The Corner

That Bird Story in the Debate

From transcript of last night’s debate:

ROMNEY: Well, let’s look at the president’s policies, all right, as opposed to the rhetoric, because we’ve had four years of policies being played out. And the president’s right in terms of the additional oil production, but none of it came on federal land. As a matter of fact, oil production is down 14 percent this year on federal land, and gas production was down 9 percent. Why? Because the president cut in half the number of licenses and permits for drilling on federal lands, and in federal waters.

So where’d the increase come from? Well a lot of it came from the Bakken Range in North Dakota. What was his participation there? The administration brought a criminal action against the people drilling up there for oil, this massive new resource we have. And what was the cost? 20 or 25 birds were killed and brought out a migratory bird act to go after them on a criminal basis.

Forbes’ Christopher Helman wrote a good account of what occurred earlier this year:

Last summer the U.S. Department of Justice, acting on allegations made by agents of the U.S Fish & Wildlife Service, brought criminal indictments against three oil companies operating in the Bakken shale oil field of North Dakota. Brigham Oil & Gas, Newfield Production, and Continental Resources were charged with violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Brigham was charged with unlawfully killing two mallards, Newfield with killing two mallards, one northern pintail and one red-necked duck. Continental was charged with killing one bird called a say’s phoebe. All of the birds, according to the Wildlife Service investigation, fell victim to the oil companies’ “reserve pits” – basically big holes dug into the ground to collect wastewater and mud from drilling operations. Birds can get into these ponds when they’re not properly netted, get covered in oily muck, and die.

Is having birds die in your reserve pits a criminal act? The government seems to think so. Or maybe the DOJ was just looking for reasons to hassle oil companies working to develop the biggest oil field in the nation. That was sure the way it seemed to Harold Hamm, the billionaire founder of Continental Resources, the biggest player in the Bakken. In a statement Tuesday, Hamm said, “Continental Resources has been operating in North Dakota for more than a quarter of a century. We are good stewards of the land and make it a priority to follow all existing laws and regulations. This has been a costly and time-consuming case that has inhibited our ability to increase our nation’s energy independence, strengthen our economy and create jobs.”

On Tuesday, Judge Daniel Hovland of the U.S. District Court in North Dakota sided with Hamm and the other oil companies, granting their motion to dismiss the charges. 

So yes, amid an oil boom in North Dakota that was creating many jobs in a recession, the federal government decided to swoop in (sorry) and file a lawsuit over a few birds dying. 

Katrina TrinkoKatrina Trinko is a political reporter for National Review. Trinko is also a member of USA TODAY’S Board of Contributors, and her work has been published in various media outlets ...


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