Tales from the Oil Patch: A Conflict

Photo: Ole Jørgen Bratland / Statoil ASA The Oil Patch – Williston, N.D.

Photo: Ole Jørgen Bratland / Statoil ASA
The Oil Patch – Williston, N.D.




By Larrie Warnberg

When water bubbles up from the ground naturally, it is called a wellspring or an artisan well and the landowner most often cheers.

When oil percolates from the land in the Bakken Field, alarms go off and conflict among people and groups surfaces once again.

In the Oil Patch, a series of recent oil spills, although relatively small, have brought the issue to the public table over a key question – How do you balance the individual rights of landowners who have mineral rights in hand and a governmental responsibility to protect the rights of collective citizens from exploitation for future generations.

It is a balance between what’s “right” to do and what one’s “rights” are?

It used to be rather simple when the family farm existed in homesteading days, as three, sometimes four generations, of family members sat around the table and expressed their opinions of how to do things. The family joined like-minded groups in the community and a culture of common values and beliefs surrounded them (except when they raised cattle and a neighbor began raising sheep). Diversity within a small community then was rare.

Today, media tends to become this round table and the boundaries have extended beyond the “homestead” to cross state boundaries, jurisdictions and even an International border to Canada.

A potential solution is evolving in North Dakota by creating an “extraordinary list” of places that are considered to be hallowed, historical or heritage-valued for preservation.

A committee of ten representatives of different interests is being assembled in N.D. to deal with these issues and create an agreeable policy for energy development within the state.

However, this effort is being criticized in social media as in violation of state law for “open” meetings – the question, in essence, is such a committee an arm of government or an assembly of concerned citizens that are “lobbying” for response by local governance?

The issue at hand is more complicated by jurisdictional boundaries and sovereignty. The Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation of the Three Affiliated Tribes, with 980,00 acres at the treaty-designated Ft. Berthold Reservation, is at the heart of the Bakken Field.

In addition, there are environment groups, special interest lobbies, and a host of associations that want a voice in energy production, benefits and enabling policies.

Editorials “slice and dice” the issues – some artfully and with compelling points-of -view – and politicians take sides in advancing their agendas. However, committees seldom are truly representative and infrequently reach consensus, only majority. Talk shows tend to be verbal treadmills of controversy, in my view, and radio or TV news reporting is usually limited to a few sound bytes and/or visual commentary.

No simple answer will be forthcoming. But I doubt much gain will come from a committee of ten that lacks grass-root representation where the issues are embedded and eventually are preserved in the infrastructure of small rural towns where landowners and their youth assemble.

These “extraordinary” places from my study of rural communities are libraries (where knowledge and stories of experiences are stored), museums (where historical, heritage and cultural associations preserve artifacts) and parks (where communities share family times to relax and enjoy nature and wildlife, or memorialize their honored heroes).

As an educator, I do not see any representation of the above grass-root infrastructures on the proposed committee.

As a lifelong learner, my favorite media on the Web is the www.Ted.com series (stands for Technology Education and Design), where leaders in fields with fresh ideas are given a 15-minute videoed opportunity to present their ideas to a live audience.

In this case, I propose an invited random audience of high school and college students to hear a presenter, who is a representative member of the “places” committee, and interact live in valid discussion. This video is then posted on a dedicated Website that is accessible by a smart phone to anyone, anywhere, any time.

Thereafter, I’m suggesting creating a couple of chairs on the committee for youth inputs. After all, they represent more of a deep-root why such a committee should exist.

It is an age-old conflict that is being threshed out in media in new ways – blogs, editorials, twitter, online communities, Webinars and maybe even something like a “TED” approach to designing a state’s future. New media is an “open” way to go forward productively to preserve our assets across changing borders.

Two of President John F. Kennedy’s words of wisdom to our nation, over 50 years ago, were “Our nation’s children are our greatest asset” and “Wisdom is the child of experience.”

Larrie Wanberg is the author of the Norwegian American Weekly’s current column, “Tales from the Oil Patch,” exploring issues relating to the Bakken Oil Patch in North Dakota.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 1, 2013 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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Larrie Wanberg

Larrie Wanberg, 1920–2021, contributed features to The Norwegian American for many years, drawing on eight decades of life experience highlighted by three career recognitions: as a researcher through a Fulbright Scholarship to Norway in 1957; as a health care provider in behavioral science through a 27-year military career and awarded upon retirement in 1981 the highest non-combat medal, the Legion of Merit medal; as an educator, through a 50-year career in college education, culminating in the 2010 Public Scholar award at the UND Center for Community Engagement. Wanberg passed away in May, 2021.