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Taylor Brorby

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The Conversation We Are Not Having

Posted: 12/04/2013 1:38 pm

Few people are drawn to North Dakota -- cold, uninviting, and xenophobic, many people believe there is little to love in the Peace Garden State.

Residents of North Dakota can be indignant when it comes to other viewpoints or attitudes, going so far as to take pride in the cold weather, saying it keeps the riffraff out.

North Dakota, then, seems to be the ideal place to host an oil boom. Populated with stoic Norwegians and Germans from Russia, North Dakotans, as a rule, do not discuss exciting topics such as politics and religion. In a recent survey, when the word "conserve" or "conservation" was used, 70 percent of North Dakotans agreed with the statement; when the word "environmental" was used, only 5 percent of North Dakotans agreed with the statement. In North Dakota, like everywhere else, our use of words matters, so let me describe the conversation those of us from North Dakota and we, as a nation, are not having.

The oil boom in the Bakken formation of North Dakota is ruining the environmental vitality of the state.

But no one cares about North Dakota; after all, it is the least visited state. It is a place ripe for an oil rush.

North Dakota has done a shoddy job regulating the oil industry, allowing flames to flicker and fly, flaring off 29-30 percent of natural gas. Given the current market, oil is 23 times as valuable as natural gas, but we know natural gas is a cleaner, more efficient energy source than oil. North Dakota might consider lobbying to eliminate flaring.

Last month North Dakota experienced the nation's largest inland oil spill near Tioga. Over 20,600 barrels -- or more than 865,000 gallons -- of oil oozed onto Steve Jensen's farm. Jensen discovered the leak on September 29. The state took over 11 days to tell the public about the oil spill, and governor Jack Dalrymple was supposedly notified on October 9, one day before the public.

Pipeline leaks are not the only mishaps in the state. All but around 50,000 of the 1.1 million acres of the National Grasslands in North Dakota, roughly 95 percent, is now leased for oil development. That's nearly one-third of our entire National Grasslands at risk. The Little Missouri State Park is also open for oil development, begging the question: What's safe from oil development in North Dakota?

In my travels around the western half of North Dakota last month I smelled both sulfur and propane in wheat fields, making my breathing difficult. Flares lit my path down Highways 85 and 2 through the night, making me feel as if I were baking in an oven. The evening sunset reflected pink and blazing orange, highlighting the increasing toxicity of the air.

I'm waiting for new medical studies to release information about exposure to cancer-causing chemicals in the Bakken region. I'm waiting for reports of increased toxicity of water in the Missouri River channel. I'm waiting for reports of diminished plant and animal life. But I worry that those reports will be too late.

The noted geologist Stephen Jay Gould said, "We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well -- for we will not fight to save what we do not love."

So far we in North Dakota, and we as a nation, have voted to love the bottom line rather than draw the line and say enough. We have allowed corporations to remain simple, allowing the destruction of vital ecosystems and environments -- including the environments of our own thinking. We have lapsed into thinking that we should have a life of abundance, rather than an abundance of life.

It is time for North Dakota, and the nation, to reexamine what it loves and protect what is desperately necessary to life on this planet -- clean water, air, and rich ecosystems. We may soon realize that the biggest inconvenient truth of our energy independence is that we have bypassed the moment to practice self restraint.

 
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