It was one of those chance encounters. I was just sitting in a Bad Lands bar on a rainy afternoon having a quiet drink when an old acquaintance happened in and sat down beside me. He was a retired coal company executive, with a friendly face and a firm grip, and we re-introduced ourselves and visited a good long while. Bad Lands bars on rainy afternoons are good for that, especially for two retired geezers with not much else to do or worry about.
Talk, of course, turned to the oil boom pretty quickly, and how different it was from the coal boom of the 1970’s, which we both remember well. And that got me to thinking, later, about how REALLY different it is from those days when coal severance taxes and mined-land reclamation would have started and dominated a similar discussion.
Art Link’s name came up in our discussion. I said I probably can’t count on both hands the number of times I’ve heard in the last year, someone say “Boy, if only Art Link was in charge . . .” Art was governor of North Dakota from 1973-1980, during energy crisis that set North Dakota off on a mine mouth, coal-fired power plant boom. By the time the boom ended in 1986 we had built five new power plants and were generating almost 4,000 megawatts of electricity using lignite coal to boil Missouri River water to turn the turbines which heated and lighted homes, farms and businesses in all of North Dakota and much of South Dakota and Minnesota.
The “boom” was in construction and mining jobs—building the power plants and digging the coal from massive strip mines in McLean, Oliver and Mercer Counties in west-central North Dakota. Thousands of blue collar workers populated towns like Bismarck, Beulah, Hazen, and Washburn for a dozen years or so, and then the plants were built, and they moved on, electricians and sheet metal workers and plumbers and carpenters finding work in Fargo, Minneapolis and Denver. There was a dip in the housing market with their departure, but these were also the last days of Jimmy Carter and the first days of Ronald Reagan, when home interest rates reached to 18 per cent, so there was a double whammy in the housing industry. It was only a mini-bust.
But the clamor in the 1970s and 80s was over the North Dakota environment—what was the ripping up of the earth and the burning of the coal going to do to our land, our water and our air? The environment was on our minds back then. Congress had passed and Richard Nixon had signed the Clean Air Act, and together they had created the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA in those days enjoyed almost universal support, because it was going to help save our planet—unlike now, when it is viewed by many as a villain which is killing jobs. My, how our priorities have changed!
Link was viewed as the “Go Slow” Governor—his phrase was “cautious, orderly development.” His most famous speech, “When The Landscape Is Quiet Again,” delivered to the 1973 annual meeting of the North Dakota Rural Electric Cooperatives, is revered by many in North Dakota, as Americans revere the Gettysburg Address.
There was a goodness in this dirt farmer with an eighth grade education who had risen to the highest levels of government, representing his state in the U.S Congress before being elected, and re-elected, as its governor. He believed we must be conscious about the state we are leaving to future generations.
Much unlike now, when North Dakota’s elected leaders with Ivy League educations have given carte blanche to another energy industry, the oil companies, to rip and roar at will, with 10,000 wells—6,000 new since 2009—now producing oil and gas and saltwater in the western third of our state, and giving no thought to what we are leaving our grandchildren—except a bankful of money.
The scale is vastly different, of course. Art Link had to regulate just four coal mines, confined to a pretty small geographic area. North American Coal, for example, our largest mine operator, has about 150,000 acres under lease, I think, about 225 square miles of North Dakota’s 70,000 square miles—an area the size of five miles on each side of I-94 from Mandan to New Salem. And they only mine a tiny part of that acreage at a time, perhaps a square mile or so a year, reclaiming it as they go. The oil patch, by comparison, is huge, covering about a third of our state, and we’re drilling up to a thousand new oil wells a year.
But the difference is, Art Link actually DID something. Thanks to Art Link, North Dakota has the best mined-land reclamation laws in the nation. In North Dakota, everything gets put back the way it was before mining started. Oh, the coal companies muttered and sent their lobbyists to the North Dakota Capitol, saying the government was trying to regulate them out of business, and driving up the price of electricity for customers. Somehow, though, they’ve survived all that, and prospered, and they reclaim the land and pay their severance taxes as part of the cost of doing business in a state that cares about its land, it’s water, its clean air, and its future generations.
Or did. Until the Bakken Boom. Those things don’t seem to matter much to our current crop of leaders. All that matters is money now. It is a sad time for those things, even in the midst of the greatest prosperity we’ve ever known. Prosperity has a price tag of its own that can’t be counted in dollars.
Just the other day I visited the North Dakota Century Code, our state’s lawbook. There I found, in Chapter 38, the laws that regulate our energy industry. I looked at Chapter 38-14.1, our coal mine reclamation laws. The first paragraph says this:
The legislative assembly finds and declares that:
Many surface coal mining operations may result in disturbances of surface areas that adversely affect the public welfare by diminishing the utility of land for commercial, industrial, residential, cultural, educational, scientific, recreational, agricultural, and forestry purposes, by causing erosion, by polluting the water, by destroying fish and wildlife habitats, by impairing natural beauty, by damaging the property of citizens, by creating hazards dangerous to life and property, by degrading the quality of life in local communities, and by counteracting governmental programs and efforts to conserve soil, water, other natural resources, and cultural resources.
