OUR OPINION: N.D. advances along 'richer-is-greener' curve

Some call it the "environmental Kuznets curve." Some call it the "richer-is-greener curve." But whatever the terminology, the effect seems to be at work in North Dakota and is likely to shape policy for many years to come.

Our Opinion

Some call it the "environmental Kuznets curve." Some call it the "richer-is-greener curve." But whatever the terminology, the effect seems to be at work in North Dakota and is likely to shape policy for many years to come.

Credit Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem for understanding the curve and helping to bend its arc.

The "richer-is-greener curve" graphically portrays the way rich countries (and places) tend to be cleaner and less polluted than poor countries (and places) are. Do you know the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the famous stainless-steel icon of the city? Imagine that graceful arch on a piece of graph paper, and you've got the R.I.G. curve.

It shows how the levels of pollution and other environmental undesirables rise as a country industrializes. Then, as wealth is achieved and prosperity becomes abundant, people turn their attention and resources to the "luxury good" of a clean environment.

That's when pollution levels then reach their peak on the curve and start to decline.


The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, first caught fire in the 1860s, and over the next 100 years, the trash and oil in the river several times erupted into flames.

Today, "the Cuyahoga is home to more than 60 species of fish," The New York Times reported in 2009.

"Beavers, blue herons and bald eagles nest along the river's banks. Long sections of the Cuyahoga are clean enough that they no longer require aggressive monitoring, regulators said."

There's no better illustration of the richer-is-greener curve. And in North Dakota, some of the same forces seem to be at work, as a newly rich and increasingly industrialized state starts thinking more about scenery, quiet, wildlife and a midnight dome lit up with stars.

Polls have confirmed this concern, as North Dakotans speak of their increasing willingness to spend tax dollars on parks and conservation. Gov. Jack Dalrymple picked up on the change; his Outdoor Heritage Fund sailed through the Legislature and now is spending an unprecedented $15 million a year.

And Stenehjem sensed the desire -- and the need -- to do more. For state government also has a regulatory role to play, he recognized. And by protecting "extraordinary places" ahead of time, pollution problems can be avoided and conservation and recreational values can be preserved.

Not everyone is there yet. The trade-offs Stenehjem is proposing are too severe, critics say. Too much wealth will be foregone if North Dakotans deny drillers access to hilltops, for example.

In short, while we may be somewhere along the richer-is-greener curve, we're still quite a ways from its peak.


But Stenehjem's too smart to insist on development bans, even near "extraordinary places." Instead, he just wants regulators and industry alike to work with more care and with an eye to the nonmaterial but timeless riches North Dakotans derive from, say, seeing elk or antelope along the Little Missouri River's banks.

"All I'm suggesting is that when you're siting those wells, you do everything you can to mitigate the impact," Stenehjem said.

While the Sierra Club wouldn't have chosen those words, they're still more than almost anyone else in North Dakota state government has said about conservation for a very long time.

Stenehjem's achievement is that he not only recognized the need to balance wildlands with development but also proposed a practical way of doing so. That's good governance, and Stenehjem deserves great credit for trying to bring a richer-AND-greener North Dakota about.

Opinion by Thomas Dennis
What To Read Next