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Linda Boyd Coates, Published September 25 2011

Boyd Coates: Don’t be fooled by duck decoys

The hunter carefully sets his decoys, confident that the gullibility of his prey will play to his advantage.

There is a tantalizing decoy being set by people who claim to be outraged, OUTRAGED, by the fines levied against a handful of oil companies drilling in western North Dakota over 28 dead birds that were found in oil rig waste pits last spring.

Make no mistake, this is not about crazy sums of money being placed on the value of a dead bird. If that were actually the case, it would indeed be an outrage. Heck, hundreds of ducks will fall from the skies this weekend and eventually find their way into casseroles at dinner tables across the state. Other unfortunate birds will fly into the silent, rotating arms of the hundreds of wind turbines that dot the prairie, and no one places a bounty on their heads.

So what gives? Is this a scheme, as some claim, to chase oil production out of the Bakken? Is this yet another example of regulation run amok? Above all, is our financial boon about to fall victim to liberal wackos who care more for a bunch of ducks than good-paying jobs for North Dakotans?

Of course not. Dead birds in oil rig waste pits serve as indicators, much as canaries in coal mines. This is not about dead ducks; this is about our responsibility for stewardship of the land entrusted to our generation.

There are currently more than 900 of these waste pits – which can be 15 feet deep and as large as a swimming pool – with many more to come. This spring, 50 of the pits flooded, spilling toxic gunk over the adjacent countryside and pastureland. The 28 dead birds are sending us the message that here is a situation that needs prompt attention.

The Bakken oil rush has indeed been a financial windfall for our state but has also stretched infrastructure, housing and services throughout western North Dakota to the breaking point. Inspectors from state, federal and tribal agencies are scrambling but are understaffed and can’t keep up.

But some folks are busy politicizing this issue, throwing out sensationalistic, gaudy decoys by claiming that regulations and inspections will shut down the oil boom and ruin our state’s economy.

Don’t fall for it. As even many oil exploration firms acknowledge, regulation is not only expected, but it is also imperative for protecting not only the rights of landowners and the environment itself, but it also leads to more responsible industry practices, which ultimately protect the companies as well.

In other parts of the nation, we have tried slashing regulation and allowing lax inspection, and we have seen where it leads: to mining deaths in the Appalachians, massive oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, deaths from contaminated food supplies and more.

We owe it to future generations of North Dakotans to ensure that our enthusiasm for economic development is balanced with responsible stewardship of the land entrusted to us.

Boyd Coates is executive director for the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony, a member of the Fargo School Board and a former Fargo city commissioner.