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‘Interested party’ definition draws fire at oil and gas rules hearing

Wendy Hart Ross, National Park Service superintendent at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, testifies against a rule change proposed by the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources that she says would limit the federal agency's ability to comment on oil and gas permits during a public hearing Monday, April 11, 2016, in Bismarck, N.D. (Photo by Mike Nowatzki / Forum News Service)

BISMARCK – Conservation groups, labor unions and the National Park Service on Monday slammed a proposed rule that they worry would limit public input on oil and gas matters by defining an “interested party” as a landowner or property manager.

“I just can’t fathom why you would want to be known as the North Dakota government body that makes its citizens unwelcome,” Laura Anhalt of Bismarck, a Badlands Conservation Alliance board member, testified during a public hearing held by the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources.

About 50 people attended Monday’s hearing in Bismarck, the first of four this week in western North Dakota on the department’s proposed rule changes that regulators say aim to reduce spills and minimize the environmental impacts of oil and gas development.

Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms said the proposed definition for “interested party” – currently there isn’t one in the administrative rules – aims to clarify who has legal standing in oil and gas permit hearings, which are legal proceedings.

He said those who appear to have no legal standing are testifying at hearings with “increasing frequency,” but he still believes rulemakings on broader issues such as flaring and oil conditioning “should be a wide-open process.”

The proposed rule would define interested party as “an individual or number of individuals that have a property ownership or management interest in or adjacent to the subject matter.”

Theodore Roosevelt National Park Superintendent Wendy Ross said the language appears to limit the National Park Service’s ability to comment on permits that impact its sites.

Ross said the agency has testified at dozens of hearings since 2010, and while many involved lands not directly adjacent to park service properties or managed by the agency, it has an interest in preserving the visitor experience.

“Park resources that reach beyond the authorized boundaries are difficult to preserve, and this is the only available state process to address oil and gas impacts on these lands,” she testified.

Bismarck resident Eric Thompson said anyone who breathes air or drinks water is potentially affected by oil and gas development.

“Basically, anything that’s alive is an interested party in these issues. The only things that would not be listed are rocks,” he said.

No one spoke in opposition to the other proposed rules, which include new bonding requirements and guidelines for installing saltwater gathering pipelines, mandated 1-foot perimeter dikes around well sites and requirements for third-party inspections.

Kevin Pranis of the Laborers’ International Union of North America said thousands of its members have worked on North Dakota pipelines, and the new rules could move the state “from the back of the pack to the front of the pack nationally” in terms of standards for gathering pipelines.  

But he, too, opposed the new definition, saying it “would prevent the people who know the most about the process of building and maintaining pipelines from having any part in the regulatory process.”

North Dakota Petroleum Council President Ron Ness said the industry is trying to find a way to separate comments from landowners, mineral owners and permit applicants who have a direct stake in a permit from those who aren’t directly involved but may try to gain a competitive or economic advantage by testifying.

“The challenge is when you have competing interests, how do you determine where the weight should be given?” he said, noting the council is still formulating written comments on the rules.

The hearings continue Tuesday in Dickinson, Wednesday in Williston and Thursday in Minot. Written comments will be accepted through 5 p.m. April 25.

The earliest the new rules could take effect is Oct. 1 if the Industrial Commission approves them at its June or July meeting, Helms said.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.