Back in May, Senator Heidi Heitkamp released a study from North Dakota State University claiming that rail delays had caused farmers to lose $66 million in revenue with the potential for another $95 million in losses if delays aren’t fixed.
That poured fuel on the fire of controversies surrounding oil-by-rail shipments. The dramatic uptick oil production in North Dakota, and the difficulty in building pipeline infrastructure (mostly thanks to regulatory delays and anti-fossil fuel politics) has pushed oil shipments onto the rails. That has raised not only safety concerns – a couple of high-profile and explosive derailments have left the public feeling understandably nervous – but economic concerns. The oil seems to be crowding shipments of agricultural shipments off the tracks.
So when Heitkamp’s study put a specific dollar amount on that economic impact, the number was quickly picked up by the media, pundits and politicians.
Except, it seems the number wasn’t accurate, and NDSU has now pulled the report according to the Associated Press:
FARGO, North Dakota — A North Dakota State University study cited by public officials in hearings on rail shipment delays has been withdrawn as an official publication of the university over doubts about its estimates of lost farm income. …
William Wilson, an NDSU professor who specializes in grain marketing and transportation, said Thursday that the study headed by crop economist Frayne Olson was done on short notice and included a couple of assumptions that were “probably not appropriate or defendable,” so the report was pulled.
Wilson claims there’s “nothing radically wrong’ with the study, but clearly it wasn’t accurate enough to continue backing. There’s no clear indication of what prompted NDSU to pull the study. Some people close to the situation say they’re not surprised the study was pulled and tell me that it isn’t entirely clear that rail delays are entirely to blame for the economic impacts touted in the study.
But who knows.
The larger question here is the relationship between Senator Heitkamp and NDSU. Clearly, in requesting and touting the study, Heitkamp hoped to influence the political debate over oil shipments and rail delays. And NDSU rushed forward a study for her to use which turned out not to be accurate enough for public consumption.
That’s a problem. It seems NDSU compromised their academic credibility for the sake of Heitkamp’s political agenda.
Rail delays are a problem, and they’re definitely having an economic impact on agriculture. There’s no question. But the issue deserves rational debate based on facts, and it seems neither Heitkamp nor NDSU has given us that.
That’s a real disservice to the issue at hand.
Update: Apparently, the study was pulled months ago, not recently as the AP report suggests. Yet politicians have continued to cite it anyway.