HBO comedian John Oliver aimed his considerable polemical skills at North Dakota recently, much to the delight of the state’s critics.
“Be angry,” was Oliver’s advice, even going so far as to put up a billboard with that message on the eastern edge of the Bakken oil fields.
It’s an interesting message. Oliver isn’t asking North Dakotans to be thoughtful about how oil activity in the state is regulated. His was not an appeal to logic or reason.
Oliver, as befits a polemicist, demands emotion. And so do the state’s Democrats. Mired as they are in a seemingly perpetual state of super minority status, they no doubt see angry voters as a political advantage.
But a more even tempered approach would serve the state better. Because the cool light of reason takes some of the wind out of Oliver’s sails.
For instance, Oliver spoke at length about worker safety in the oil fields. An important topic, to be sure. Oil drilling is a very dangerous occupation – it ranks just behind roofers and just ahead of agriculture on the list of America’s most dangerous jobs – and safety is not an issue to be taken lightly.
But the truth is that the safety record for oil workers in the state has been improving. In 2006 there were 6 fatalities in the Bakken oil fields, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting which was one of Oliver’s sources, and 351 spudded wells in North Dakota per the Department of Mineral Resources. Those figures combine for a rate of 0.0171 fatalities per well. In 2014 there was a twice the number of fatalities as in 2006, but almost 7.5 times more wells (2,624 again per DMR) for a 0.0045 fatalities per well rate.
That’s a 73 percent decline in the fatalities-per-oil-well rate. The increase in deaths was the result in the increase in activity, but the activity itself has become significantly safer.
Spills, too, were a major focus of Oliver’s segment. He used data from a New York Times series which reported that “the number of wells is up 200 percent and spills 650 percent since 2004.”
But putting spills in the context of the number of wells is a little silly, because oil wells do not produce uniform amounts of oil.
A more apt metric would put the rate of spills in the context of the amount of oil produced. According to the Energy Information Administration, from 2004 to 2013 the amount of oil produced in North Dakota increased 908 percent. If we use the Times’ data for the number of spills in that time window, we come up with a 25.6 percent decline in the rate of spills per barrel of oil produced.
Again, an improving situation. Oliver didn’t mention that. Probably because his intent wasn’t to inform but to enrage. Just as he didn’t mention that the suspended fines for oil companies guilty of spills, which often draw the ire of the state’s critics, aren’t a gift to the oil industry but rather leverage used against the industry to ensure prompt and thorough clean ups.
It’s an approach that values the right outcome - cleaned up spills, lands put back to rights - over getting a proverbial pound of flesh for political reasons.
One area where Oliver kind of had a point was ethics. He blasted state lawmakers for shooting down legislation which would have made it illegal for state politicians to use campaign dollars for personal expenditures.
There’s little evidence that this is happening, but even the possibility is unseemly. It needs correction. Unfortunately the reform Democrats propose - the creation of a state ethics committee - is a cure worse than the disease.
It is ironic that even as Democrats on the national level bemoan what they describe as the politically-driven investigations into Hillary Clinton’s ethical adventures, they desire a similar apparatus for partisan witch hunts here.
Transparency is a better solution. Require that all candidates make weekly reports of every penny the receive and spend. Then voters can decide how they feel about what’s disclosed.
But the larger point here is to think about these things. Don’t be angry. Be thoughtful.
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