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Published December 01 2012

Forum editorial: Voluntary steps not enough

Oil companies and wildlife and conservation representatives last week rolled out voluntary “best practices” aimed at protecting wildlife and habitat in North Dakota from the effects of energy development. The guidelines were developed by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department and the North Dakota Petroleum Council, which represents the industry.

It’s encouraging that industry representatives, game and fish officials, and wildlife and conservation advocates are at the table discussing ways they can work together to protect habitat from the unprecedented oil/natural gas boom in western North Dakota, where 35,000 or more wells will someday dot the landscape, along with extensive roads, pipelines, tank complexes and processing plants.

But we’re not ready to applaud a piece of paper that is filled with good intentions and no means of enforcement. It recommends, but does not require, placing well pads and roads in least sensitive habitats. It recommends, but does not require, establishing utility corridors to use common routes for multiple pipelines to the extent feasible, and as allowed by landowners. It encourages, but does not require, directional boring of utilities and pipelines in rugged areas or in crossing drainages and wetlands, as feasible and practical.

In other words, it’s all smiles and no teeth. It’s no surprise to learn industry supports the voluntary recommendations. Why object to something that looks good but that you can ignore? Why are comments from the North Dakota Petroleum Council contained in the guidelines, but not comments from wildlife groups?

“I think it’s going to be tremendous,” said Terry Steinwand, director of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. “They’re already doing a lot of these things.” We hope that’s what is happening. Undoubtedly, some of these companies are sincere in their efforts to minimize effects on wildlife and habitat, and will follow the recommendations.

The problem, of course, is that not all companies can be counted on to act in good faith, or to adhere to voluntary guidelines. Also, the guidelines are peppered with exceptions and qualifications, making it unclear how valuable – beyond serving as an instrument of public relations – some of them are.

This week, the Sporting and Oil Industry Forum, the group meeting to work collaboratively to protect wildlife and habitat, will meet again to continue discussions. They have a lot of work to do. Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who heads both the Industrial Commission and the state land board, is uniquely positioned to influence the talks. He can take a visible role in getting the industry to commit beyond talking points, and he can shepherd state government beyond voluntary guidelines, in a meaningful effort to preserve the state’s threatened outdoor heritage.

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