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Ag commish still concerned about ‘special places’ policy language

BISMARCK — State Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said Monday he’s “a lot more comfortable” about a proposed policy to minimize the impacts of drilling for oil and gas on special places in North Dakota, but he still has reservations about it.

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A group of attorneys and staffers for the three members of the state Industrial Commission — Goehring, Gov. Jack Dalrymple and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem — continued working Monday to revise the language of Stenehjem’s proposed “extraordinary places” policy to reflect changes suggested at last week’s commission meeting.

The commission meets Wednesday and may consider adopting the policy, which would make applications to drill in and around any of the 18 special places on Stenehjem’s list subject to possible conditions and a more formal public comment process.

Dalrymple’s legal counsel, Jerod Tufte, said given the volume of comments on the policy, a final version may not be finished by Wednesday, though every effort will be made to have it ready.

Goehring said the revised policy addresses several of his concerns, but he remains worried about its potential effects on private property rights and farmers and fears the list of special places will expand.

“It’s not just about oil development. This is far-reaching. This is setting precedent for all types of activities out there under land use,” he said.

During Monday’s negotiations, Goehring’s staffers pushed for making the public comment process apply only to permits on public land, not private land. But Stenehjem resisted the change, and Goehring is expected to raise the issue when the policy comes up for a decision.

Under the revised policy, the public would have 10 calendar days to submit comments on issues such as the well’s location and access roads, reclamation plans, noise, traffic and visual impacts. The application also would be sent to state and federal agencies for professional guidance.

A person described in the policy as “the Industrial Commission executive director’s designee” would review and summarize the comments for Department of Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms.

However, Helms “is not bound to act upon any comments,” the policy states. Rather, he may consider the comments “for the purposes of attaching conditions to any permit … to mitigate potential impacts to the sites.”

Goehring said his department recommended that the comment reviewer be someone from the commission office.

“It’s one degree removed from the Mineral Resources department, if that’s a concern for some,” he said. The Department of Mineral Resources and its Oil and Gas Division fall under the Industrial Commission’s authority.

Karlene Fine, the commission’s executive director, said it wasn’t clear yet whether the designee would be an employee of her office or a consultant.

In a key change to the original proposal, the working group removed a section that would have required companies wanting to drill near special places to submit a plan detailing how they plan to minimize the impacts. Helms said his department already requires that on an informal basis.

Fine said the change resulted from the commission’s decision last week to convert the proposal from an administrative rule to a policy, which Stenehjem has said will avoid giving legal standing to those who might challenge permits in court if they feel their comments don’t get enough attention.

The changes also included removing the term “buffer zone,” replacing it with “areas of interest” ranging from a half-mile to two miles around the 18 places on the list, including Bullion Butte, Elkhorn Ranch and Little Missouri State Park.

Helms estimated the policy will lengthen the permitting time by one week for oil and gas wells in the areas of interest. He called the policy revisions “all very positive,” saying they will give oil and gas operators and potential commenters a clearer picture of how the areas of interest are defined.

Mike Nowatzki

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