Big oil takes advantage of North Dakota nice

by Samantha Stark

starksa@mnstate.edu

North Dakota finally gets nationally recognized, and it’s for oil industry exploitation. HBO’s John Oliver spent 20 minutes exposing the corruption and hypocrisy running rampant in the state’s oil industry last week. In addition, he purchased a billboard along a Minot highway reading, “Be angry. (Please).” in an attempt to get North Dakotans thinking about how the oil industry takes advantage of our “North Dakota nice” demeanor.

As a native of North Dakota, I like how under the radar my state is, generally only recognized for the “Fargo” film and television series. But this time, North Dakota’s dark side needed to be exposed.

Oliver pointed out that North Dakota’s multibillion-dollar oil industry is overseen by a regulatory system built on trust, warnings and second chances.

Oliver noted the state has created a regulatory environment over-friendly to business, describing it as “a magical utopia like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, which, come to think of it, had about the same safety record as North Dakota’s oil fields.”

Researchers who study government enforcement generally conclude that the cooperative approach doesn’t generate effective protections.

“The evidence shows that increased monitoring and increased enforcement will reduce the incidence of oil spills,” said Mark A. Cohen, a Vanderbilt University professor who led a team advising a national commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and offshore drilling.

Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s office said in a statement, “The North Dakota Industrial Commission has adopted some of the most stringent oil and gas production regulations in the country to enhance protections for our water, air and land. At the same time, the state has significantly increased staffing to enforce environmental protections. Our track record is one of increased regulation and oversight.”

But obviously there needs to be more enforcement, because North Dakota’s current environmental protection plan isn’t doing enough. More than 18.4 million gallons of oil and chemicals were spilled, leaked or misted into the air, soil and waters of North Dakota from 2006 through early October 2014, as reported by the New York Times. This amounts to more than 525,000 standard bathtubs of oil and toxic waste introduced directly into our environment.

Most individual spills were contained to the immediate drilling area, but many of the largest spills polluted surrounding farms and waterways. In addition, the oil industry reported spilling 5.2 million gallons of nontoxic substances, mostly fresh water, which can alter the environment and carry contaminants.

Additionally, North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields are an incredibly dangerous place to work, resulting in the death of an oil worker every six weeks on average.

“A death every six weeks is what you do to keep your soap opera on the air,” Oliver said.

After Oliver exposed the pattern of corruption and destruction found in the state’s oil industry, Sky Digital Sales Manager Paul Hilt of Minot had the audacity to fire back at Oliver with a billboard reading, “Hey Oliver, don’t be angry. Be ‘North Dakota nice’ (it really works).”

Except it doesn’t, unless “working” means letting the oil industry take lives with little to no retribution, get away with financial corruption and destroy North Dakota’s ecosystem and agriculture. His response is a perfect example of North Dakota complacency.

Even still, Oliver left out the state’s increase in drug abuse, human trafficking and other crimes as a result of the oil boom. Crime in western North Dakota has increased so dramatically that the FBI announced in March its plans to open an office in Williston — making it the fourth FBI office in North Dakota.

Hilt’s “just brush it off, ‘be nice’ and pretend everything’s okay” attitude only works if someone cuts you off in traffic or takes the last slice of pizza at Pizza Ranch, but not when people’s lives and environment are at stake.

Unfortunately, Hilt’s billboard will be the only reaction to Oliver’s 20 minutes of truth. We are a red state run by mostly wealthy, white men who will not wreck North Dakota’s well-oiled machine of a government to fix environmental issues. The state profits too much to be thinking twice about what oil industries are doing to the richest soil in the country.

North Dakota’s government will continue to expand cities, let oil companies pollute soil and pave over the rich agricultural land until the only thing left is a big puddle of oil.

North Dakota’s government is too busy with other priorities, like pushing ridiculous abortion bills with its billion-dollar surplus. They don’t have time to worry about farmland and the environment, because their minds are fixated on ways to control women’s bodies instead of ways to protect the rich North Dakota soil and help the decaying communities in the west. 

Records obtained by The Associated Press showed the state spent $312,861 defending North Dakota’s 2013 fetal heartbeat law, in addition to nearly $233,000 on introducing the measure. Dalrymple (chairman of the Industrial Commission, which oversees the state’s oil and gas regulation) called the law “a legitimate attempt by a state legislature to discover the boundaries of Roe v. Wade.”

As Oliver pointed out, North Dakota doesn’t even have an ethics commission to oversee the oil industry. An ethics commission would provide better transparency and build credibility with citizens. But in North Dakota, lawmakers themselves are responsible for reporting misbehavior. This self-policing doesn’t go far enough to instill credibility with the public.

So this money spent defending the fetal heartbeat law would have been better spent creating an ethics commission — which would have improved the lives and health of North Dakotans much more than Dalrymple’s ridiculous attempts to restrict women’s healthcare options.

But that’s just one small area from which North Dakota could find the money to establish an ethics commission. The oil boom has brought with it giant sales tax gains in the west. In Williams County, where Williston lies, taxable sales and purchases have risen nearly eightfold since 2007, state records show. In McKenzie County, just to the south, it’s gone up nearly sevenfold.

In Williston, a regional shopping hub, 1 percent of sales tax now brings in about $14 million, compared with less than $2 million in 2010.

Even Minnesota found the money for a six-member ethics commission, the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board (established in 1974), which has a yearly budget of $750,000. This amount would be pocket change in North Dakota, considering it has hundreds of thousands to spend “discovering the boundaries” of long-settled abortion laws. 

They don’t have an excuse. North Dakota’s government wants the oil industry to have the freedom to get away with corruption so the wealthy can get wealthier at the expense of communities and rich, agricultural land. 

North Dakota nice gets us North Dakota screwed.

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