Inside The Boom: North Dakota As A Large Blank Spot


Thanksgiving found me back home in New England, hanging out with old friends from non-energy producing states like New York and Massachusetts. We did city things (played shuffleboard at a renovated warehouse in Brooklyn), drank city drinks ($13 cocktails) and talked about city topics (whether to protest Uber for its executives’ recent misbehavior). Since the closest city where I could catch an Uber is almost 500 miles away from where I live, this topic was irrelevant to me.

But what I had to talk about, the oil boom in North Dakota, seemed irrelevant to them. I’ve found that energy production doesn’t often interest people outside energy producing states — which makes our jobs here at Inside Energy pretty hard.

The fact that few people have ever been to North Dakota doesn’t help. One of North Dakota’s most famous former residents, Eric Sevareid, a reporter Edward Murrow recruited to CBS, wrote in his biography that North Dakota is “a large, rectangular blank spot in the nation’s mind.”

When I travel outside North Dakota, I like to ask people what they know about the state. Here are some recent conversations I’ve had:

Me: “What do you think of when you think of North Dakota?”

My hairdresser in Massachusetts: “Barren, cold. Not much there. Bad things. I can’t tell you why, but the name, North Dakota, just makes me think of bad things.”

Me: “What do you know about the oil boom in North Dakota?”

Friend from high school: “Not very much…only that fracking is bad for the environment.”

Me: “I just moved to North Dakota.”

Woman in yoga pants outside coffee shop in Northern California: “Why?”

Me giving wedding toast in Northern California: “I used to live in Colorado; now I live in North Dakota.”

Wedding guests: collective groan.

The oil boom has raised the state’s profile, but only slightly. North Dakota is now “a large, rectangular blank spot in the nation’s mind — where they do fracking.”

I like living in the blank spots. Former North Dakota Governor Ed Schafer said it well, when he appeared in a segment on Michael Moore’s MTV show TV Nation in 1994. “I think the best reason to visit North Dakota is you can still get lost here. Not necessarily lost in a map, but you can still get lost mentally here.” Moore used it to ridicule North Dakota, but to me it rings true. There’s a lot of open space here, and a lot of time behind the wheel to think. You don’t necessarily get that in the back seat of an Uber.