Ideas and Oil: The Future of North Dakota Minds

I recently read two articles from the latest edition of The Journal of American History (Oxford University Press, Vol. 99, Issue 1), “Oil in American History.” This issue may be worthwhile for North Dakotans to consider, since North Dakota has and increasingly figures into the global history of oil (and figure into it we do).

Paul Chastko‘s contribution concerns the emergence of oil on the north and south sides of our geopolitically imagined 49th parallel, and Toby Craig Jones’s contribution demonstrates how the United States militarized the Middle East in the twentieth-century in order to preserve its broader global oil interests. We are all responsible for using oil (it’s how we go on about our days, whether using plastics or driving to work or stores or to religious sanctuaries), and it does not look like we are going to be able to stop it. We can only nudge oil development in constructive directions. Considering that America is militarily spent on fighting wars for oil in the mid-East, and considering how China and east Asia is on the ascent (Obama amplified our naval presence in Darwin, Australia because of this), North Dakota needs to act. And we need to do it now. Below is a three stage process in how to carry this out:

1) The public and private leadership in North Dakota needs to start working toward figuring out how to maximize the benefits from our non-renewable resource, and we need to stop figuring out how to build pipelines as quickly as possible through our backyards (from Canada to the southern Great Plains). North Dakota needs to build gasoline refineries (in Williston, Dickinson and Wahpeton, or pick your North Dakota town) that are capable of refining everything from the Bakken, and everything that will come out of the Canadian oil sands for the coming decades. This will invariably create a surplus, but this means North Dakotans will be able to purchase cheap gas — so far, the political leadership in this state has been incapable of convincing me why cheap gas by and for North Dakotans is a bad thing.

2) Next, or simultaneously, work with Minnesota legislators and the private sector to build a pipeline from these North Dakota refineries to the deep water port of Duluth, Minnesota, shipping the surplus on barges out through the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway System and ultimately to the Atlantic Ocean. The oil and gas can reach a global market there, and it will not have to travel in a pipeline across several states and another section of the Ogallala Aquifer to line the pockets of Texas and Oklahoma oil barons. Nor will it have to be shipped to urban metropolises back east. Keep the oil here. Only then will North Dakota make hundreds of dollars rather than nickles on every barrel of OUR North Dakota oil.

3) With the refinery oil revenue — here it is — North Dakota will build a $1-billion arts, humanities and sciences research library. This library will be so large that it will attract scholars from the world over. The library will be accessible to all North Dakota University System students as well. Imagine that: a vision that seeks to connect the future of great North Dakota minds with the future great minds of the world. The research library will invariably suck in Federal and non-domestic grants, too, and so on and so fourth, ad infinitum. If you build it, they will come.

We need vision in this state. We need the vision that city founders of Boston and Chicago had in their early days (this is why you have things like the Boston Public Library; or places like the University of Chicago — VISION, rather than short-termism that I keep reading about in North Dakota newspapers). We need to stop being a hinterland to Nature’s Metropolis (either the Twin Cities, Chicago, Houston, or Cushing), and we need to build here and now for tomorrow. You need a substructure of industry in order to provide the support for a superstructure of humanities, arts and sciences. We just need the private and public leadership in North Dakota to grasp this idea and give it traction, or to step aside and let those that are capable of doing it lead the way.


2 responses to “Ideas and Oil: The Future of North Dakota Minds

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