Dubai on the Prairies or Buffalo Commons?

By May 5, 2008Energy

The three-to-four billion barrel Bakken play in North Dakota is certainly gaining attention…and prompting some big plans. From Tom Dennis, Grand Forks Herald:

North Dakota’s fate now is tied to the price of oil, in a way that’s likely to influence our state and federal elected officials for years or even decades to come.

While North Dakota’s “original oil in place” figure exceeds the UAE’s currently recoverable reserves, Dubai is a Las Vegas-like showpiece today because the oil there is so much easier to get at. Many Persian Gulf reserves are so accessible that oil companies can profit even when oil sells for a few dollars a barrel. So, the oil flowed decades ago when the price was exactly that, and it has flowed steadily ever since.

Big news in Canada, too. And even Germany.

Shoots holes in the Buffalo Commons theory, doesn’t it? That’s the theory promulgated back in the ’80s by Frank and Deborah Popper of Rutgers, arguing that Great Plains were oversettled in a terrible historic mistake and that natural and economic forces would eventually lead to their depopulation. Best to rationalize the process and have an enlightened federal policy to create an American Serengeti, the Buffalo Commons, they argued.

And are still arguing. From a Bismarck Tribune article, September 2, 2007:

“There’s no question now that the Buffalo Commons will happen,” Frank Popper said in a recent interview. “The interesting questions are how.”

The current rig count suggests Popper may be too stuck on his grand theory.

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Frank Popper says:

    Today (August 17, 2009) I commented on an August 14 post about the Buffalo Commons and noticed this one from last year. My comments today apply to this one too. The energy boom is repopulating very little of North Dakota or the rural Plains generally. A Census Bureau report from last month, “Population Dynamics of the Great Plains:1950 to 2007,” documents the point in great detail. Energy booms, at least in the northern Plains, tend to be short-term anyway and leave behind nasty long-term busts.

    A not-so-minor point: in our original 1987 article we did say that what the 2008 blog called “enlightened federal policy” would create the Buffalo Commons. In later writing, beginning in the early 1990s, we have argued instead that major federal activity might not be necessary. Non-federal actors–state governments, Indian tribes, nonprofits and individual ranchers and farmers–were creating new Buffalo Commons land uses on their own, with little or no federal help. Banks were helping indirectly, by lending more willingly for buffalo cultivation. All these factors are still at work, and the federal emphasis has for a long time looked like the one thing we got seriously wrong in 1987.

    I very much appreciate the civility of this blog. Would that other blogs were like this one.

    Frank Popper
    Rutgers and Princeton Universities,
    732-932-4009, X689

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