North Dakota turned 130 years old on Saturday “without much hoopla,” as my partner Suezette put it. There were proclamations but no celebrations. Instead, we got disaster declarations.
Gov. Doug Burgum’s Statehood Day proclamation was optimistic. One of its clauses said, “North Dakota is a state of boundless opportunity fueled by technology, innovation and endless ingenuity, home to incomparable people driven by a resilient, self-sufficient, enterprising spirit.”
That’s a good thing, because the state is facing two disasters at one time. Things are bad out on the land. Disaster has struck in the two biggest sectors of the state’s economy, agriculture and energy. Current conditions are symptoms of the double-edged danger facing the state in its 131st year and beyond.
The agricultural disaster has been quantified and help has been promised – but the real toll is likely greater than the hundreds of millions of dollars that the documentation so far shows. Although it is possible to harvest some crops after the ground has frozen, it may not be possible to plant new crops when the ground thaws, so this may be an ongoing disaster. Disaster payments and crop insurance will help in some cases, but that’s not fulfilling for farmers. There’s nothing like the joy of a good harvest, the satisfaction in planning, work and reward. Our farming forebears taught us that lesson, and it’s never left us.
The vagaries of the weather, the unmanageable movements of markets, tight credit and short growing season have marked North Dakota’s history and its character in many ways. So has the unyielding confidence that the next crop will be better. That’s the spirit that kept North Dakota going during the Great Depression, which was harder on this than on any other state, and especially hard in the western counties, where Suezette and I were raised. “The Great Northwest,” we called it in those days. “North Dakota’s Forgotten Corner.” Today the northwest is known as The Oil Patch. Our particular portion of it lies east of the “line of death,” as it’s called, the boundary between full-out production and “next year country.”
That “next year” seems to be at greater risk than it was even in the really terrible times, as another disaster suggested. A pipeline ruptured, blowing crude oil into a wetland northwest of Edinburg. The initial estimate is somewhere short of 400,000 gallons of spilled oil.
Like projected farm disasters, these initial totals are mostly guestimates. It takes a while to squeeze crude oil out of muddy ground. The usual outcome of the process is a far larger amount of oil than was first imagined. That’s what happened with the largest spill in the state’s history, in Mountrail County, our home space. That one was discovered when a farmer drove a combine into a field saturated with oil. Clean-up and restoration are ongoing. The site of last week’s leak near Edinburg is a short hour’s drive from our place northwest of Grand Forks. The company involved hinted to Gov. Burgum that soggy ground could have slipped causing the pipe to rupture. It could take a year or more to get it cleaned up, a company spokesperson told reporters.
The spill was localized, but it drew national attention and quickly became another flashpoint in the debate about fossil fuels and global warming. The spill occurred against a background of calamity howling about the climate crisis. Scientists warned last week that many more millions of people are at risk of rising sea levels than had previously been predicted. It’s unlikely that we here in North Dakota will be flooded by seawater, but it’s probably worth remembering that the land we live on was a lakebed only a dozen millennia ago.
North Dakota’s economic viability rests on activities most at risk in this era of extreme weather events. The two edges of the danger are the impact of fossil fuels on global warming and the impact of global warming on agriculture. These are not idle threats, but neither is the outlook altogether grim. Crisis fosters response, including innovation and regulation. New technologies, including carbon sequestration, are being developed. UND’s Energy and Environmental Research Center is a leader in this and other areas.
Both the political climate and the market have turned against fossil fuels; one of the region’s largest energy providers has vowed to shed its reliance on coal and oil by 2040, before North Dakota reaches its 150th year.
An equal challenge is the need to protect the state’s landscape, and again this is a twofold danger. While oil development has invaded the Badlands and overrun the West, industrial agriculture has spread across North Dakota. These pressures on wildlands and wetlands threaten the character of the state and the welfare of its populations – the people, plants and wildlife of the prairie that has nurtured native cultures and immigrants on the land as well as consumers around the world.
So Happy Birthday North Dakota! Let’s commit ourselves to many more.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.