Plains Folk

Oil Impact Memo


If you are an email user, then in all likelihood you have seen this. It has pinballed through untold thousands of email accounts and been posted at hundreds of websites. I’m talking about what I have come to call the Oil Impact Memo.


It begins with this statement: “A meeting was held of the ND Sheriff’s & Deputies Association in Bismarck, as part of this meeting we had an opportunity to sit down with Law Enforcement from western ND to discuss what they are going through with oil impact. Here is a summary of points made.”


And there follow thirty-five numbered points, all of them amazing, and generally appalling, allegations about goings-on in Williams County and adjacent parts of the oil patch.


I’ll admit that my folklorist antennae were up and twitching on reading just the first paragraph of the Oil Impact Memo, before even getting to the thirty-five points. The memo is, of course, anonymous. It also is unattributed, although the writer makes stealthy use of rhetoric, including passive voice and the imperial “we,” in order to feign authority. The impression given is that this missive was generated by the North Dakota Sheriffs & Deputies Association, which did indeed hold a meeting in Bismarck on January 11, 2012.


Some of the thirty-five points in the Oil Impact Memo appear to be true. Others are sort of true, but stretch the truth or misconstrue a report. For instance, the memo says, “The Williston General Motors dealership has now become the number 1 seller of Corvettes in the upper Midwest.” Well, no, but it does sell a lot of Corvettes.


Still other points are demonstrably untrue or even ludicrous. The first point reads, “It takes between 2000 and 2200 semi loads of water per well. Currently there are 258 wells in progress with so many scheduled it is hard to determine the exact amount.” Well, with a rig count of 204 in North Dakota, it appears from the memo that we have more than fifty petroleum wells being dug with garden spades. Moreover, the figure on loads of water required to bring in a well is overstated by a factor of from five to ten.


And then there is this report in the Oil Impact Memo: “Trinity Hospital in Minot has just hired 115 nurses from the Philippians to work at the hospital, as they cannot get enough local nurses to apply.” Now, people have had good sport with this report of “Philippian” nurses, but I presumed the writer meant Filipino nurses. It turns out that the report of 115 Filipino nurses at Trinity Hospital was exaggerated. Exaggerated by 115. The hospital is, however, recruiting assertively to replace nurses who left town on account of the flood.


It’s easy to establish that the Oil Impact Memo is worthless as a source of facts. This did not stop the largest commercial radio station in the state from posting it on its website, in a way that made it appear the station had unearthed these facts. Nor did it stop the largest daily newspaper in the state from copying the alleged facts from the Oil Impact Memo into an editorial, without attribution, and endorsing them as matters of, as it said, “troubling substance.” Hook, line, and sinker.


Here is a fact I will state for sure: the Oil Impact Memo was not disseminated by the North Dakota Sheriffs & Deputies Association. I have that on the highest authority. It is, rather, a specimen of folklore, origin dubious, content contentious, distribution informal.


The Oil Impact Memo tells us nothing about life in the Oil Patch. It tells us a lot about those of us outside the Oil Patch—what we are willing, even eager, to believe.



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