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Published November 20 2012

Forum editorial: Oversight role must keep pace

Dealing with the incredible boom in North Dakota’s Oil Patch will once again occupy much of the Legislature’s attention when the session begins in January. Lawmakers will consider proposals for housing, public works and other services to keep pace with challenges brought by the rapid development that has transformed the west in so many ways.

One of the vital tasks before legislators will be to make sure that the state is equipped to stay on top of the regulatory oversight that goes along with managing the boom. Oil field inspectors and environmental health officials must deal with unprecedented drilling, production and disposal. Often forgotten is that adequate state oversight can help keep that regulation at the state level.

“We need these people. We’ve got to have enough regulators on the ground to make sure nothing happens,” Sen. Rich Wardner,

R-Dickinson, recently told fellow legislators, according to a news report. Otherwise, “if it does … they’ll come in and shut ’er down.”

Gov. Jack Dalrymple has shown himself willing to make substantial state investments to expand crucial infrastructure and public works, including highways and roads as well as affordable housing. Many of these, he points out, are one-time investments that are needed to provide for a growing workforce and to make sure that North Dakota’s oil can move to markets, safely and efficiently.

Nobody who has seriously examined the needs of the Oil Patch doubts the importance of keeping up with infrastructure and housing. Why should it be any different in keeping up with conservation stewardship of the state’s precious land and water resources when they are under unprecedented pressure from oil development?

As legislators are aware, the Environmental Protection Agency contracts with the state to enforce federal clean air and water regulations. The state and federal governments have differed over enforcement, in a relationship that one legislator described as “strained,” with the federal agency preferring a stronger federal hand. Also, the state is arguing that regulation of hydraulic fracturing – better known as “fracking” – should be left up to state regulators.

By all indications, North Dakota is doing a very good job with the resources that have been made available. But a perception that the state is doing a good job could quickly turn into a less flattering and assuring one with only one major spill – especially if it involves contamination of water.

Spills and accidents are inherent in oil and gas production. North Dakota leaders should not delude themselves into believing that we are immune from the environmental threats that come with a boom. They should listen to voices like Wardner, who warn that the state has a very real interest in doing the job right, so a more intrusive federal government doesn’t take over. Or a disaster makes us wish we’d done more.


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