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Published January 18 2014

Forum editorial: Promotion, regulation do not mix

How is it that one of the most important state agencies in North Dakota has been stuck with the impossible task of regulation and promotion? The contradiction is obvious. Effective regulation leaves no room for promotion. Promotion implies an agenda that is anathema to serious regulation. An honest regulator cannot be a cheerleader for the regulated.

Thus, the Oil and Gas Division of the Industrial Commission – in particular director Lynn Helms – is entangled in a rising debate that goes to credibility, not only of the director but also of the mandate with which he has been saddled. As the spotlight on the oil and gas boom gets brighter and harsher, the perceived historic weakness of state regulation is raising legitimate questions – and recently has been putting Helms on some very warm hot seats.

In fairness, Helms is doing his job as required by law and by the long-standing regulation-averse sentiments of the majority of North Dakota lawmakers and statewide elected officials. Indeed, the North Dakota Century Code says the state’s policy is “to foster, to encourage and to promote the development, production, and utilization of … oil and gas.” It is worth noting that the directive in law does not include the modifiers “responsibly” or “environmentally sound” or “safely.”

Democrat legislative leaders said last week that they would propose legislation to separate Helms’ regulatory function from promotion. Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple said he hadn’t seen the Democrats’ letter, but he doesn’t see the need for separation. That’s usually been the knee-jerk response from Republicans to any Democratic initiative, no matter how good the idea. Indeed, it’s been the Republican pattern in the Legislature to reject sound measures that have a “D” attached, tweak them a little, and then affix an “R” to them.

Something has to give at the Oil and Gas Division. Helms’ recent gaffe about the volatility of Bakken crude oil (it’s a myth, he said), came days before an oil train derailed and exploded near Casselton. His division’s oversight that allowed a drilling waste pit to be located close to the Ross water supply outraged residents of that community. His failure to tell the public (as revealed in emails obtained by The Forum) that 20,000 barrels of oil had leaked from a pipeline near Tioga further eroded public trust.

Legislators and policymakers should not reject out of hand a proposal that could help Helms and his staff to do a better job. The aims should be to restore credibility, and put the industry on notice the state is serious about protecting land, water and air – while promoting and supporting responsible energy development.

North Dakotans have every right to expect no less.


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