong land reclamation requirements for coal mining. His conservation ethos was summarized in a famous speech, “When the landscape is quiet again.”
Much of the state’s stolid reaction to the dizzying and sometimes disturbing changes altering the state’s landscape today can be explained by what happened to North Dakota a in the 1980s and 1990s.
During the 1980s, the state endured an oil boom turned bust, a farm crisis and severe drought. Those crises were followed in the 1990s and early 2000s by devastating floods and crop diseases.
Crops shriveled up or got mired in mud, jobs lacked while incomes lagged – and the state’s young people left in droves. Now, North Dakota’s diversified economy is humming, even in the midst of a slowdown in the Oil Patch and slumping farm prices.
As a result, North Dakotans are slow to display anger about the downside of economic progress. But how long will that last? Will North Dakotans start itching for changes when prosperity no longer feels like such a novelty?

Editorials reflect the views of Forum management and the Editorial Board.

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