A recent story about the production of oil in North Dakota caught my eye. It begins:
BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Dr. Lyle Best traveled nearly 200 miles from the heart of North Dakota’s oil patch Tuesday to tell state regulators one thing: “Slow down.”
The North Dakota Industrial Commission is considering a proposal that would cut back on the state’s booming oil production as a means of controlling the amount of natural gas that’s being burned off at well sites and wasted as a byproduct of the more valuable substance, oil.
But oil companies are fighting the idea of slowing production, and want regulators to consider self-imposed steps to curb natural gas flaring, such as submitting plans for natural gas gathering before applying for a drilling permit.
North Dakota drillers currently burn off, or flare, a record 36 percent of the gas because development of pipelines and processing facilities to capture it hasn’t kept pace with oil drilling. The U.S. Energy Department says less than 1 percent of natural gas is flared from oil fields nationwide, and less than 3 percent worldwide.
Best, a Watford City physician, was among more than two dozen people who testified on the new proposal. Best said he lives within 200 yards of two oil wells that emit flares at least 20 feet high and produce a sound “similar to a jetliner passing nearby.”
The biggest issues with burning the gas, he said, is wasting it and the potentially harmful emissions that may be released from flaring.
Indeed, those flares can be seen from outer space: the central and western parts of the state of North Dakota appear to be on fire. But, hey! It’s all about huge profits. The serious risks from widespread fracking are totally ignored, as is the waste and danger to the planet from those natural gas burn-offs. And then there are the hundreds of oil cars that the Burlington Northern/Santa Fe Railroad haul daily from North Dakota through such environmentally sensitive places as Glacier Park to the West Coast where the oil is shipped to the Pacific rim: a routine practice that ignores the possibility of catastrophic accidents, a likelihood that increases daily considering that a derailment occurs with alarming regularity. This is a dangerous game these oil barons are playing, but they have their blinders on and can only see, smell, and hear the profits mounting up in their off-shore bank accounts.
As it happens, I know a couple of people who work on the oil fields in North Dakota and am aware of the huge profits this activity yields to the workers themselves and the small businesses who cater to them on or near the oil fields. It’s a virtual gold rush. The state of North Dakota is one of the very few in this country that operates in the black (pardon the pun) and I get that. It’s nice to see that some of those who actually need money are getting some of the benefits of this gluttony. But the notion that is most disturbing, suggested in this story, is that those in charge can’t get the oil out fast enough and that they simply don’t care about the consequences of their actions. Our economy encourages folks to get as much as they can while the getting is good. I also get that. But it is an ugly feature of this economy that makes its successful practitioners ugly and one that costs us all a great deal in the long run — the future that those who call the shots are determined to ignore.
One must ask in the final analysis if it is just possible that humans simply cannot resist the temptations of power and prestige that are promised by great wealth. I do wonder if in promising men wealth and power in this world through tearing from the earth its hidden treasures the genie was released from the bottle. It is just possible that the force of those temptations is too great for men to resist with wills weakened by habitual self-indulgence. The question is, just how do we go about putting the genie back into the bottle?