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Published September 08 2010

Forum editorial: Killdeer oil spill a sign of trade-off

The oil/water spill at an oil well near Killdeer, N.D., dumped more than 2,400 barrels of crude and water before the leak was stopped. The spill was quickly contained, and it has been reported that no surface waters were contaminated. The verdict on groundwater contamination also looks good. A wellbore failure was the cause of the leak, a company spokesman said.

The good news is surface water is OK and the leak was stopped. The worrisome news is the spill itself. Oil company and state officials have been falling all over themselves emphasizing that the spill was more water than oil, which, they say, is less damaging than if the mess had been all oil. Fair enough. But the discharge of more than 2,400 barrels of “stuff” from the damaged well onto nearby land should be enough to raise concerns to a higher level.

To their credit, officials of the state Department of Mineral Resources were on the scene within an hour of the report of the spill. Director Lynn Helms said, “We’ll know what happened.” He said his agency wants to know if fracturing regulations were followed. Hydraulic fracturing is a process that uses pressurized fluid and sand to break open oil-bearing rock as much as two miles below ground.

Helms also told The Associated Press that the Killdeer spill was the worst in state history from a horizontal well. Again, fair

enough. But a more accurate characterization might be that it was the worst so far.

Oil activity in North Dakota’s Oil Patch has ramped up to record levels in less than five years. The intensity of exploration, drilling and the industrial activity associated with oil production is new for the state. The impacts, both positive and negative, are yet to be measured. No oil spill should be characterized as inconsequential because it was contained. No discharge of oil and/or fluids used in hydraulic fracturing is minor. Every one has an impact. Every one will have negative effects – some lasting – on the landscape. Indeed, if there were never another spill, the other impacts of industrial-scale oil production on land, water, wildlife and even ranching and farming could not be minimized.

It’s a trade-off. A changed land and lifestyle for the prosperity generated by oil and natural gas. It’s a trade-off North Dakotans are making willingly because revenues coming out of the once-pristine western landscape are enriching individuals and helping keep the state’s financial picture very bright.

But make no mistake about it. The Killdeer oil spill story will be repeated many times in the next few years. All the well-intentioned regulations, tough monitoring and threats of fines can’t prevent an accident. As history confirms, it’s the nature of the beast.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.