Exaggerating Complaints About Saltwater Spills


When citizens complain about the way they’re governed it’s always important to pay attention. But also worth paying attention to is the scope of the protests. Is dissatisfaction widespread, or isolated to a few people with an agenda?

This is important context, yet in a recent story about a group of landowners upset about saltwater spills the North Dakota media – specifically Forum Communications reporter Andrew Brown – paints a very misleading picture.

Here’s the opening paragraphs from Brown’s story about a group of landowners meeting with state officials in Antler, ND (north of Minot, emphasis mine):

As state officials met in Bismarck to approve new oil conditioning standards and to discuss the drop in crude oil prices, landowners from the Oil Patch gathered at a separate meeting to review a different side of the Bakken oil boom — spills, soil contamination and landowner rights.

Landowners from across the Oil Patch gathered in Antler on Tuesday afternoon expecting to hear Lynn Helms and David Glatt, the directors of the Department of Mineral Resources and the Department of Health respectively, talk about how the state is working to limit harmful spills, improve land reclamation and protect the rights of North Dakotans.

But when the meeting — organized by Rep. Bob Hunskor of Newberg and Rep. Marvin Nelson of Rolla — began only Glatt was on hand to listen to the landowners continuing complaints and quiet the discontent that has grown louder over the past year. Helms was at the North Dakota Industrial Commission in Bismarck to discuss standards for oil conditioning.

“Lynn wanted to be here,” Glatt said. “Let me make that clear.”

Landowners from across the oil patch? Organized by a couple of lawmakers?

Of course, one problem is that the partisan affiliation of these lawmakers isn’t mentioned – they’re both Democrat. Another problem is that it’s rather hard to have a group of landowners from around the oil patch when you have less than 10 people on hand.

Don’t take my word for it. There’s a picture accompanying the story, and much deeper in the story Brown admits that really wasn’t so much a broad gathering of oil patch landowners as a “handful” of people (emphasis mine):

Throughout the meeting, which attracted only a handful of people, the landowners questioned who the state agencies and the Industrial Commission represented, the citizens of North Dakota or the oil companies.

“Why won’t the state back up the landowner?” asked Larry Peterson, a landowner from Bottineau County.

The fact that this isn’t a very large group of landowners, organized by partisans with a political interest in throwing dirt on the governance model of the Republican majority, doesn’t necessarily discount their complaints. Obviously, nobody wants these spills. Of course landowners should be protected.

But context matters, and shame on the media when they don’t provide proper context.

Also, it’s frustrating to see the North Dakota Industrial Commission’s reactions to oil/saltwater spills – specifically the lowering of fines for companies that spill – invoked all the time without a proper explanation for why those fines are lowered. They’re lowered only after the company that spilled cleans up. Meaning the lower fine is an incentive for the companies in question to make things right, out of their own pockets, thus saving the state and the landowner a lot of money.

Nobody wants the spills to happen in the first place, but it’s hard to fault the logic in lowering fines for companies that are proactive and cooperative in cleaning up the messes they create.