Sometimes The Messenger Deserves To Be "Shot"

“It’s foolish to blame messenger.”

That was the headline to a Fargo Forum editorial from over the weekend which fired back at critics of a recent New York Times article about the State of North Dakota’s handling of the oil boom.

“Like dust in a prairie wind, criticism of New York Times articles on North Dakota’s oil regulation is weightless and ephemeral,” wrote the paper’s editorial board. “The critics blame the messenger rather than concede the legitimate substance of the message.”

The problem is that much of the substance of the Times’ reporting was based on bad information.

You can read the two-part story series here. The Times’ thesis for the series was a) North Dakota’s political leadership is all but bought-off by the oil industry to the point where political dissent is not allowed and b) because of the cozy relationship between the state’s leadership and the oil industry the environmental issues in the state are getting worse.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]”What the  Times reported as an increase in the rate of spills is, when proper metrics are used, actually a marked decrease. Which paints a starkly different picture of the success of North Dakota’s oil and gas regulation than the Times presents.”[/mks_pullquote]

The Times trotted out two key pieces of information to support this thesis.

First, they painted the majority Republican leadership in the state as vindictive against Democrats who would take a more hostile approach to regulating oil and gas development. To get around the fact that North Dakota voters overwhelmingly approve of the Republican handling of oil and gas regulation (something demonstrated by their votes in large majority for Republican leaders), the Times basically accused Republicans of cheating at politics. Their original report claimed that former state Senate Minority Leader Ryan Taylor had his legislative seat eliminated through gerrymandering after his challenged Governor Jack Dalrymple in 2012.

Except, the Times was forced to correct that. Taylor’s district was combined with another district (which also had Democrat representation in the Senate) in a redistricting plan approved a month before he even announced he was running for Governor. What’s more, of the two Senators who lost their districts in the 2011 special legislative session, the other was Republican state Senator Joe Miller who was put in the same district with fellow Republican Curtis Olafson.

Again, North Dakota voters have voted overwhelmingly to keep in place all three members of the North Dakota Industrial Commission with regulates oil and gas development in the state. Dalrymple beat Taylor in 2012, Ag Commissioner Doug Goehring and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem won re-election handily earlier this year with Goehring also beating Taylor (ironically, given the editorial linked above, the Forum endorsed all of these gentlemen for re-election).

That’s inconvenient truth for the folks at the Times, but their ham-handed stab at undermining that truth by supposing political cheating backfired when they couldn’t get the facts straight.

Second, the Times relies on an increasing rate of spills per oil well in the state as proof that the state’s collaborative approach to regulating the oil and gas industry isn’t working. “[A]ll told, the number of wells is up 200 percent and spills 650 percent since 2004,” the paper reported. But that’s a bogus metric.

Because oil wells do not produce a uniform amounts of oil.

You cannot use spills-per-well as a valid metric for environmental safety in North Dakota any more than you can use traffic-accidents-per-driver to measure road safety. Because some licensed drivers put on a great deal of miles, while others put on very few. That’s why traffic safety experts measure accidents and fatalities in terms of vehicle miles traveled in order to avoid bad data. That’s also why the New York Times should have used a different metric.

Spills should be measured as a rate of oil produced.

According to the Energy Information Administration, from 2004 to 2013 the amount of oil produced in North Dakota increased 908 percent. “This means that the number of spills per barrel of oil produced actually went down by 25.6%–using the Times own figures for spills,” writes Pablo Zarate for Energy In Depth, an oil industry publication.

What the  Times reported as an increase in the rate of spills is, when proper metrics are used, actually a marked decrease. Which paints a starkly different picture of the success of North Dakota’s oil and gas regulation than the Times presents.

Now, the Fargo Forum editorial board would write off criticism of these very serious errors as nothing more than “shooting the messenger.”

But maybe, in this instance, the messenger deserved to be shot. Figuratively speaking, of course.

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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