Western North Dakota Politicians Need To Lead, Follow Or Get Out Of The Way

“We herd sheep, we drive cattle, we lead people,” General George S. Patton III once said. “Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way.”

That quote jumped in to my mind as I read this article about some western North Dakota leaders who are apparently overwhelmed by the impact of the state’s oil boom.

“Our quality of life is gone. It is absolutely gone,” said Williams County Commissioner Dan Kalil at a meeting called by statewide leaders to discuss oil impacts. “My community is gone, and I’m heartbroken. I never wanted to live anyplace but Williston, North Dakota, and now I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

“Somebody has to be brave enough to stand up and say, ‘Too much, too fast.’”

Clearly, Mr. Kalil is feeling a bit emotional, and I can’t necessarily blame him or the other citizens/leaders who feel as he does. What western North Dakota is going through is a major economic and social shift. Something like that doesn’t come without hardships, which I can attest to personally. I not only live in the midst of the Bakken boom, but my family went through the north slope/Aleyska Pipeline boom in Alaska too.

But I can tell you that Mr. Kalil’s attitude is a dangerous one for leaders in the state to take. With political activists looking for any hook they can get to derail traditional energy development, and with a media environment that has proven itself both hostile to the energy development in its reporting and willing to sensationalize any hint of a negative impact from it, our political leaders ought to be keeping a cool head.

Those that can’t perhaps shouldn’t be leaders any more.

Again, I’m sensitive to the problems and challenges created by the oil boom, but we can’t afford a defeatist attitude. The state cannot simply wave the white flag. Most of the state’s oil development happens on private property, with private companies doing the drilling and pumping. Are we to tell mineral rights owners that they can get their resources developed because some people in the community feel things are growing too fast? Are we to tell these private companies that they can’t engage in their industries because we have local officials who feel they aren’t up to the tasks that go along with the sort of economic and social growth the state has seen?

The state wields its policy making powers to protect against crime and facilitate lawful commerce. It does not wield that power to apply some arbitrary standards as to what some people think is an appropriate amount of economic growth.

The worst thing that could come out of the oil boom is for the state’s policy makers to cave in to a panic born of the emotions of this moment in the state’s history and make some bad decisions that will linger long after the oil boom has plateaued.

A lot of the problems facing western North Dakota will be solved with time. Believe it or not, there is an upper limit to what oil companies are willing to pay to house their staff. Housing prices will ease as infrastructure and development allows more units to be put on the market. Law enforcement and road capacity will catch up with growth. The environmental issues that exist are well-known, and getting plenty of attention thanks to certain activists and a media environment that is sympathetic to them.

Rather than giving up, rather than declaring defeat, the expectation from North Dakota citizens should be that our leaders rise to these challenges.

Sadly, what counts for leadership a the local levels these days often consists of little more than filling out the appropriate forms to make issue the problem of a higher level of government. Roads in tough shape? Blame the state. Need a new dog park? Ask for a federal earmark.

But the state of federalism, and local control, in America is a topic for another post.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com. In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters. He writes a weekly column for several North Dakota newspapers, and also serves as a policy fellow for the North Dakota Policy Council.

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