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Stenehjem unveils list of 'extraordinary' sites, proposed requirements for drilling on them

North Dakota Industrial Commission members, from left, Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, Gov. Jack Dalrymple and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem discuss a proposal Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, in Bismarck to mitigate oil development impacts in areas of extraordinary significance. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

BISMARCK – Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem drew mixed reactions Thursday to his much-anticipated list of “extraordinary places” in North Dakota and an accompanying set of proposed rules designed to minimize the impacts of oil drilling.

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A standing-room-only crowd of about 50 people packed the Capitol’s quaint Harvest Room to hear Stenehjem unveil his list of 18 places and the draft rules to his fellow Industrial Commission members, Gov. Jack Dalrymple and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring.

Stenehjem said designating sites such as White Butte, Elkhorn Ranch, Lake Sakakawea and the 15 other places on his list “does not prevent the development of any of the minerals in those areas.”

Rather, he said his proposal would create a more formal process for accepting public and professional input and ensure that everything possible is being done to minimize impacts.

Drilling proposed near Elkhorn Ranch and Killdeer Mountain this year led to a public uproar because “the public generally does not feel that they have an adequate or meaningful opportunity” to be heard in such cases, Stenehjem said.

“This process gives everybody a right to their say, but it doesn’t give everybody a right to their way,” he said.

Stenehjem’s proposal drew immediate pushback from Goehring and Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council.

Ness said he’s concerned that the discussion had veered into the visual impacts of oil development, questioning what that could mean not only for the oil industry but also for wind turbines and farmers’ grain bins. He said sometimes the best place for an oil well isn’t in a hidden lowland but in a visible area such as a hilltop where it has less environmental impact.

“We’re going to review the list very closely, obviously, but I think there’s a big red flag there on what visual impacts really mean,” he said after the meeting.

Goehring raised concerns that redundancy with existing Department of Mineral Resources permit considerations could complicate the permit process.

He also said he’s concerned about the potential effects on ranchers and farmers, particularly those along the Little Missouri River, which Stenehjem called one of the most significant sites on his list because it includes the entire river and a one-mile buffer zone on each side.

Goehring said not allowing development on public land in the buffer zone could shift the impacts of oil development onto private lands.

“It gets to the point it almost seems like a taking ... and I get concerned about those impacts on farmers and ranchers and private property owners,” he said.

Stenehjem reiterated that the rules wouldn’t eliminate development in any of the areas.

“All I’m suggesting is that when you’re siting those wells, you do everything you can to mitigate the impact,” he said.

Goehring said he’s worried about the effects on landowners who don’t have mineral rights. His comments reflected his earlier public statements that he’s not in favor of such lists.

“I like to always, as we have been doing, move in a way which continues to mitigate and minimize impact without affecting any of the resources or surface owners and those farmers and ranchers that own quite a bit of that land,” he said.

Dalrymple said he believes the commission has “done an outstanding job guarding these places,” but he added to Stenehjem, “I think you do point out a flaw in the process and the lack of a formalized way to gather public input.”

The proposed rules would establish buffer zones of up to two miles around each site, and an application to drill within a buffer zone would trigger a notification process requiring DMR Director Lynn Helms to post a description of the application to the department’s website within five calendar days. Public comments could be submitted to Helms within 10 business days after the notice is posted.

Wayde Schafer, conservation organizer for the Dacotah Chapter of the Sierra Club, said that while the rules might not stop development on the sites, they would provide the public with better notification and opportunity for comment.

“That’s a huge step forward from where we were say a year ago,” he said.

Schafer said he hoped to see more places on Stenehjem’s list, noting it’s smaller than a list compiled earlier this year of 40 areas for Industrial Commission members to tour. He said he and other groups will likely suggest additional sites – he cited the Kendley Plateau in the Badlands as one glaring omission – if the proposal makes it to the public comment phase.

Goehring and Dalrymple said they wanted more time to review the list and rules with their staff and legal advisers. The commission agreed to revisit the proposal at its next meeting, though it wasn’t clear whether that would be the next regular meeting Jan. 29 or a special meeting.

If the proposal is ultimately approved and adopted as administrative rules, companies that are required to submit impact mitigation plans would have to explain the measures they would take to minimize impacts during oil exploration and production.

At a minimum, the plan would have to address noise and traffic, how and when the company will return the site to its natural conditions, efforts to protect the viewshed, the use of existing wells and facilities, and the feasibility of building pipelines or using other available means to avoid flaring natural gas and trucking fluids.

In addition to being subject to public comment, the plan also would be submitted to several state and federal agencies for comment, including the state Game and Fish Department, state Historic Preservation Office, the supervisor of the Dakota Prairie Grasslands and the superintendent of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Helms could then attach conditions to the permit to mitigate potential impacts.

Current park Superintendent Valerie Naylor said she’s pleased to see the state get more involved in protecting the national park from impacts of oil development. This month alone, the state considered eight oil and gas proposals that could have an impact on the national park area, she said.

Sen. Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks, said the opportunity for agencies to offer professional guidance on permit applications is the most important aspect of Stenehjem’s proposal.

“There has been a real disconnect,” she said.

Stenehjem’s proposal does not include consulting the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, which Triplett said would be important because many cultural resources that are important to the tribes are not located on reservations.

Forum News Service reporter Amy Dalrymple contributed to this article.

The sites proposed by Stenehjem are:

- Black Butte in Slope County

- Bullion Butte in Billings County

- Camel’s Hump Butte in Golden Valley County

- Columnar Junipers (Limber Pines) and Burning Coal Vein, formerly known as the Dakota National Forest, in northwest Slope County

- Confluence of Yellowstone and Missouri rivers

- Elkhorn Ranch

- Killdeer Mountain Battlefield State Historic Site, Wildlife Management Area

- Lake Sakakawea

- Little Missouri River

- Little Missouri River National Grasslands – areas designated by the U.S. Forest Service as not administratively available for future leasing after July 31, 2002

- Little Missouri State Park

- Pretty Butte in Slope County

- Sentinel Butte in Golden Valley County

- Theodore Roosevelt National Park

- Tracy Mountain in Billings County

- West Twin Butte in Golden Valley County

- White Butte in Slope County

- Wildlife Management Areas

Mike Nowatzki

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