North Dakota: we’re known for oil and gas, that one movie called ‘Fargo,’ the NDSU Bison football team, and of course, being nice (sometimes to a fault).
North Dakota’s recent history, the Bakken, and the apparent lack of state oil and gas regulations were the topics of the most recent episode of the HBO series ‘Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.’ The late-night series, hosted by former ‘Daily Show with Jon Stewart’ writer and correspondent, reviews the events of the past seven days, covering topics such as politics and current events wrapped neatly in satirical wit.
North Dakota, which Oliver also refers to as “South DaCanada,” has become quite used to being ignored, and this lack of attention is often a source of pride. Even the visitor centers have embraced the unpopularity, offering ‘Best for last’ tee-shirts. While the oil boom has resulted in ongoing national media coverage, ‘Last Week Tonight’ is using the pause offered by low oil prices to look at “What the hell happened” in North Dakota.
Oliver hits on points such as the environmental impact the oil boom has had on the state, worker safety, penalties for oil and gas producers, the lack of a state ethics commission, campaign finances and our ‘Be Polite’ billboards. All of this, however, is in spite of job creation, wealth, ABC’s ‘Blood and Oil’ drama and the resulting reduction of net oil and gas imports nationwide.
Citing a report by the New York Times, Oliver states that since the beginning of the boom, over 18 million gallons of oil have been released into the environment. He also illustrates how North Dakota approaches penalizing the companies responsible. Regarding companies paying fines resulting from, for example an oil spill, Oliver said, “Oil companies in North Dakota pay for their mistakes the same way that 4-year-olds pay for their toys: very rarely, and when they do, it’s mostly just a symbolic gesture.”
Repeat violations are rare though, according to Lynn Helms, director the state’s oil and gas regulatory body. But as Oliver points out, there is uncertainty regarding what makes a repeat violation. Despite what look like loopholes in the system, the fact remains that North Dakota is business friendly, as described by the “highly charismatic” Gov. Jack Dalrymple.
He also hits on the topic of oil field worker safety, referring to a report by Reveal earlier this year that stated there is a work related death once every six weeks in North Dakota. There are few incentives for safety, Oliver says, pointing to the eight Occupational Safety and Health Administration compliance officers there are tasked with inspecting worksites in both North and South Dakota.
State Rep. Corey Mock (D-Grand Forks) was shown in the part of the episode where Oliver talks about the state’s business friendly nature and how lawmakers aren’t required to spend campaign funds entirely on the race. He told the Forum News Service that for the most part, the state was portrayed accurately.
He said, “It is refreshing that people are paying attention to these issues. Of course, he brings levity, comedy and even a little ridicule at our expense to bring out that point … It was hard hitting, and I think North Dakota as a state, and we as a people, have some soul searching to do on whether or not any of those issues truly still exist and what are we going to do about them.”
In a call to action, Oliver suggests that rather than being polite and nice, like the billboards so graciously suggest, we should get angry about what is happening to our state. The show even purchased billboard space in Minot, which reads, “Be Angry. (Please.)” This message, though, was quickly met with opposition from Fargo-based Sky Digital Advertising which retorted with 10 billboards featuring a sullen looking John Oliver with the message, “Hey John Oliver, don’t be angry. Be ‘North Dakota’ nice. (It really works.)”
Concluding the episode, Oliver says, “North Dakota, please listen, I get it, you’re friendly and that’s fantastic … but this has gone too far. Oil companies need to be held accountable when bad things happen.”