Matters of Perception

The Bakken is changing North Dakota and, while it can be overwhelming, most of us agree it is for the better. But still, many of us need to learn more about oil development and those in the Bakken need to tell the story about their growth.
By Rob Lindberg | June 24, 2014

The Bakken is changing North Dakota and, while it can be overwhelming, most of us agree it is for the better.  Our cities and schools are growing. Our incomes are growing as well, both inside and outside the Bakken. In fact, North Dakotans are now among the best paid in the nation.

Ten years ago, the typical recent high school graduate moved east—Williston to Minot, Minot to Grand Forks, Jamestown to Fargo, and Fargo into Minnesota. Whether for work, for school or a post-college career, few people chose to make a move west.

Today, the story is very much the opposite amid our state’s booming energy industry and the stifled national economy. Thousands of native North Dakotans and many thousands of others have been given the opportunity to build promising careers in the state.

With this sort of success, it is no surprise that a December 2013 poll shows the oil and gas industry receives strong public support with more than 80 percent of respondents giving favor to the industry. Similarly, more than 70 percent thought North Dakota has a bright future. The poll, however, showed very clear differences in how the growth of communities in oil producing counties is perceived by those who live in those counties and those who live outside them.

Poll respondents from outside the state’s oil counties cited greater concern for crime and environmental safety than did those in western oil counties and this difference comes with little surprise. Listen to media reports from the New York Times or even some of our own media and there’s no escaping their stories of rampant crime and environmental concern. Their stories give an illusion of inescapable crime and a landscape filled with crew camps and well pads.

The truth is considerably different. While crime and public service calls have increased, crime grew only one percent in the oil counties from 2011 to 2012, considerably less than the 7.9 percent across the state. “To characterize this as the wild, wild West wouldn’t be accurate,” said Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem at the time. Even reported spills require a better understanding. Large spills are very rare. More often than not, a spill is less than one barrel of oil and in 75 percent of incidents, it occurred within a working area designed to contain fluids.

To a much greater extent, citizens in the Bakken cite much greater concern for issues that can be addressed readily and have either already shown, or are in the midst of, a great deal of progress. They overwhelmingly care more about everyday impacts—driving safely, finding housing and building the infrastructure to support growing communities.

Notably, these responses aren’t from a lack of concern or from ignoring crime and safety by those in the Bakken, but are rooted in a matter of pragmatism. In a recent letter to the editor, a woman wrote “Like anywhere, if you make smart decisions and keep good company, trouble has a tough time finding you,” which applies to the vast majority of those in the Bakken mostly concerned with working and feeding their families. Instead, Bakken respondents, more so than non-Bakken respondents, have a more pragmatic outlook on their challenges and look to solving these issues.

These results also follow a pattern of data from earlier studies that show a lack of commonality in perceptions of the oil development between Bakken and non-Bakken counties. When activity in the Bakken first ramped up, surveys showed declining ratings in quality of life in the Bakken from its residents, even dipping below 50 percent, while the perceptions from non-Bakken respondents stayed strong. This changed in late 2012, when development in the oil and gas producing counties took strides and noticeable improvements took hold, such as new hotels, additional restaurants and the temporary bypass around Williston. At that point, Bakken respondents again rated quality of life favorably while other North Dakotans fell below 50 percent in ranking western North Dakota positively for the first time. In 2013, these trends intensified, with Bakken residents showing additional satisfaction and non-Bakken residents showing even lower perceptions of the Bakken’s counties.

This is a very telling split. For two years now, Bakken residents have regarded their region significantly more favorably than those outside it. These differences in perception impact how communities in western North Dakota develop and who chooses to move to these communities over the long run. They impact how our state’s leaders make expenditures and, likewise, how our western cities and towns will grow into communities that offer unmatched opportunities for both economic success and quality of life.

Most importantly, the differences show that many of us need to learn more about oil development and those in the Bakken need to tell the story about their growth and needs more effectively.

Author: Rob Lindberg
Director, Bakken Backers

The claims and statements made in this article belong exclusively to the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Bakken magazine or its advertisers. All questions pertaining to this article should be directed to the author(s).