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Published January 11 2014

Forum editorial: Harms’comments do no harm

A mild and measured suggestion by a prominent North Dakota Republican that the oil boom is moving “too fast and too hard,” has drawn over-the-top reactions usually reserved for criticism of motherhood, apple pie and Bison football. But in fact, Robert Harms, the state’s Republican Party chairman, said in a very careful way what more and more North Dakotans are thinking and saying every day, regardless of political party affiliation.

Here’s the quote Harms gave to a Reuters reporter a few days after a BNSF oil train derailed and burned Dec. 30 near Casselton, N.D.:

“I think it’s a good wake-up call for all of us, both local and state officials, as well as the people with the oil and gas industry and the transportation industry.

“Even people within the oil and gas industry that I’ve talked to feel that sometimes we’re just going too fast and too hard.”

That’s hardly the incendiary rhetoric of an anti-oil tree-hugger. Indeed, Harms is a business-friendly, small-government conservative. He’s not one to beat up the private sector or call for more government regulation. Nonetheless, his comments, as low-key as they were, carry unique credibility because of his service in government, his long-time party work, and the fact that he is an energy industry consultant. He also is a son of western North Dakota’s oil country, where he maintains a home and business interests.

Maybe it’s that credibility factor that set off such a hyperbolic firestorm of criticism. The reaction was like gas flaring into the sky in oil country – a monumental waste of energy.

In follow-up reports last week, Harms averred he was not speaking for the Republican Party. Take him at his word. But he can’t doff the chairman’s hat every time he speaks his mind, particularly when his remarks go to public policy debates. In this dustup, he spoke candidly about a subject that resonates with North Dakotans, who are governed almost exclusively by Republicans.

In a guest blog post, Harms said the Casselton wreck “should give us pause to have thoughtful discussions …” and “no one wants to shut down the industry …”

Does it get any more sensible than that? Yet, there are powerful people in the industry and influential legislators in Harms’ party who won’t have any of it. Of great interest in the coming months will be whether his common-sense approach gains traction, or whether, as critics allege, the North Dakota Republican Party and Republican-dominated state government are wholly owned subsidiaries of the oil industry.

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