Big Oil Spoils North Dakota

Written by: A. Allan Schmid

Primary Source: The Troublesome Economist 

Big oil companies in North Dakota said their impact on the environment would be minimal. They lied.  The citizens of Tioga witnessed the largest land oil spill in recent American history in September, 2013.  Also in 2013, the locomotive of an oil train derailed and exploded in a collision near Casselton.  This year North Dakotans discovered illegally dumped oil filter socks, a source of hazardous radiation. A landfill with waste from oil fields is near the banks of the Missouri River.  Some families experienced dirty drinking water.  “One company, in fact, sued three activist landowners in 2011, seeking damages for trespassing after the men tried to document what they believed was the cover-up of a saltwater spill.”  Federal wildlife agents asked the oil companies to cover their waste pits as migratory birds sometimes dived in.  They were refused.  Thirty percent of the natural gas produced in the state was being treated as a byproduct and burned off, spoiling the air for neighbors.
The oil drillers are lightly regulated by the three-member North Dakota Industrial Commission composed of the Governor, Attorney General, and the Agricultural Commissioner.  In their eagerness to gain great wealth, the state largely let the oil companies police themselves.  The oil companies made contributions to the governor’s campaign in 2012, a total of $550,000 from oil-related executives.
A family signed a lease and saw their first well drilled in 2008.  Then June, 2011, they were informed that Burlington Resources intended to create a 30,883 acre oil production unit that would override their lease agreement.  Instead of receiving royalties for their land, the revenues would be split by all owners in the mega-unit. The mega-unit would include part of the Little Missouri State Park (three storage tank batteries inside park boundaries). The family learned that their consent was not required.  Only 60 percent of the unit’s owners were needed, and Burlington together with the Federal government land already amounted to 60%.  This freed Conoco Phillips, successor to Burlington, from boundary lines that required 200-foot set-backs from the borders of each production unit.  The companies would not have to negotiate easements or rights of way for pads, roads, and pipelines.  Dec 20, 2013, the commission approved the mega-unit.  This amounts to private eminent domain—taking of land by private companies for their own benefit.
Source: New York Times, Nov. 23, 2014


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A. Allan Schmid
Alfred Allan Schmid, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus. Taught at MSU for 47 years in the Dept. of Agricultural, Food, Resource Economics. In addition to scholarly books, he more recently published a historical novel entitled "The Quest for Land and Fortune."
A. Allan Schmid

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