N.D. changes scenic preservation plan under pressure
Mike Lee, E&E reporter
Published: Thursday, January 23, 2014
North Dakota oil and gas regulators are reconsidering a plan to protect scenic areas after getting feedback from the oil industry and a landowners’ group.
The three-member Industrial Commission had been discussing adopting a statewide regulation protecting 18 “extraordinary places” around the state. The commission — made up of Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R), Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem (R) and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring — decided yesterday to pursue the idea as an agency policy, an approach that has fewer legal protections than a formal rule.
Writing a formal regulation would have taken months and could have given people the right to protest or even sue the state over drilling permits in protected areas, Stenehjem said in a phone interview.
“What I’m intending is, give everyone the right to have their say, but we can’t give everyone their way,” Stenehjem said in a telephone interview.
Dalrymple supports the change.
“The concept of protecting extraordinary places is intact — it’s a question of how that process is worked out,” Jeff Zent, a spokesman for Dalrymple, said in an interview.
The commission is scheduled to vote on the revised plan Jan. 29.
North Dakota’s oil production has risen tenfold in less than a decade to 973,000 barrels in October as drillers tap into the Bakken Shale formation. The boom made North Dakota the No. 2 oil-producing state after Texas and brought jobs and tax revenue to the state. It’s led to a backlash, though, from residents concerned about traffic, noise and pollution.
Stenehjem introduced the plan in December. It would have created a buffer of as much as 2 miles around areas like the Little Missouri River and the Elkhorn Ranch, which was Theodore Roosevelt’s home in North Dakota. Drillers seeking new permits in those areas would have had to submit impact plans showing how they intended to mitigate the effects of drilling.
Much of the land that Stenehjem has targeted for preservation is privately owned, though. The Tulsa, Okla.-based Royalty Owners and Producers Education Coalition, a nonprofit group backed by some of North Dakota’s oil producers, sent an “action alert” urging landowners to oppose the plan.
“Nearly a million acres of private land across the Peace Garden State may soon be restricted or even condemned,” the group said on its website. “If you thought a royalty check was coming your way, your wells may not be drilled.”
The opposition argument is “off-the-wall stuff” by North Dakota standards, said Don Morrison, executive director of the Dakota Resource Council. He said changing the proposal may be a way to get it approved by the Industrial Commission.
“We still support it,” Morrison said. “These are the kinds of things that should have been done a long time ago.”
The plan was unneeded, since there’s been no outcry about drilling near state parks and other scenic areas, said Jerry Simmons, the coalition’s executive vice president.
“They’ve got a permitting system now — it seems kind of silly to put another layer on,” Simmons said.
Under the new proposal, drillers in the buffer areas would still have to submit impact statements, and the public could still comment on them, Stenehjem said.
The process won’t be worth as much without the legal protection of a formal regulation, said Mindi Grieve, a state organizer with the Environmental Law and Policy Coalition. Grieve and other environmentalists worked on the regulations before Stenehjem proposed them.
“If there’s no consequences, what’s the difference?” she said.