ND officials debate need for list of ‘special places’ to be protected
FARGO — A divided North Dakota Industrial Commission soon will decide whether to designate special places subject to development restrictions to protect them from oil drilling or other development.
The commission has discussed the possibility of a list of special sites for half a year, and Gov. Jack Dalrymple proposed more than 40 candidate sites on a tour in late August.
Spots include Little Missouri State Park, where Dalrymple made his announcement, Killdeer Mountain, roadless areas in the Little Missouri National Grasslands and the units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem also is compiling a list and formulating a policy for “extraordinary places” that also will include the Little Missouri River as it winds through the western North Dakota Badlands.
Stenehjem planned to present his proposal to his fellow Industrial Commission members at the group’s Nov. 18 meeting, but he told The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead’s editorial board last week that it’s more likely that he will do so at the meeting slated for Dec. 19.
“There’s a lot of beautiful areas out there,” Stenehjem said, adding that the commission, which approves drilling permits, already imposes restrictions to try to minimize impacts.
However, he said, a formal procedure has been lacking, with decisions made on a case-by-case basis as the commission reviews drilling permits.
“I’m working on a plan I can present,” with requirements spelled out in administrative rules that, if passed under emergency provisions, could take effect early next year, Stenehjem said.
Public hearings and opportunities for public comment are included in the rule-making process, he said. Some conservation advocates have complained that the process of designating special places so far has not been open to public participation.
Restrictions could include requiring wells to be located a long distance from special places – say, two miles – or requiring pipe placement to avoid flaring natural gas, he said.
“Just a whole lot of things can be done,” Stenehjem said.
The attorney general said he has met informally with representatives of the oil industry as well as conservation groups to ensure support for his proposal.
In reviewing permits, the commission must balance the rights of mineral holders against the duty to protect landscapes, and must let the public be heard, Stenehjem said.
Devising a list of special places and procedures for developing around the sites would provide the industry greater clarity about how to proceed in certain areas, he said.
“I think industry might be happy if they know what that area is,” he added.
As an example, he said the commission required XTO to drill a well two miles from the Elkhorn Ranch, a unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and a ranch home of the great conservation president, instead of nearby, as the company originally proposed.
“I knew we were never going to put a well on the Elkhorn Ranch,” Stenehjem said.
Besides the Elkhorn Ranch and Little Missouri River, Stenehjem mentioned Killdeer Mountain and battlefield sites, Bullion Butte, and the national and state parks.
The lists Dalrymple and Stenehjem are contemplating appear to have a lot of overlaps, but the third member of the industrial commission, Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, said he is not in favor of such lists.
“When you talk about special places, I would consider all of North Dakota special,” Goehring said. “It’s going to be case by case because every site’s unique,” he added, referring to the review of drilling permits.
“I would say we’re doing a good job of doing that, making sure there are stipulations that it’s developed in a responsible manner,” Goehring said, including reclamation requirements for wells and tank clusters.
Goehring has compiled a list of permits that have been issued with stipulations or were rejected, including a running total of the number of acres involved.
Over the past year, 2,741 permits were submitted to the Industrial Commission involving development of about 3.5 million mineral acres.
Of that total, 268 permits involved an “area of concern,” totaling about 343,000 acres.
Thirty-five of those permits, involving 45,000 acres, were rejected. Well placements on another 49 permits encompassing 63,000 acres were modified due to concerns about topography, erosion, watershed or soils.
In a final category, 463 permits affecting 560,000 mineral acres were approved with stipulations, such as shallow aquifer or surface water protection.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Goehring said. “A lot of things I think are beautiful, people pooh-pooh,” including farm fields.
Goehring said he is concerned that if certain places are designated as special, restrictions on agricultural land eventually could result.
“Because there’s people there who would like to see us go back to buffalo commons,” Goehring said, referring to a prediction 20 years ago that vast tracts of the Great Plains would revert to sprawling rangeland for wild game, including buffalo.