Opinion: N.D. fracking: Boom or bust?

For the first time in some 40 years, I didn’t open the pheasant season in Kansas with the same group of friends. Such traditions are painful to break, but the dearth of birds in drought-stricken Kansas and divergent commitments trumped nostalgia. So I struck out for South Dakota, where pheasants are plentiful. Then on to North Dakota, where I met up with a friend who’s moved his contracting business there to take advantage of the fracking oil and gas boom.

After driving for hours through a desolate, featureless landscape, I was unprepared for the spectacle that greeted me when I reached the drilling fields. Cresting a hill, I encountered an endless convoy of tanker trucks, derricks nodding like giant birds, bulldozers and backhoes gouging and clawing at the earth, compounds of gleaming oil tanks, trailers and RVs of workers scattered everywhere. The boom has transformed this remote area into a Wild West, gold-rush frenzy.

Some hail the boom as a rousing example of America on the move. The discovery of vast reserves of oil and natural gas has given us the prospect of energy independence at a time when the Middle East seems plunging into chaos. Lower energy prices offer some relief for Americans stuck in an economic slough and an opportunity to develop a long-term strategy for the eventual depletion of fossil fuels.

But it’s also disfigured the landscape and brought on the ills that come with an invasion of workers with no permanent commitment to the area. At night, the countryside resembles an inferno. Garish flames leap up from gas that must be burned off for lack of storage or transmission lines. According to one report, they’re burning off $100 million in natural gas a month, an extravagant waste.

“We’ve had booms and busts before,” said one skeptical native. “And they always end in busts. There’s a lot of people just passing through to make a buck.” Tales abound of con men and carpetbaggers who’ve made promises and then vanished after getting some cash up front. Drug abuse has escalated. On the other hand, farmers whose families have braved the harsh and lonely Dakota winters for generations, have become millionaires overnight. Many have bought second homes in Florida.

Fracking is the bete noire of environmentalists, who see this windfall as a curse, prolonging dependency on fossil fuels, aggravating global warming and slowing the conversion to renewable energy. And fracking may turn out to have forbidding side effects. There’s a downside to every upside, no blessing without some attendant hitch. It’s worth noting that this revolution is taking place on private land and probably never would have happened if it hadn’t escaped the regulatory hand of a government that is hostile to fossil fuels.

Among the unforgettable people I met during my brief sojourn was a couple who’d come from Washington State. They’d lost their business in the recent economic downturn and had come to North Dakota to make a fresh start. They were living in a kind of mobile trailer-kitchen, serving sandwiches and pizzas to truckers and field workers from dawn to late at night. Word had gotten around of their outstanding bacon-and-cheese burgers and French dip sandwiches and they were doing a brisk business.

The boom scenario was appalling and exhilarating at the same time. While our government seems eager to create more incentives not to work, these modern pioneers exemplify the American appetite for opportunity, the knack for self-renewal and self-reliance, the energy and ingenuity that fuels economic progress, the attitude expressed by a sign in a nearby service station: “Life has no remote. Get up and change it yourself.”