We Should Use a Term Other Than “Spill” for Oil Field Incidents That Don’t Result in an Actual Spill

Crews work at an oil well site near Williston, N.D., on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

Environmental activists, many of whom would like to stop the development of oil resources entirely, like to talk a lot about oil spills in North Dakota.

Which, on the face of it, is entirely fair. Oil spills are unequivocally bad. Nobody wants them to happen. When they do happen the public should be aware of them and we should debate how to keep them from happening in the future.

That said, we have a problem when we talk about oil spills, because a lot of what are reported as spills aren’t. Not really, anyway.

If the milk were to just all into the sink, I wouldn’t say it was spilled. Because it didn’t really spill. It was contained.

Case in point, this report of an equipment failure at a well site in Bottineau County leading to the release of 550 barrels of brine and 120 barrels of oil (that’s 23,100 gallons and 5,040 gallons, respectively).

The Bismarck Tribune reports this as a “spill” but it kinda wasn’t. From the report: “The spill was contained within the diking on site and cleanup is underway, according to the Oil and Gas Division’s statement.”

If something leaks, but it was contained, is that really a spill?

To me the term “spill” means an uncontained release.

If I’m standing in my kitchen and I drop the milk and it gets all over the floor I’d say I spilled the milk.

If the milk were to just all into the sink, I wouldn’t say it was spilled. Because it didn’t really spill. It was contained.

The same is true of the oil industry. It’s not good that there are leaks. Those absolutely need to be reported. But a release of something like oil or brine that’s contained should be treated differently both in how it’s reported statistically and how we talk about it in the media from a release that’s uncontained.

Because one is a very different situation from the other, yet we treat them equivalently both statistically and rhetorically.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from noon-2pm weekdays.

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