Ron Ness: New York Times Misrepresented North Dakota Story


Within the opening two paragraphs of her story printed on Nov. 23, New York Times Reporter Deborah Sontag wrote, “Halliburton served barbecued crawfish from Louisiana.”

I would like to point out that the crawfish served at the “One Million Barrels — One Million Thanks” celebration was boiled, not barbecued. It came from Mississippi, not Louisiana, and it was generously provided by Capitol Lodge, not Halliburton.

These may seem like trivial things on which to focus, but that one six-word sentence was so fraught with errors, it begs the question: If a lunch served at a community event was not correctly reported, can we really trust that the rest of the story was based on facts and balance?

The answer is most definitely no. Instead, the 11,000 words of the two-part series contained primarily anecdotes, partial truths and hyperbole.

The real North Dakota story is that we represent the world’s learning curve on how to produce oil efficiently from shale with minimal environmental impact and maximum economic, social and cultural benefit. This is no easy task, and one might say we underestimated the magnitude of the endeavor. But what is overlooked is the distinctive way in which we meet challenges and how our approach really does work.

A culture of trust

There are two basic ways of dealing with environmental and safety issues, as well as community building and social concerns. One approach leads with regulations and fines — with the presumption that only bureaucrats and other elites know what is best, because the people and private companies actually doing the work can’t be trusted. Instead, they must be punished for every transgression, whether they are intentional or not.

Mountains of red tape, counterproductive mandates and delays result, which is exactly what’s crushing economic endeavors in many other states.

In contrast, our approach is rooted in our agrarian past and present. We live and work in a culture of trust and cooperation built over many generations of farmers and small-town business people in a family-oriented society. That culture extends to all industries, including oil and gas.

In North Dakota, the industry and regulators work together to solve problems. Companies are not punished for circumstances beyond their control, such as inclement weather or unforeseen mechanical failures. Instead, regulators focus on finding and prosecuting willful transgressors and repeat offenders — something the industry strongly supports.

Accordingly, we supported the addition of 40 new staff for regulatory agencies in the past three years.

Unfortunately, incidences such as spills sometimes happen, but when they do, we work hard to implement preventative measures. For example, at drilling sites (where 80 percent of spills occur), companies build containment areas with protective layers of clay and special liners and surrounded by fortified berms.

Spills into containment areas are like spilling soda onto a food tray. Fluids are kept within the safe boundaries and easily cleaned up without environmental damage.

The oil and gas industry moves millions of barrels of fluids per day, almost all of that volume arriving safely at its destination. When rare spills occur outside containment area, industry reports every gallon, and then is required to pay for the cleanup and remediate the land versus writing a single penalty check.

In fact, it would cost industry much less to simply pay the full amount of fines than to fund research and meticulous implementation of improvements. Nor would increasing fines help, unless crippling industry is the goal. North Dakotans would rather push the company to clean up a spill and restore the land than see checks deposited into our state-owned bank.

Challenges remain regarding spills, pipeline leaks and proper waste disposal, but stakeholders from the private and public sectors continually are collaborating to research technological solutions and determine the most effective regulations.

North Dakota is a national leader in the development of new regulations on how to responsibly produce oil from shale. We have implemented more than 70 new rules and laws in the past three years, resulting in some of the most stringent and effective oil and gas regulations in the nation.

Notably, where possible, inadvertent violations are seldom (if ever) repeated by the same company. Our relationships and communications with regulators are open. Elsewhere, government-industry relations have often become antagonistic, which discourages companies from reporting accidents and missteps.

Model for the nation

Through government-industry cooperation, North Dakota has implemented regulations that have become the model for the nation. We became the first state to establish comprehensive rules for monitoring gathering lines (pipelines transporting crude oil or natural gas from the production site to a central collection point).

Working together on science-based approaches, we have put forth additional regulations to capture more natural gas and reduce flaring, and we’ve implemented rules for proper disposal of the socks used to filter oilfield liquids.

Furthermore, North Dakota has the best inspection rate in the nation. A study by the Western Organization of Resource Councils found that only North Dakota has enough inspectors to visit every producing well at least four times a year. Federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management only inspect producing wells once every three to 10 years.

North Dakota has very responsive and responsible legislators and regulators who let industry develop new technologies to access our natural resources more efficiently. Horizontal drilling enables six or more wells to operate from a single location, meaning far less natural habitat is impacted, and fewer acres are taken out of production.

Our fracking techniques have proven to be a safe way of drawing oil from shale, helping many other states access their deposits responsibly.

And let us not lose sight of what this means for the nation. Our net imports of foreign oil have nearly been cut in half since 2006, when the Bakken Discovery Well was drilled. Also, gas prices are at their lowest point in four years, benefitting all Americans.

As an agricultural and energy state, North Dakota has a tremendous appreciation for its natural resources. For generations, stakeholders have come together to be good stewards of their land and the resource underneath. We know how to protect our environment and work to ensure that all industries can safely flourish.

Today, North Dakota thrives with abundant job opportunities, unprecedented business growth and reinvigorated communities.