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EDITORIAL: N.D. must face risks as part of the oil boom

All of a sudden, there’s an outcry about the pace of oil development in North Dakota.

Well, it’s a little bit late.

In the last half decade, North Dakota has gone from ninth to second among oil-producing states. Production will exceed 1 million barrels a day before the end of the year. The state’s wide open spaces, its pastoral ambience and its wildlife resources have already been degraded

Some of this could have been avoided if we’d taken more care earlier.

But we didn’t.

Now, it’s hard to see how the pace can be slowed. As Harold Hamm, CEO of Continental Resources, a major producer, pointed out, the exploration phase is pretty much behind us. Now we’re in the production phase of the oil boom.

And since North Dakota has limited refinery capacity, all of that oil has to go somewhere.

And it’s going by train.

As much as 90 percent of the state’s oil will move by rail, state mineral officials have said.

One reason is that railroads already are in place. New construction is needed for loading facilities, but these are relatively easy to put in place, especially compared to pipelines.

Pipelines are a regulatory nightmare. Just consider the Keystone Xcel line, first proposed more than a decade ago. Still no pipe.

Pipelines have an additional disadvantage. Each goes to a specific destination. Trains can go anywhere there are tracks. Shipping by rail means producers can reach more markets and fetch higher prices.

That doesn’t mean the public ought to put up with catastrophic train wrecks, like the one that killed 47 people in Quebec last summer or the one that forced the evacuation of a North Dakota town last week.

These incidents prove the superiority of pipelines. They are safer.

Given the realities of regulation and the markets, however, trains are likely a permanent part of the Bakken oil boom, and the boom isn’t going away any time soon.

What’s needed is more attention to safety on trains and to quick response to train accidents.

To begin with, tracks and train cars must be inspected regularly. It may be that part of the fleet of tanker cars should be replaced. It may be that some track should be repaired. Cargo needs to be identified. The train that blew up in Quebec had been mislabeled, investigators found.

Let’s get on those issues right away.

And let’s do a better, more through job than the state did in permitting a waste pit near the well that provides drinking water to a small town in the oil patch. Regulators should have known the well was there. It’s part of the wellhead protection program that’s long been a fixture of state regulation.

In response a member of the county commission there asked, “Do we need more people or do we need to slow it down?”

Slowing it down isn’t realistic.

So the answer is, we need to be more careful. We need to know where water wells are. We need to know what trains are carrying. We need to know that the tracks and tanker cars are safe.

We need to be prepared for accidents that might happen.

All of this is urgent, because oil is a fact of life in North Dakota, with the risks and the benefits that it presents. ___

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