North Dakota is a nasty, oily mess, and nobody bothered to tell anyone who lives there. Since 2012, there have been nearly 750 "oil field incidents" in the boomtown state, none of which were reported to the public. According to records obtained by the Associated Press, nearly 300 of these were serious spills.
That's a little insane. Oil spills are drenching wilderness, farmland, and public lands, and said public often has no idea it's happening. That's because North Dakota law doesn't require either oil companies or public officials to inform the citizenry that toxic fluids are bursting out of pipelines and oozing from extraction sites.
The Associated Press thinks the policy is a little reckless:
"North Dakota regulators, like in many other oil-producing states, are not obliged to tell the public about oil spills under state law," reporter James MacPherson writes. "But in a state that's producing a million barrels a day and saw nearly 2,500 miles of new pipelines last year, many believe the risk of spills will increase, posing a bigger threat to farmland and water."
Yeah, that's a pretty easy case to make. Imagine 1,000,000 barrels of oil flowing through an ever-growing labyrinth of poorly-maintained pipeline—all against a political and commercial backdrop where a goldrush mentality reigns supreme. That's a recipe for disaster. 750 of them, even. But if the public never has to know, there's less incentive to properly address them, clean them up, or prevent other events from happening in the future.
To wit: According to a 2009 ProPublica report, "North Dakota saw a 987 percent increase in new wells drilled each year since 2003, but took 13 percent fewer enforcement actions, even though it added five regulators." In other words, there's a boatload more drilling, but less regulatory enforcement than ever. It's a safe bet that the regulators' and oil companies' lack of accountability to the public plays a role in keeping that figure so low.
And then, once in a while, a major oil spill appears out of nowhere and surprises everyone. Even though they really happen all the time. Steve Jensen is a good example. He was tilling his field when he noticed black goop bubbling up in a part of his 1,800 acre wheat farm that an Exxon pipeline runs below. Pretty soon, he realized that it was oil; the pipeline had ruptured underground, and coated his farm in six inches of toxic sludge.
Fox News called it "the largest oil spill on US soil." And that's what it takes to hear about an oil spill in North Dakota—record-breaking disasters. Hundreds of others occur every few months without even a headline, much less an outcry.
But fear not, the government is responding to criticisms of its opaque, oily cover-up ways—with a website. The San Francisco Chronicle explains: "Soon after the AP published its report Friday, the Health Department announced it is testing a website to publish information on all spills reported to the department."
The idea is to offer citizens a digital portal into how much of a sludge-covered mess their neck of the North Dakotan woods is at any given time. But given how well government websites have been working of late, I wouldn't hold my breath.