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Zaleski: New voice for ND's oil policy?

Jack Zaleski, The Forum Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

A friend of mine, who is master of the cynical understatement, and knows his state well, observes: "North Dakota has the best Legislature the oil industry can buy." Yeah, it's cynical, but it's true. Legislation and regulations that could have been written in oil company boardrooms confirm as much. Not only is the oil tax structure one of the most generous in the nation, but also, the last session of the super majority Republican Legislature shredded portions of the regulatory regime that is supposed to protect the state's land and water. High-fives among oil execs when their tools in the Capitol again put the industry's polluting extraction priorities ahead of long-term environmental stewardship.

Nothing really was new in the results of the 2017 session. It was continuation of the majority's reliable, brazen and ultimately damaging oil-friendly doctrine. What was new is that the state's newly minted and allegedly visionary governor, Fargo entrepreneur and philanthropist Doug Burgum, went along with it. He was complicit in weakening regulations that govern the reporting of oil spills and well fluid spills because he signed legislation into law, apparently without concern for (or knowledge of?) the long-term cumulative consequences of disregarding hundreds of "small" spills. To be fair, Gov. Burgum was the new kid on the block when the 2017 Legislature convened. He'd just come off landslide primary and election wins during which he upended the Republican establishment, belittled revenue projections, and relentlessly censured the Republican Legislature's oil-fueled spending spree. He pretty much said they were an incompetent gaggle of good-ol'-boys. He preached about inefficiencies in government, again impugning the competence of Republican lawmakers and state office holders, who have been in control of state government for decades. They were not happy. They'd been grievously insulted by the Republican candidate. They were outraged, and itching to "take that kid from Fargo to the woodshed."

Given that political milieu, it looks like the governor put the brakes on implementing his grandiose themes of innovation, efficiency, modernization, and a new vision. Instead, he mended fences, forged working relationships and actually deigned to learn that a governor's role is different from a CEO's. In that holding pattern, there is little evidence of significant pragmatic innovation, or an inspired new vision for governance, or a more reflective and enlightened energy strategy.

Regarding energy and oil: Several thoughtful North Dakotans are talking, informally so far, of creating a strong and informed voice on sound energy policy as a counterweight to the Legislature's biennial deferral to the industry. It's a bipartisan/nonpartisan discussion that includes legislators, former legislators, business owners, farmers and ranchers, former and active media people, retired natural resource managers and others. The universal concerns:

• That the state's agenda, as defined by the Legislature and agencies of state government, tilts too far in favor of oil and gas development at the expense of land, water, community and economic diversification.

• That the stubborn oil recession and subsequent revenue chaos demonstrate that reliance on oil as one of the state's economic kingpins is and will always be a serious mistake.

• That North Dakota's values are rooted in conservation, stewardship and enhancement of land, water and air. And that wise public policy must embody those values.

The timing might be right. Stay tuned.

Zaleski retired in February after nearly 30 years as The Forum’s editorial page editor. He will continue to write a Sunday column. Contact him at jzaleski@forumcomm.com or (701) 241-5521

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