Yes, that is actually the wording of a state law, and it is followed by this:
Surface coal mining operations contribute to the economic well-being, security, and general welfare of the state and should be conducted in an environmentally sound manner . . . Surface coal mining and reclamation operations should be so conducted as to aid in maintaining and improving the tax base, to provide for the conservation, development, management, and appropriate use of all the natural resources of affected areas for compatible multiple purposes, and to ensure the restoration of affected lands designated for agricultural purposes to the level of productivity equal to or greater than that which existed in the permit area prior to mining.
There follows 36 pages of a detailed structure for reclaiming coal-mined land, laws written in the 1975 and 1977 sessions of the North Dakota Legislature and signed by Art Link. Indeed, the best reclamation laws in the country.
It goes so far as to say that a mining permit can be denied if our experts determine that the land will not be able to be reclaimed after the mining is done.
It says that no mining will be allowed “on any lands within the boundaries of units of the North Dakota state park system, the national park system, the national wildlife refuge systems, the national system of trails, the national wilderness preservation system, (and) the national wild and scenic rivers system . . .“ (Those sound a lot like Wayne Stenehjem’s “Extraordinary Places, don’t they? Except this is a law. Not an informal “policy.”)
Then I looked at Section 38-8, the laws that regulate the oil industry. Here’s the first paragraph of those laws:
Declaration of policy.
It is hereby declared to be in the public interest to foster, to encourage, and to promote the development, production, and utilization of natural resources of oil and gas in the state in such a manner as will prevent waste; to authorize and to provide for the operation and development of oil and gas properties in such a manner that a greater ultimate recovery of oil and gas be had and that the correlative rights of all owners be fully protected; and to encourage and to authorize cycling, recycling, pressure maintenance, and secondary recovery operations in order that the greatest possible economic recovery of oil and gas be obtained within the state to the end that the landowners, the royalty owners, the producers, and the general public realize and enjoy the greatest possible good from these vital natural resources.
My, what a difference. “The greatest possible good.” Code for “Yeeeehhhaaaawww, we’re all gonna get rich.” And you know what else is different? Nowhere in Section 38.8, or in any other law pertaining to the oil industry, can I find a requirement that well sites be reclaimed when the oil is gone. The only reference to any kind of reclamation at all that I can find is the posting of a bond so the state can clean up the mess when the oil companies move on. “We’re so glad you are here. We hate to see you go. But you guys just leave us a little pocket change and we’ll clean up after you.” It truly is all about money this time around. Screw the environment.
Another difference: The coal-era laws apply to all lands, both private and public, unlike today’s weak “policy” dealing with drilling permits, which applies only to public lands, and exempts private lands from scrutiny before wells are drilled.
And the big difference is the land being affected. Coal is mined below what was once, and will be again, cropland. Oil is mined beneath our state’s most scenic and historic natural resource, our Bad Lands. Coal is lifted from the ground and taken to a nearby power plant where it is burned, hence the term “mine mouth” power plants. Oil requires a network of dirt roads ripping through our Bad Lands, tens of thousands of trucks spewing a fine layer of dust, often making the countryside uninhabitable for humans and critters alike, and hundreds of thousands of potentially explosive rail cars criss-crossing a continent while leaving our farmers’ crops rotting on the ground with no locomotive engines available to haul grain cars to market.
Oh, to be sure, coal has its own problems, creating an air quality crisis many believe is responsible for melting polar ice caps. In spite of everything the coal companies have tried to do right, there will come a day of reckoning for coal. Solutions to the problems created by coal will be national, global. But here in North Dakota, in Bakken Boom times, we could indeed benefit from Art Link’s “Go Slow” policy today.
What would Art Link do today? I think he has already provided us the answer, in his words from that 1973 speech:
When The Landscape Is Quiet Again
We do not want to halt progress.
We do not plan to be selfish and say “North Dakota will not share its energy resources.”
No . . . we simply want to insure the most efficient and environmentally sound method of utilizing our precious coal and water resources for the benefit of the broadest number of people possible.
And when we are through with that, and the landscape is quiet again,
When the draglines, the blasting rigs, the power shovels and the huge gondolas cease to rip and roar
And when the last bulldozer has pushed the last spoil pile into place
And the last patch of barren earth has been seeded to grass or grain
Let those who follow and repopulate the land be able to say
“Our grandparents did their job well. This land is as good as, and, in some cases, better than, before.”
Only if they can say this will we be worthy of the rich heritage of our land and its resources.