Big Brother on the Bakken, corporate empires and their North Dakota Targets: Christmas shopping with WBI and MD

Charlie Barber, Mandan

Part 1 of a series. Republished by permission of the author and the High Plains Reader, Fargo, ND. By Charlie Barber

And they covet fields, and take them by violence; and houses, and take them away; so they oppress a man and his house, even a man and his heritage.”   – Micah, 2:2

“I don’t want to be there [Williston] anymore.”   – 3rd Generation Williams County farmer

“Not only do we [the longtime inhabitants of western North Dakota] feel abandoned by our so-called ‘leaders,’ but we also feel that we are under major assault by the oil industry and the outsiders they bring along.”  – John Heiser

“For the rich men thereof are full of violence, and the inhabitants thereof have spoken lies, and their tongue is deceitful in their mouth.” – Micah, 6:12

She was served with the condemnation action on her property by Williston Basin Interstate Pipeline Company [WBI] on December 22, 2011, three days before Christmas.

This lawsuit, and invitation to a shopping spree for big oil and gas companies at her expense, came courtesy of the Burleigh County Sheriff.

Anyone who has been served a subpoena for divorce, or other non-criminal matter, knows objectively that they are not being indicted for a crime, but the power of a Sheriff’s office makes it difficult to push the thought from one’s mind and heart, that they have somehow done something wrong. Big Brother on the Bakken, corporate empires and their North Dakota Targets: Christmas shopping with WBI and MDU

My friend not only knew she had done nothing wrong, but also suffered from outrage at being served a subpoena by an abusive corporation three days before Christmas.  This wasn’t negotiation.  This was simply a corporate “take it or be sued: try to find a lawyer between Christmas and New Year’s. HO! HO! HO!”

My friend is named in court documents, but for our purposes we will call her Carrie.

WBI is a subsidiary of MDU Resources [MDU].   It would take a very naive person, indeed, to believe that WBI does anything without knowledge and overall approval of its parent company.  The relationship is dramatically symbolized by the location of WBI headquarters in Bismarck on a hill north of Century Boulevard.

Just up the road to the North, perched much higher on the same hill, is the headquarters of MDU Resources.

The view from its parking lot alone is lofty, looking down on the State Capitol of North Dakota to the southeast.   Given legislation that oil and gas corporation friendly legislators and Governors have rammed through the past 20+ years, one could forgive MDU executives on upper floors of the building for imagining that the State Capitol was as much their subsidiary as WBI.

Further down in the environs of Bismarck, closer to where real people live and shop, are the various offices of Montana Dakota Utilities, the delivery wing of MDU Resources.  These are the folks who fix your furnace within a few hours when you come home from Christmas vacation and find the pilot light out and the temperature inside headed towards the single digits outside.

The MDU maintenance guys are the corporate employees most of us in the city come in contact with and we are, of course, happy to see them.

Out in the country, from where the pipelines bring natural gas to our homes, it is a different story.   When someone like Richard Melvin of WBI shows up, brandishing the government power of Eminent Domain like a Saturday night special, Carrie will tell you that you are dealing with an insensitive monster, not a human being.

Carrie knows that governmental and corporate power do not have to be abused the way that WBI has used them against her and her neighbors west of Williston.

As a hearing officer with the U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA] for over 15 years, Carrie dealt with the American public, and knew that tempering her governmental power with common sense and human sympathy always brought about a better result with contentious parties.  Fairness didn’t make everyone happy, but allowed for folks to engage corporate and governmental power in an atmosphere free from fear.

As Carrie puts it:  “I had a lot of scared and angry people coming in there.”

One of Carrie’s instructors at the USDA had three rules of thumb that she always felt summed up best the pitfalls of dealing with the clash of public and private interests:

  1. “You can’t tell which way the train went by looking at the track.”
  2. “There’s absolutely no substitute for lack of preparation.”
  3. “There’s always one more SOB than you counted on.”

As for WBI, there was more than one SOB involved — from Carrie’s perspective.  On December 19th, in an attempt to head off the worst that she anticipated from her meetings with Richard Melvin in Williston, Carrie went up to “Fortress WBI” on Century Boulevard in Bismarck to get an explanation for Melvin’s Scrooge-like behavior continuing through Christmas time.  She had to dial into a building housing executives, secured like a big city apartment complex discouraging “riff raff,” and ended up with a “suit” named Adam Schiche.

Carrie had all sorts of questions that she knew, as a former hearing officer, that a competent government or corporate employee could and should answer.  With WBI she was looking at a track that gave no clue as to whether the train was moving away or coming right at her.

Mr. Schiche was completely unhelpful, except to wish Carrie a “Merry Christmas.”

Carrie was not impressed with the man, and insulted by his phony Christmas cheer.  Apparently, Adam Schiche had not mastered a technique utilized so well in another industry that often masks its intentions, and explained by George Burns: In Hollywood the most important thing is sincerity, and, once you’ve learned how to fake that, you’ve got it made.

Either through incompetence, by design, or under orders, Schiche could not and would not produce documents his company was using to bully Carrie into accepting a price for the use of her land that was  $45.00 per rod lower than the price offered by another natural gas pipeline company just down the road [U.S. Highway 2].

Instead, Schiche pulled out copies of the same  “take it or leave it” legal documents that Carrie had refused to sign for Richard Melvin. [“Good luck.  You cannot recover any attorney fees.  We have you over a barrel. HO! HO! HO!”]

The Christmas holiday timing of WBI’s lawsuit against Carrie was not simply a matter of corporate insensitivity, or bumbling by one of their “suits.”

Lawyers will tell you that it is a time honored ploy to soften up an adversary by serving them just before a holiday, when long vacation times reduce hours and days of preparation available for counsels for the defense before a trial or hearing date.

With Carrie, however, WBI had made a serious miscalculation.

Carrie knew how to prepare for battles of litigation.  Her years of training with a federal agency had given her the skills of a lawyer and the wiliness of a seasoned bureaucrat.

In addition, as a third generation Norwegian-American farmer in northwest North Dakota, Carrie had the necessary courage and tenacity for a long fight, even against a powerful corporation which was bending, twisting, and wielding Congress’s Natural Gas Act of 2005 to its greedy purposes.

Although she knew it would be an enervating and heart breaking ordeal, Carrie decided that she would have to take her chances in federal court in Bismarck on January 20, 2012.

Carrie would have to become the SOB that WBI and MDU hadn’t counted on.

Next – Part 2:  Some Justice in a Mostly Forgotten Place

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