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North Dakota groups urge regulators to enforce flaring policy, not extend it

Don Morrison with the Dakota Resource Council, left, speaks on Monday about North Dakota’s gas flaring policy outside the state capitol in Bismarck. Also speaking at the event were Wayde Schafer with the Sierra Club, center, and Mindi Schmitz, right, with the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Jamestown. (Photo by Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune)

BISMARCK – Activist groups urged North Dakota regulators on Monday to “get tough” with the oil industry and deny its request to relax the goals it helped develop to reduce the flaring of natural gas.

“They said they could do it. Now they have to live up to that,” Wayde Schafer of the Dacotah Chapter of the Sierra Club said during a press conference at the Capitol with representatives of the Dakota Resource Council and the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

The state Industrial Commission is expected to decide Thursday whether to adjust the policy it adopted in March 2014 that aimed to curb the percentage of gas flared to 23 percent this year, 15 percent on Jan. 1, 2016, and 10 percent by October 2020.

A North Dakota Petroleum Council task force that recommended the goals is now asking the commission to delay the 15 percent goal for two construction seasons until Oct. 1, 2017.

State Department of Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms has recommended meeting the industry partway by delaying the goal until Oct. 1, 2016.

In a letter to the commission Monday, the three advocacy groups said the industry’s requested delay is unacceptable and “threatens to unilaterally undo the progress we’ve made and severely weaken” the policy in the long term.

According to the most recent figures available, the percentage of gas flared increased from 17 percent in June to 20 percent in July – well above the national average of 1 percent, Schafer noted.

“Even though North Dakotans support oil development, they want it done responsibly, and they’re expecting our elected officials to get tough with the industry when they’re screwing up,” he said. “And right now the industry is not doing what they said they would do a year ago.”

In a meeting with the editorial board of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead on Monday, Petroleum Council representatives said they need more time to meet the goal because natural gas production has been higher than expected as lower oil prices have forced companies to concentrate drilling rigs in the core production area of the Bakken, where wells also produce more gas.

Despite a decline in drilling rigs, North Dakota continues to produce about 1.2 million barrels of oil per day, second only to Texas.

The Petroleum Council also said infrastructure projects have hit snags, with one large gas pipeline project being delayed and another canceled because of hurdles with easements from landowners or federal permits. President Ron Ness said had those projects been completed as planned, the amount of gas flared would be down to 12 percent. Low prices for natural gas also make building pipelines and gas processing plants less attractive, they said.

The council says it remains committed to hitting the 90 percent gas capture goal by 2020. However, Helms told reporters last week he’s “very concerned” about hitting that goal, as building the infrastructure needed to meet the goal is no longer economic at today’s natural gas liquids prices.

Gas capture plans are required for new or renewed drilling permits received after May 31, 2014.

Mindi Schmitz, an Environmental Law & Policy Center government relations specialist from Jamestown, said a review of data for more than 3,200 wells required to have the plans found that more than 400 didn’t, though she said there may be more because about 1,700 of the wells have confidential status. Department of Mineral Resources spokeswoman Alison Ritter said the information presented at the press conference was incorrect and that the department stands by the gas capture policy. Forum News Service could not immediately verify the accuracy of the ELPC’s figures.

Corrine Redmond, a Dakota Resource Council member and cattle rancher from Tioga in the heart of the Bakken, said flaring is not only an environmental and health problem but “an economic injustice” to royalty owners who aren’t paid royalties on the flared gas.

The Industrial Commission has granted exemptions to the flaring policy for more than 150 oil and gas wells since April.

“It’s one of those things where the industry is expecting us to compromise from an already compromised position,” Schafer said.

Jeff Beach and Amy Dalrymple contributed to this article.

Reach Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at mnowatzki@forumcomm.com.

Mike Nowatzki

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