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Published February 02 2013

Forum editorial: Killdeer site more than oil

The decision by the North Dakota Industrial Commission to proceed with oil drilling in the Killdeer Mountains area of Dunn County is a disappointing mistake that might come back to bite the state.

Widely opposed by residents of the historic and scenic region, the logic from the Department of Mineral Resources was that denying a Hess Corp. request to drill up to eight wells would leave some 3.5 million barrels of oil in the ground. That’s a curious explanation. The oil isn’t going anywhere. A request for a delay in order to more sensitively address legitimate concerns of the people of the area and of American Indians who view much of the ground there as sacred should not have been so cavalierly dismissed.

As opponents of the drilling plan testified last week, there are other values: scenic beauty, cultural and historical significance. Of course, the imperative of getting the oil is important, but it seems only the oil factor is sacrosanct in decisions made by the Industrial Commission and its Department of Mineral Resources regarding development. Surely there is more at stake for the long term.

The commission discussed the situation for two hours at a meeting that attracted 50 people. Many of those people were surprised when, after taking the matter under advisement, the commission voted to approve the wells after the public had left. There likely was nothing sinister or underhanded in the commission’s action, but it smells bad.

The sites in question are unique. Their significance to North Dakota’s history, especially as it relates to American Indian history, cannot be minimized. The farming and ranching community has, for the most part, treated the artifacts and locations that are important to native people with respect. The Industrial Commission did not give enough consideration to the unavoidable negative effects of oil development on the place.

And that’s where the state is at risk. It can be argued that archeological assessments of the proposed well sites, access roads, etc., have not been sufficient. A conclusion by at least one state official that “there is nothing there” is not based on sound science. That disagreement alone could be the basis for legal action brought by native people or others. Maybe that’s what it will take for the Industrial Commission to better balance its approach to permitting oil wells in special places.

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