A kinder, gentler oil industry? Don't dismiss concerns, Dorgan advises

The nation's oil and gas industry is hoping to soften its public image and deflect mounting criticism from environmentalists over "fracking" and management of drilling sites.

Byron Dorgan
Byron Dorgan, former U.S. senator from North Dakota. (PRNewsFoto/Codexis, Inc., Jeff Mcevoy)

The nation's oil and gas industry is hoping to soften its public image and deflect mounting criticism from environmentalists over "fracking" and management of drilling sites.

Environment & Energy Publishing , an independent news site that reports on industry activities and trends, cited evidence of a coming makeover at a conference in Pennsylvania organized by the American Petroleum Institute and other industry groups.

At the same conference earlier this week, former Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., cautioned the industry representatives that new oil and gas projects will face more federal regulation if the industry and state regulators don't do a better job of controlling side effects of the boom and responding to legitimate social, economic and environmental concerns.

"No matter what some might think, we don't sit around the floor of the Senate saying, 'What can we regulate today?' " Dorgan said, according to E&E Publishing's report. "People begin to complain. Groups begin to complain," and that can lead to regulatory intervention.

Dorgan praised advances in hydraulic fracturing technology, the process that shoots a liquid mixture of sand and chemicals deep into the ground to make it easier to get oil flowing. The process has contributed significantly to domestic oil and gas production -- and made the oil boom in western North Dakota's Bakken field possible.


But he offered cautionary advice: "We would be fools to direct our attention away from the opportunity or the impacts," he said.

E&E noted that Dorgan, who left office last year, "played a key role on energy issues in the Senate, serving as chairman of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee. He came from an energy-producing state, but also was more supportive of offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico than many of his fellow Democrats."

He was the keynote speaker Tuesday during a "Workshop on Commitment to Excellence in Hydraulic Fracturing."

The industry is seeking to develop -- with fracking technology -- Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale natural gas field, which already has produced thousands of new jobs but has drawn sharp criticism from environmentalists and others over pollution, traffic and other problems.

"Whenever you have the 'new-new thing,' and you have explosive growth, you have to address these issues," Dorgan said, according to E&E's report. While he praised the willingness of some in the industry for "taking the position that we have to address these issues," he was critical of resistance to disclosing the mix of chemicals used in fracturing.

"The idea that 'whatever we put into the ground, that's nobody's business' -- that's not going to fly," he said.

And today, E&E reported from the same Pittsburgh conference that the oil and gas industry, chastened by attacks on fracking, "is trying to lose some of its swagger" and look for ways to improve its image.

"Industry officials are giving more attention to courting communities new to drilling," the energy news site reported. "They are sometimes taking a less combative approach to new regulations. Some also have come to recognize that their 'jobs, jobs, jobs' message isn't resonating with some who aren't benefiting from the nationwide surge in drilling."


Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, the industry's top trade association, acknowledged the concerns. "Can it be done safely, and how will it affect my community? These are legitimate questions. ... This conference is just one way to show we're committed to doing this right."

Scott Anderson of the Environmental Defense Fund attended the conference and told E&E that he welcomed the apparent shift. "But it remains to be seen whether all companies have the willingness or the ability to implement in the field what their operating manuals say they should do," he said.

Western North Dakota, while enjoying unprecedented development and employment, has strained to keep up with infrastructure, including roads and housing. The industry also has heard criticism from landowners concerned about industry impacts on water and land resources and quality of life.

At the Pittsburgh conference, "engineers and geologists discussed ways to prevent their trucks from creating rural gridlock, the importance of recycling wastewater and how to explain to people unfamiliar with fracturing that it occurs a mile or more beneath drinkable groundwater," E&E reported. "And there was a reminder to do 'basic housekeeping' to keep well pads looking neat and clean."

They talked about seeking a "social license to operate" through better cooperation with local communities and interest groups and doing more to deal with side effects of booming industrialization.

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send email to

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