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Other Views: A change in pipeline regulation?

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead

Call it an epiphany. Call it recognition of reality. Call it a smart read of rapidly evolving perceptions among North Dakotans.

Whatever the motivation or stimulus, Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s decision to pay closer attention to pipeline safety is welcome news. The governor said he will form an advisory panel that will, among other things, consider whether the state should step up regulation in concert with appropriate federal regulators. It’s a step in the right direction.

What happened? Why, in a state that often is stupidly proud of its lax regulatory regime, is the governor taking the lead in an effort that could, and should, hold to better account operators of oil, salt water and natural gas pipelines? A spate of bad news, that’s why.

In the past couple of months, three stories put pipeline safety in a harsh spotlight. First, a crude oil line near Tioga sprung a leak that not only spilled more than 26,000 barrels of oil onto the land but also was not detected quickly or reported to the public for weeks. Second, an investigative report revealed that some 300 oil “spills” of various sizes and impacts during a three-year period were not reported to the public. Third, a report found that spills of toxic saltwater, which can be more damaging to soil and water than oil, totaled some 2.3 million gallons in the past 22 months. The toxic salt water is a byproduct of oil and gas development.

All the reports came from oil boom country. The news stories caught the attention of North Dakotans in every part of the state. They have started to understand the major (and until now unreported) damage oil development is visiting on the western landscape. As a result, regulators and politicians are reacting.

The governor gets it. In announcing his intentions for a pipeline safety advisory panel, he said: “I think we should be very interested in this because obviously anytime you have a 20,000-barrel spill, you know, that changes everyone’s attitude toward possible problems.”

Obviously, indeed.

It’s too late for spill and leak damage already done. But it’s not too late to get tougher than the state has been about demanding technological fixes and other means to prevent as many pipeline failures as possible. The state’s political leaders and regulation officials, led by the governor, seem to be getting the message.