Friday, November 2, 2012

A "pyramid scheme" in the Bakken? And an oil refinery for New Town, ND?

When I first wrote this a few days ago, I was planning to put it up on Monday as one of my energy-related pieces, but the heart of it really has more to do with cultural issues than with energy.

Besides, I think I will give some pre-election thoughts and predictions on Monday, since it will be the day before Election Day. On Wednesday, there will be a lot of political things to talk about regarding what happened on Tuesday, so that will put me back on track. I have an idea about what I want to write about next Friday for my cultural offering, but I will want to do it some justice.

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I know I am often tendentiously critical of Billings Gazette editorial practices, but there are reporters working for that newspaper, and for Lee newspapers in Montana in general, whose work I admire.

Long-time readers know my deep respect for the "just the facts" approach of lead political reporter Charles Johnson, for general interest reporter and one-time "City Lights" columnist Ed Kemmick, and for local political reporter Tom Lutey (yes, I know some Republicans think he is biased, but he always shot perfectly straight with me every time I dealt with him when I was heading up Yellowstone County's Republican Party.)

Not mentioned nearly often enough (given the primarily political emphasis this site had for its first years of existence) is the ever-reliable Jan Falstad, whom I mentioned for the first time earlier this year.

Now, she has a whopper of a summary about goings on in the Bakken. And how can you beat leading off with the story of developers planning to built a giant pyramid in Williston, ND -- the epicenter of the Bakken oil boom? It's just one of those stories where truth is stranger than fiction.

The North Dakota state capitol is the tallest building in the state, and while it reminds me entirely too much of Soviet architecture (given the centrality of the Nonpartisan League in the state's political history, that shouldn't perhaps be surprising) -- but still, the idea that something as tasteless as a Vegas-style pyramid would eclipse it seems somehow wrong. A traditional skyscraper to headquarter a major company and provide office space, condos, and the like? Fine. But a pyramid? Egad! Do some capitalists feel a burning need to live out the philistine caricature that leftist artistes assign them? It's almost enough to make this traditional energy booster start having sweet daydreams about Solyndra... But not quite.

Back to Falstad's piece, though. Tucked into the piece is this stunner:

The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes on the Fort Berthold Reservation in New Town, N.D., just received a key federal permit to build the first major U.S. oil refinery in 30 years.

That is simply jawdropping -- it has been taken nearly as an article of faith that environmentalists would never allow the building of another oil refinery in this country -- ever again. One suspects there is some back-story to this. Did the tribes have some flexibility because of their legal status as an Indian nation? Or did minority concerns help grease the wheels? No matter. I couldn't be happier for that particular group of tribes. They were grotesquely mistreated by the Army Corps of Engineers when Garrison Dam was being built. "New Town" received its name because their other towns (which had been nestled down in the Missouri River valley (think the shelter that Billings enjoys) were all flooded by the vast Lake Sakakawea, and they were built a "new town" up on the windswept plains as a consolation prize.

I first encountered the entire sordid, brutal story in the Marc Reisner's fine book on water in the American West called Cadillac Desert (that the story takes place in the 1950s and not the 1850s only makes the story more repugnant.) The residents of the Ft. Berthold Reservation had perhaps made the smoothest transition to the modern world of any Indians here in America -- largely because they were not nomadic, but rather were farming tribes to begin with. They became fine stockmen, ranching along the well-sheltered and well-watered banks of the Missouri River and being models of the kind of acculturation and assimilation that the federal government supposedly wanted from Indians. They also lived an old-fashioned subsistence lifestyle that would have been familiar to most Americans of any race just a generation or two prior: raising large gardens in the rich bottomland; using timber they cut on the flats along the river for houses, fences, and firewood; making use of the many springs and creeks for their own use and to water their livestock.

What they experienced was the complete loss of a way of life for which they could never be compensated, even had the government tried to do so (and in fact, Lt. Gen. Lewis Pick of the Army Corps of Engineers made it one of his missions in life to punish the Ft. Berthold tribes for what was quite mild resistance -- punish them by making sure the terms they received for “compensation” were as unfavorable and even vindictive as possible.) Little wonder that George Gillette, in the famous photo at right, could do no other than to break out into tears at the ceremony at which the various Indian tribes along the Missouri gave up their land to be flooded (the dams were generally positioned such that white towns would be spared.)

They had already adjusted once to the arrival of the white man -- and then their readjusted lives were demolished just to control flooding in downstream cities like St. Louis. And it wasn't just that it was done, it also was the way it was done -- with cruelty and vindictiveness. The name Lewis Pick deserves to be remembered with the great villains of history. Read that chapter in Reisner's book if you ever get the chance (he refers the reader to another, more detailed, source which I also read -- but I don’t remember its name, and my copy of Cadillac Desert isn’t ready to hand.) If your eyes don't tear up when reading it, something's wrong with you.

Well, enough on this tangent. I hope they make out like bandits on this oil refinery deal. Getting back to Falstad's piece, here are a couple more interesting tidbits:

A decade ago, Williston’s airport handled about 6,000 passengers coming and going each year. Next year, the airport expects that many fliers each month. This airport and seven others serving the oil boom need more than $300 million in improvements.

North Dakota’s city sales taxes jumped 41 percent in the second quarter, with Williston’s sales tax up nearly 58 percent. That means the town of about 45,000 collected $857 million in sales taxes in three months, mostly due to oil production and its spinoffs.

A lot is happening and a lot is changing in western North Dakota. Not all of it has been pretty or easy, especially for long-time residents who were content with how things were before the boom. That state has seemed, however, to be making Herculean efforts to make the transition happen as smoothly as possible and to prepare for what will happen when the boom is over.


Tom Balek - Rockin' On the Right Side said...

I only hope that the federal "permit" they received is not accompanied by a federal "grant".

Brad Anderson said...

Too true...