WATCH: John Oliver Lets Big Oil Have It: North Dakota Boom Is Literally Killing People


In Sunday evening’s Last Week Tonight, John Oliver went after the state of North Dakota, or as he called it, “south of Canada.” The state has been experiencing both a boom and bust thanks to an uptick in oil drilling and fracking. Boom because it’s making people a ton of money and reduces the dependency on foreign oil. A bust because it’s literally destroying the state and killing people.

The Bakken Formation is a 200,000-square-mile “rock unit” located in the northwest portion of the state, and named after Henry Bakken who is basically the Jed Clampett of North Dakota oil drilling. The formation itself has about 3.0 to 4.3 billion barrels of oil according to the USGS. It’s about 25 percent more than they initially thought it was. Yes, “like Channing Tatum, North Dakota suddenly turned out to be a lot more interesting once it was covered in oil.”

Since the oil boom, the state has had several environmental disasters that has demolished farmland. Oliver showed footage of one farmer whose land had a saltwater spill, which at first doesn’t have a huge impact, but over time strips the land of all of its nutrients. In fact, there has been as much as 18 million chemicals and oilspilled onto the North Dakota land in just 8 years time. That doesn’t count 5.2 million gallons of non-toxic substances, mostly fresh water, the oil industry admits to spilling in that time, which can severely alter the ecosystem. Plus, what do they consider to be “non-toxic?”

But the worst part is not that the drilling is hurting farmers, it’s that it’s actually killing people. North Dakota’s increase in oil production kills at least one person every six weeks on average. Perhaps because the boom happened so quickly, North Dakota has so few regulations that oil companies are getting off with a slap on the wrist. Actually, most get off with less than that. It’s surprising that they even show up to court anymore.

“North Dakota, please listen,” Oliver began. “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.”

Thanks to North Dakota being a so-called “right to work” state, there’s no way for employees to collectively bargain to demand better safety and working conditions. One employee claimed he once worked 69 hours straight, which can probably contribute to accidents and mistakes in the field that are killing people every six weeks. One man and three others were injured when a blowout, a.k.a an explosion, happened in a field owned by Oasis Petroleum. No one is helping to make this a better safer place to work. North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple is instead doing everything he can to get oil companies to come to his state. He even goes so far as to promise tax breaks and lower regulatory oversight as an incentive. Not helpful Jack.

“He’s making North Dakota sound like a magical pro-business utopia,” Oliver said. “Like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, which, come to think of it, had about the same safety record as North Dakota’s oil fields.”

Dalrymlpe’s questionable ethics aren’t even half of the problem. One politician took tons of money from the oil companies and then claimed he could use the leftover campaign cash for “income.” Which, it turns out, he can because North Dakota doesn’t have an ethics committee. Nor does it have any civil litigation from the families of the every-6-weeks dead people, because workers are required to sign contracts absolving companies from any liability in the event of death or injury. Oliver says it’s so bad “FIFA just found the location of its new international headquarters.” The regulations are so awful even Texas eclipses North Dakota in oversight and regulation. That’s really saying something.

To inspire the good people of North Dakota, “Last Week Tonight” wanted to help. They devised an ad and a billboard campaign which accurately captures the plight of a people being taken advantage of by oil companies. Check it out:

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