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Romney's charge: Obama used bird deaths to attack Bakken oil producers. True?

In the debate, GOP candidate Romney points to unusual federal prosecution of oil companies in North Dakota for 28 bird deaths. Was the Obama administration taking on the oil industry?

By Contributor / October 17, 2012

In this 2011 file photo, Austin Mitchell walks away from an oil derrick outside of Williston, N.D. In Tuesday's presidential debate, GOP candidate Mitt Romney attacked President Obama for prosecuting oil companies in North Dakota over the death of 28 birds.

Gregory Bull/AP/File

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First, Big Bird, now Bakken birds. 

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In Tuesday's presidential debate, GOP candidate Mitt Romney attacked the Obama administration for bringing criminal charges against oil companies drilling in North Dakota's Bakken shale oil fields, one of the country's most productive sources of oil.

"The administration brought a criminal action against the people drilling up there for oil, this massive new resource we have," Mr. Romney said. "And what was the cost? Twenty or 25 birds were killed and [they] brought out a migratory bird act to go after them on a criminal basis." 

The claim is true.  

In 2011, the federal government charged seven oil companies with violating the Migratory Bird Act after federal agents discovered 28 dead birds near open reserve pits. 

Prosecutors dismissed charges against one of the companies and reached plea agreements with three others.

The remaining three companies, Brigham Oil & Gas LP, Newfield Production Co., and Continental Resources Co., fought the charges and won. US District Judge Daniel Hovland ruled in January that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act does not criminalize the unintended killing of birds through commercial activity. 

"To criminalize lawful commercial activity conducted in the oil fields of North Dakota, which may indirectly effect migratory birds, was never contemplated under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act enacted by Congress in 1918," Judge Hovland wrote.

Why, then, did the government raise a fuss over what appeared to be the accidental death of a relatively low number of birds? After all, glass windows may account for 97 million to 976 million bird deaths a year, according to the US Fish & Wildlife Service

For Harold Hamm, the chairman and CEO of Continental Resources, and one of the targets of the charges, the answer lies in what he says is the Obama administration's aversion to oil and coal power.

"Basically, this thing started with a threat to the industry," Mr. Hamm told the Associated Press after Hovland's ruling. "They were going to come get us. They were going to come after us.”

Mr. Hamm backs Romney for president, according to the Washington Post. The 66-year-old billionaire hosted a fundraiser for Romney this summer, and donated $985,000 to Restore Our Future, a pro-Romney super PAC.

Officials in North Dakota deny allegations that the charges were part of a larger effort to curtail oil and gas production.

“This was a case that was handled … in North Dakota, and the professional prosecutors and professional law enforcement agents that worked on this case handled this case like they handle any other case,” Tim Purdon, North Dakota’s US attorney, told the Associated Press, after the ruling.

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