Tuesday, October 18, 2011

All signs point North....North Dakota, that is.

In the midst of constant news of dark and hard financial times, rising unemployment, and rising cuts to public services, North Dakota is a beacon of light and hope, or so claims the Governor Jack Dalrymple. A 'new gold rush', as many media outlets have called it, is taking place in the northern state. Black-gold, or oil, has been found in the Bakken oil fields in both Montana and North Dakota. The oil field is estimated to have somewhere between 5 to 24 billion barrels of oil (the conservative number estimated by the US Geological Survey and the liberal estimated by oil company CEO Harold Hamm).

The Wall Street Journal reported on the possibility of drawing United States out of OPEC's (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) market stranglehold. In an interview with the WSJ, Continental CEO Harold Hamm (founder of the Bakken fields), shared his optimistic view of creating a niche in the global market for oil and gas derived energy in the 21st century. He also insist on the ability of United States to create more jobs by following the lead of North Dakota.
"We can't find any unemployed people up there. The state has 18,000 unfilled jobs," Mr. Hamm insists. "And these are jobs that pay $60,000 to $80,000 a year." The economy is expanding so fast that North Dakota has a housing shortage. Thanks to the oil boom—Continental pays more than $50 million in state taxes a year—the state has a budget surplus and is considering ending income and property taxes.
Using Biblical metaphors, headlines portray North Dakota as a land of plenty where unemployed laborers are migrating there to find a better life. The LA Times reports on how workers are perceiving this new found sanctuary.
Steve Williams, 59, moved his struggling construction company from Montana to Watford City, where he lives with his wife, son and two towheaded grandsons in a home he's renovating in exchange for rent. He knows he has a lot to be thankful for: He has health insurance for the first time in decades, a steady job and a new life in a town he says is "America, the way it should be."
It's the American dream revived in a post-foreclosure nation! Governor Dalrymple boasts of this new opportunity making the case that is critical to invest in much needed infrastructure for the state and encourage other business opportunities. Big oil isn't the only one handing out jobs like hot cakes. Amazon, the giant online retailer, announced that it plans to expand and place new facilities in the state.

However, Gov. Dalrymple and Mr. Hamm's predictions of North Dakota's job boom avoid addressing some of the questions brought on by environmentalist and economic justice organizers. Amazon's announcement of its new North Dakota facility made some people cringe. In a recent expose of an Amazon warehouse located in Pennsylvania, the Morning Call reported of unsafe working conditions, low-wages, consistent job insecurity and
The situation highlights how companies like Amazon can wield their significant leverage over workers in the bleak job market, labor experts say. Large companies such as Amazon can minimize costs for benefits and raises by relying on temporary workers rather than having a larger permanent workforce, those experts say.
Amazon workers have even likened the work condition to slave-like conditions where breaks are scarce, employees constantly get sick or injured, jobs are temporary and insecure, and there are little to no opportunities to receive benefits or even unionize. It makes you wonder how a fortune 500 company can claim such success while its workers are being exploited? What indicators are measuring the success of company? Shouldn't this include worker rights? Unfortunately, a temporary, insecure, and low wage position is becoming the norm. What is even more alarming is that it is also becoming the accolade in today's job market.

Along with lack of regulation within the work environment, the governor announced his stance against federal agencies regulating the local environment, as he calls it "senseless rulings from bureaucracies like the EPA." It is an interesting position to take in the wake of a great natural resource discovery. The population in some cities in North Dakota have reportedly tripled since the discovery of the Bakken Oil Fields.

Critics of the oil and job boom extravaganza claim that these new found oil has also brought a lot health and environmental risks that need to be accounted for. One of them being the preferred method in which to extract shale oil is 'fracking' (pumping pressurized water and chemicals into the ground to break up and release the oil found in the shale). This leads to chemical leaking into underground water reserves and contaminating the drinking water. In northern NY (another site of new found shale-oil), residents have complained of the environmental and health effects of welcoming oil companies into the neighborhood.

The emphasis on job opportunity should not triumph over environmental or labor rights concerns. Nor should the story be so dichotomous as is often the case. In all senses, North Dakota has become a case to watch closely as there is beacon of light in bleak times. Additionally, local government should also make sure to protect its assets as corporate interest start uprooting and migrating north as well. I believe the local government should trust in regulatory bodies to help define the measurement at which the workers and the natural environment will be protected. Relying on the predictions of a company is like believing in a fairy godmother who will fix all economic woes.

1 comment:

Serge said...

Even if the environment alone could find a way to cure itself in the long run, its efforts would be futile when people always find ways to pollute it. Those who unearth oil might be providing energy, but they should also care and do something about its effects on the environment.