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PORT: New spill rules provide a clearer picture of the problem

By Staff | Apr 13, 2018

The headline read: “80 percent of ND oil spills wouldn’t have been reported under new law.”

It accompanied a recent article by my colleague Patrick Springer.

The subject of his reporting are new spill rules, passed during the 2017 legislative session and implemented in August, which no longer require the reporting of oil or saltwater spills that are smaller than 10 barrels and contained.

Previously, all spills greater than 1 barrel, or 42 gallons, had to be reported.

The headline is fair, pointing out that far fewer spills are being reported. But looking at the situation from another perspective, we can point out that 80 percent of oil spills were very small and contained.

That’s why lawmakers made the rule change.

Environmental activists – by that I mean political extremists out to inhibit the production of any oil at all, not reasonable people like you and I who are interested in safe and responsible oil development – have used North Dakota’s strict reporting requirements to mislead the public.

They often tout big spill numbers reported to the state as a way to smear the oil industry, not to mention state leaders, as irresponsible and bolster their case against oil and gas development. But treating all of those spills as equivalent is fundamentally dishonest.

While any spill is a cause for concern, we need be far less concerned about very small spills which are contained and thus have little or no environmental impact.

Where we should focus our concern is the larger spills, or even the small spills which go uncontained.

Far from obfuscating the public’s view of spills in North Dakota’s oil fields, these new rules sharpen it by focusing on reporting the numbers the public should truly care about.

There’s still plenty to report. “In terms of volumes, 9 percent of the oil reported spilled in North Dakota’s Oil Patch from 2013 through 2017 would have gone unreported under the new reporting requirements, while 2 percent of toxic saltwater would have gone unreported,” Springer wrote in his article.

In other words, while the new reporting requirements will result in far fewer spill incidents being reported, they will still capture the vast majority of volume spilled.

Because, again, that’s what we should care about in the public policy debate over oil and gas development. Not the incidents where safety and containment measures worked, but the incidents where they failed.

We could quibble – I did, during the legislative session – and say the new reporting requirements should have created a separate category for the small, contained spills so that the public might distinguish between the two.

But that’s a quibble.

On the whole, the new reporting rules are working as intended, and the public is better informed as a result. Not that this reality will stop the myopic activists and opportunistic political operatives from pretending otherwise.

Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Follow him on Twitter at @RobPort

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