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N.D. shouldn't throw sand in oil industry's gears

DICKINSON, N.D. -- Agendas come to the forefront when a major incident happens. Politicians, media outlets and anyone else who doesn't like oil drilling in western North Dakota were quick to react in the aftermath of an explosion of Bakken crude oil from a train derailment near Casselton, N.D., on Dec. 30.

Suddenly, by really no fault of its own, oil production in western North Dakota was under fire.

The state Legislature's ranking Democrats -- Sen. Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, and Rep. Kenton Onstad, D-Parshall -- went after Department of Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms stating that after incidents such as the derailment and the pipeline rupture near Tioga, N.D., in September, the public is "ill-served by a director who is charged with regulating the development he is duty-bound to promote."

The Dakota Resource Council, a Dickinson-based environmental group, wrote a letter asking North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple to show "more reasonable leadership to slow the pace of development" and warned of collateral damage.

Undoubtedly, the biggest waves were made when Robert Harms, the chairman of the North Dakota Republican Party who is associated with the tea party and used to work in the oil industry, came out shortly after the Casselton incident and called for the state to take a "moderated approach" to oil exploration in western North Dakota.

He told Reuters that he knows people in the oil industry who believe companies are going "too fast and too hard" in an effort to get all the oil out of North Dakota.

Continental Resources CEO Harold Hamm, whose company has the biggest presence of any oil company in North Dakota, was quick to fire back. He said, in so many words, that the state shouldn't overreact.

Though there are many days when it seems like life in western North Dakota does indeed need to slow down, we forget why there are so many new people in our area. Most came from states where the economy has faltered, something that could very well have happened here if not for the oil industry.

Calls to "slow down" or "moderate" how oil is extracted from western North Dakota seem like a great idea until the consequences are brought up.

The city of Dickinson is going $100 million into debt to improve its infrastructure because of the oil industry's impact. Watford City, N.D., the community most affected by the industry, needs an estimated $193 million to build up and accommodate its untold thousands of new citizens and the relentless traffic that inundates the once-sleepy town.

Both cities will need help from the state's oil- and gas-tax revenue trust fund to do so, too. The money that everyone -- on both sides of the state -- seems to want is there now, and it will continue to accumulate unless oil companies become over-regulated like they have in other states.

In actuality, the oil industry in North Dakota already is beginning to settle into a comfortable pace.

Recent Department of Mineral Resources figures show that North Dakota's rig count is 187 today, down from an all-time high of 218 in May 2012. The state's overall rig count is down 12 percent since it peaked, and the number of rigs in the state's top five producing counties also is falling as more companies drill more pads with multiple wells.

Free enterprise, infrastructure and the real estate markets all are catching up in the Oil Patch. Why slow down just when things are beginning to balance out, and life is beginning to stabilize?

The oil isn't going anywhere, and neither is the oil industry. A train derailment on the eastern side of the state or a pipeline break in the Bakken isn't going to change that.

To say oil production in North Dakota needs to slow down because of these incidents or because Bakken crude is flammable makes little sense.

Perhaps more attention should be paid to creating safe rail transport of oil, building the Keystone XL pipeline or adding more pipelines and highway infrastructure to support North Dakota's oil export.

That's an agenda we should all be able to get behind, regardless of politics.