BISMARCK — North Dakota lawmakers voted overwhelmingly against a bill on Wednesday, Jan. 20, aimed at holding oil executives accountable for environmental negligence.

Senate Bill 2064, which would have allowed the state to directly penalize high-ranking corporate officers for failures to responsibly address oil spills, was brought forward by top industry regulators but drew resounding opposition from the Republican-dominated Senate.

“The committee was concerned about the fact that we have corporations and partnerships that provide protection for certain individuals, and we felt that by passing this bill we would violate those protections," said Sen. Jim Roers, R-Fargo, whose Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee advised lawmakers to vote against the bill earlier this month. Roers noted that the bill sought to address just two specific instances in recent years, marking a phenomenon that he argued was too rare to warrant major changes to the law.

But one proponent of the bill argued that regulators from the Department of Mineral Resources and the Industrial Commission, which introduced the bill, have historically taken a friendly tack with the oil industry and suggested that any punitive push coming from the state regulators would not be overly burdensome for oil companies.

"I believe generally speaking, the department has helped create a very favorable business climate for the oil industry," said Sen. Merrill Piepkorn, D-Fargo, who argued that state energy overseers do not have a record of over-regulation. "So when this one small add to already existing law, to make it possible to pursue offenders and violators of the law here in North Dakota, I think it’s a legitimate insertion."

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In testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee earlier this month, Lynn Helms, North Dakota's top oil industry regulator, cited two blatant omissions of responsibility by oil companies in response to recent spills, which he said were the collateral of oil industry pressures resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic price collapse. In both instances, oil executives openly shirked responsibility for the cleanup, Helms said, with one corporate officer informing regulators, "We do not plan to send anyone to address the issue."

Combined, the two spills cost the state upwards of $1 million, according to Helms.

In both cases, Helms noted that all of the assets of the offending companies were moved out of North Dakota after the incident, preventing the state from holding them financially liable under current laws. The Department of Mineral Resources director added that he saw the penalty avenue opened up by the bill as a "last resort," only to be applied narrowly and for rare, bad-acting companies — the 1%, by his estimation.

Still, lawmakers opposing the bill said the isolated cases did not warrant the severity of response outlined in the legislation. The change would have amounted to "a shotgun approach to solve a very small problem," said Sen. Donald Schaible, R-Mott, citing industry input in his case against the bill on the Senate floor. "Even though there’s two bad actors, it did cost the state some money, we thought it was the idea that this was too much of an overreach for that control," he said.

The bill failed on the Senate floor by a vote of 37-7, with votes falling along party lines. In addition to Piepkorn, Sen. JoNell Bakke, D-Grand Forks, Sen. Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, Sen. Kathy Hogan, D-Fargo, Sen. Richard Marcellais, D-Belcourt, Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, and Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, supported the bill, while all Republicans present opposed it.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.