UPDATE, Oct. 15, 2015: This story updates with new information on the dueling billboards that appeared after Sunday’s airing of “Last Week Tonight.”
Comedian John Oliver’s rallying cry for North Dakotans to get angry at the oil industry for dodging accountability in workers’ deaths was met with a barrage of billboards across North Dakota on Tuesday countering his message.
“Hey John Oliver, don’t be angry. Be North Dakota Nice. (It really works.),” the digital billboards say.
Oliver’s HBO news satire show, “Last Week Tonight,” announced Sunday that it had bought a billboard in Minot urging folks to “Be Angry. (Please.)”
“The reason we put the billboards up was to say, ‘Hey, be nice, don’t be angry,’ ” said Paul Hilt, sales manager at Sky Digital Advertising, based in Fargo. “We trust the people that we have in place to handle those issues. There is nothing political behind it.”
The billboards went up from dawn to dusk Tuesday in 10 cities across the state, including Bismarck, Devils Lake and Grand Forks.
Hilt would not disclose the identity of the individual or group that bought the billboards, nor would he say how much the buyer spent.
In the segment, Oliver noted that North Dakota already had billboards urging people to be polite. “I get it, you’re friendly and that’s fantastic,” Oliver said.
“This has gone too far. Oil companies need to be held accountable when bad things happen,” he added.
The show focused on North Dakota’s recent oil boom, which has claimed dozens of lives and produced a string of oil and wastewater spills amid lax oversight. Oliver cited the findings of a Reveal investigation, which found that at least 74 workers have died in the Bakken oil fields since 2006. Oliver also highlighted Reveal’s reporting on the deeply entrenched corporate practices and weak federal oversight that inoculate energy producers against responsibility when workers get hurt by shifting the blame to others.
“If every time you parked in front of a fire hydrant, someone else got a ticket, you’d probably be a lot less inclined to drive around the block looking for open parking spaces,” Oliver said. “The danger involved in the oil industry makes it a little different.”
The show bought a billboard along a road in Minot, North Dakota, that urges folks to “Be Angry. (Please.)”
The investigation has prompted the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to step up enforcement to hold major oil companies accountable for workers’ deaths and begin scrutinizing bonuses given out to oil workers who work faster. In addition, North Dakota state lawmakers are preparing two bills that would increase the number of state inspectors investigating accidents in the oil fields and block energy companies from shirking responsibility when workers are hurt. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which investigates the causes of workplace health problems, also announced an unprecedented study to examine the factors underlying injuries and accidents in the Bakken oil fields.
Reveal also commissioned “North by Inferno,” a play based on the investigation produced by StoryWorks, a theater project that brings investigative stories to the stage. The play opened this fall in North Dakota and will move to the San Francisco Bay Area in November.
This story was edited by Fernando Diaz and copy edited by Nikki Frick.