White Earth Spill Shows Why "Be Angry" Is Stupid Advice For North Dakota


Oil development is an emotionally charged issue, mostly because certain political interests are exhorting the public to be emotional about it. After all, wasn’t that the punch line to HBO comedian John Oliver’s polemic against North Dakota’s handling of the oil boom? One picked up by marginalized state Democrats, anxious for anything to give them traction against Republicans?

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]As the Forum News Service is now reporting, 99.9 percent of the leaked oil and salt water has been contained at the well site, and the impacts from the spill are minimal.[/mks_pullquote]

But a recent oil spill near the White Earth River in western North Dakota illustrates perfectly why that’s bad advice for anyone desiring thoughtful and prudent discourse about energy development.

First, let me set this up. In the wake of a massive leak from a Tesoro-owned pipeline near Tioga many people were critical of the state government for not immediately alerting the news media about the leak. While there were some ways the state could be doing notifications about oil spills better (my thoughts here), the result of the political pressure is that every single spill in western North Dakota has become headline news, even those with zero environmental impacts.

Even fresh water spills. I’m not kidding.

Is this rush to report every spill into an emotionally charged and thoroughly political debate over energy development really a good thing? Especially when early headlines, based on incomplete or missing facts, often make the situation sound a lot worse than it actually is?

Case in point, a recent spill near the White Earth River has been making headlines over the last 48 hours, with journalists breathlessly reporting that thousands of barrels spilled, that the spilled oil and salt water impacted the river, and that oil workers were struggling to control the leak.

And based on those early reports, people are jumping to conclusions all over the place, taking Oliver’s advice to “be angry.” As opposed to patient and thoughtful.

Patient and thoughtful would serve us better, because now that facts are emerging from the incident it tuns out things aren’t that bad. As the Forum News Service is now reporting, 99.9 percent of the leaked oil and salt water has been contained at the well site, and the impacts from the spill are minimal.

The amount of oil and brine recovered from an oil well near the White Earth River reached 756,000 gallons Tuesday, though officials said 99.9 percent of the contamination was contained to the well pad.

An estimated 18,000 barrels of oil and brine water has been recovered so far, but the total amount spilled is still under investigation, said Department of Mineral Resources spokeswoman Alison Ritter.

Just to be clear, well pads are designed to handle spills. Which means that when spills are contained at the well pad, their environmental impact is pretty much zero.

There was some impact on the nearby White Earth River, but that impact seems minimal. “Some contamination misted off the location, causing a sheen on the White Earth River, a tributary to Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri River, the primary drinking water source for southwest North Dakota,” reports FMS.

That isn’t to say that this is a good situation. Nobody wants spills to happen, even when measures to contain them work as well as they seem to have in this instance. But before people decide to “be angry” we should think about the fact that the impact here is minimal, because those measures did, you know, work.

But for those who oppose oil development for political reasons, the “be angry” advice is a sound tactic. Those trying to enrage the public over these incidents don’t want facts or logic. They don’t want things seen in the cool light of reason. They want red, hot, unthinking emotion.

Because that’s what suits their purposes best.