North Dakota Oil And Gas Regulators Erred In Not Explaining Reduced Spill Fines Before

North Dakota’s top oil and gas regulators say they’re going to start providing written explanations to the public when they reduce fines for spills.

It’s about damn time.

In North Dakota the development of oil and gas resources is overseen by the Industrial Commission which is staffed by three of the state’s top elected officials. Namely the governor, the attorney general, and the agriculture commissioner. Currently those officials are all Republicans.

The commission has come under fire in recent years for their practice of reducing fines for oil and saltwater spills. Typically when a spill happens the commission announces the largest legally allowable fine, but then typically lowers that fine based on the company’s responsiveness in cleanup efforts and what the state could hope to get should the matter end up in court before a judge.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]Back in December I interviewed Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and asked him about the criticism he and other members of the NDIC have received over the fines. “I’m actually very pleased and satisfied with what it is we’re doing,” he told me. “Sometimes we don’t get the message out good enough,” he added.[/mks_pullquote]

The ideological enemies of oil and gas development, and the political enemies of Republicans, have suggested that these reduced fines represent a too-cozy relationship between Republican officials and the oil/gas industry. Even the national media has gotten involved, everyone from the New York Times to comedian John Oliver.

Back in December I interviewed Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and asked him about the criticism he and other members of the NDIC have received over the fines. “I’m actually very pleased and satisfied with what it is we’re doing,” he told me. “Sometimes we don’t get the message out good enough,” he added.

There’s the rub.

By doing a poor job of explaining their decisions vis-a-vie the fines, Stenehjem and the other members of the NDIC have created an information vacuum which their critics have gleefully filled with conspiracy theories and nonsense. The truth is the industrial commission often cannot make the legal case to collect the maximum fine amount they initially announce, and sometimes they’re willing to hold parts of the fine back as leverage to ensure prompt and thorough cleanup efforts.

These are perfectly defensible reasons for reducing fines. The problem is that the NDIC wasn’t bothering to explain reasons to the public, as Stenehjem acknowledged to me in our interview last month.

And really, the NDIC should go a step further and stop announcing the maximum fines immediately. I get the logic. That big dollar figure puts a lot of rhetorical pressure on those responsible for a given spill to clean up and comply. It’s the NDIC using its bully pulpit to protect North Dakota interests. But the state almost always cannot fine that full amount, and any reduction is going to be painted by political activists as a gift to the industry rather than proper adherence to the law.

So perhaps it’s time to stop doing it.

As for the explanations, they likely won’t satisfy the critics of the Industrial Commission, because for some of them nothing short of a full-stop to oil and gas development will satisfy them. For the rest it’s just partisan politics. They want Democrats running the commission.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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