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Top oil regulator shouldn’t also be promoter

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GRAND FORKS — This year, North Dakotans will celebrate our state’s 125th anniversary. Throughout our history, we have shown time and time again that economic development and good stewardship are not mutually exclusive.

The State Industrial Commission — made up of the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner — was created based on this tradition. Among its most important duties is oversight of oil and gas development.

But for all practical purposes, the current membership of the Industrial Commission has delegated a substantial share of its powers to the director of mineral resources, a position presently held by Lynn Helms. Under this delegation of authority and pursuant to current law, Helms has the dual responsibility of acting as both a promoter and regulator of our state’s oil industry.

Recent high-profile incidents across the state confirm that the public is ill-served by these conflicting duties.

Take last fall’s spill of more than 20,000 barrels of oil from a pipeline near Tioga, N.D., which was one of the largest overland oil spills in U.S. history.

Lawmakers and the public initially were kept in the dark about the existence of the spill. An open-records request by the media later revealed that while the public scrambled for answers, Helms shared detailed opinions on the spill in a private email to a relative.

Even taking into account the Department of Mineral Resources’ lack of jurisdiction over pipelines, our state’s oil regulator first should have shared that information with legislators and the public. Perhaps Helms stayed uncharacteristically silent because he was afraid that speaking out would detract from his statutory duty to promote oil development.

On the other hand, Helms was not silent on the issue of using existing rail cars to ship the vast majority of North Dakota oil by train. On Dec. 16, Helms promised to write a state government report that would, in his words, “dispel this myth that [Bakken crude] is somehow an explosive, really dangerous thing to have travelling up and down rail lines.”

Two weeks later, an oil train derailed outside of Casselton, N.D, and set off a series of horrific explosions, forcing the evacuation of up to 3,000 North Dakotans and spilling more than 400,000 gallons of oil.

Since the Casselton incident, the work on that promised report has been discontinued.

The siting by Helms (under the authority of the Industrial Commission) of an oil-drilling waste pit on top of water supply for Ross, N.D., also is troubling.

While Helms pled human error in the siting of the Ross waste pit, the chances for such error would be meaningfully reduced if the role of promoting oil development were separated from the regulation of oil development.

This is why North Dakota Democrats will be proposing legislation in the 2015 legislative session that once and for all would separate the duties of regulator and promoter. In the meantime, we’ve called on the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner to use the broad authority of the Industrial Commission to establish a firewall between these two functions.

Doing so would help ensure continued support for oil development and restore public trust that our resources can be developed safely.

We value the oil industry’s impact on North Dakota’s economy. In fact, it is because of the importance of the industry to our state that we must take common-sense steps to restore citizens’ faith that we need not trade public health and safety for the sake of development.

North Dakotans are familiar with the debate between promoting economic growth and protecting our land and people. We decided long ago that we will do both.

Separating the regulation of oil development from its promotion will ensure we continue to live up to this North Dakota tradition as we enter an exciting new chapter in our state’s history.

State Sen. Schneider, D-Grand Forks, is minority leader of the North Dakota Senate. State Rep. Onstad, D-Parshall, is minority leader of the North Dakota House.