Monday, May 14, 2012

Jay Nordlinger on the oil boom in North Dakota -- the Bakken, Microsoft, and more

Another "Bakken Monday" at MH:

Readers of the dead-tree edition of National Review will likely already have read Jay Nordlinger's article on the oil boom in North Dakota. For those who haven't, go out and buy a copy -- it is well worth the price for that article alone.

For those whose local bookstores have sold all their copies, Nordlinger has a series of interesting posts on NRO -- but be warned, they do not in any way comprise a précis of the heavy-duty article itself. Like most of Nordlinger's "Impromptus" columns on NRO, they are rather a fascinating series of brief (often light) anecdotes and observations . (Click on Part I, and follow through all 5 parts.)

Nordlinger, who has been mentioned on this site before in his capacity as music critic for The New Criterion, has the "day job" of senior editor for NR (rough life for a conservative journalist and pundit.)

He doesn't gloss over the problems that have come along with the oil boom surrounding the Bakken play, but he also conveys the infusion of money and energy (the human kind) that this development has brought to the state. Many of the people that he interviewed were people who had moved away from the state as youths (a problem endemic to states like North Dakota and Montana) but who are now able to move back because of the availability of jobs and business opportunities.

An interesting tidbit that Nordlinger reports on is that North Dakota's pro-business climate hasn't just manifested itself in the world of energy. Microsoft's second largest campus in the U.S. is in Fargo, and in fact, the fastest growth in jobs has taken place not in western ND where the oil boom is taking place, but rather in Fargo, which is about as far from the oil-fields as you can get and still be in the state.

Former North Dakota governor Ed Schafer demurs when people refer to the "North Dakota miracle," pointing out that it was a long, hard "slog" to get to where the state is now, revamping the state's entire attitude toward business and economic development, a process that started in the 1990's and is now bearing fruit.

An interesting post on the topic of broader economic development in ND can be found at Daily Markets, which mentions the Microsoft presence as well as Amazon's new 30,000 sq ft facility in Fargo, and then goes on:

Manufacturing continues to grow in North Dakota. One example is the recent expansion announcement by Caterpillar in West Fargo. Construction has started on a $50 million project that will create about 250 new jobs during the next three years, nearly doubling the plant’s current workforce. Caterpillar officials told us that North Dakota’s pro-business climate was a major factor in its decision to expand in West Fargo.

Phoenix International, a company that manufactures electronics for John Deere, recently broke ground on a $22 million expansion project that will include 90,000 additional square feet in Fargo for an expanded work force.

Other industrial expansions include WCCO Belting in Wahpeton, Harris Manufacturing in Oakes, and at the Monsanto and Cargill facilities in the Fargo area. Cargill recently started a $50-million expansion project and Monsanto has completed a $17.5 million expansion that has created 20 new jobs.

There are those who want Montana to try to attract "green jobs," high-tech industry, or even manufacturing instead of promoting the grubby business of extracting coal, oil, and natural gas from the ground. The reality is that in order to attract business, a state needs a "grub-stake," as the old time prospectors used to call it. "Only" 25% of state revenue comes from energy in North Dakota, but what that revenue allows for is tax structures that promote other kinds of business development in the state. Broad-based economic growth requires a positive attitude toward business in general, and the North Dakota experience is proving that.

If Montana starts landing major campuses for companies like Microsoft and Amazon, or breaking ground for manufacturing facilities for companies like Caterpillar, while leaving the coal and oil in the ground, MH will stand corrected. Until then, we can predict that our big growth industries will remain jobs in the state Department of Revenue and at fast-food joints that serve tourists driving through on I-90. And of course our kids in Billings can get jobs at Costco and Best Buy selling things to people driving up from Wyoming to shop for the weekend.

A final note: on the Republican side of things in Montana, it is tempting to talk about oil and coal development in isolation, promising to use those monies to cut taxes for Montanans. While that is all well and good, it is a formula for the "boom-bust" cycle that everyone rightly fears.

The economic development effort needs to be waged along a much broader front than simply coming up with policies that specifically promote drilling and mining. Attention needs to be paid to the entire spectrum of items -- legal, regulatory, taxation, infrastructure, education, quality of life -- that affect whether anyone would be inclined to start a company in Montana or to move a company to our state.

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