Last fall, after two years of listening to input from the public, special-interest groups and government agencies, the North Dakota Industrial Commission got serious about creating a list of “extraordinary places.”
Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem in December designated a list of 18 special places in western North Dakota and crafted a proposed set of rules aimed at limiting the impact of energy exploration in those areas.
Great, right? Republicans working in harmony with the environmental groups to soften oil’s impact on the state? “Is this heaven?” we asked. “No, it’s North Dakota,” they responded.
Too bad it’s a little more complicated than that.
Recently, area lawmakers, landowners, mineral rights owners and groups with which they’re affiliated have spoken out against the proposed “extraordinary places.”
Though the policy would still allow for oil and gas drilling in the places deemed special, opponents believe it is a step in a direction toward unnecessary government control over the rights of property and mineral rights owners as many of the places listed - many of which are in the southwest part of the state - are either on privately owned land or are a mix of public and private lands.
Proponents of the “extraordinary places” point to oil companies altering western North Dakota landscapes. The trouble is, most of those places were or can be rightfully leased by mineral rights owners, regardless of whether or not they have the surface rights.
Some landowners don’t own mineral rights. Some do. That’s the way it always has been and the way it always will be. Some mineral rights belong to the stereotypical, yet often unidentified, “out-of-stater.” Other people own land where the state profits off oil and gas development. Typically, either the landowner or someone who passed the property down to them knowingly purchased it without mineral rights or sold them. This was rarely a concern until a few years ago when everything went bonkers.
In my family, and for many others I know who own land and/or mineral rights, it works both ways. We have mineral rights on some land we don’t own or farm. We also farm land where we either share or don’t own the mineral rights. Thankfully, oil development is still several years away from impacting northwest Hettinger County - if it ever comes that way at all.
But sometime down the line, my brothers and I will inherit that land from my grandmother and father. In most cases, we’ll be the fourth generation of our family to own the land. At that point, the law states that we can do with it what we like. We can farm what we want, let outdoorsmen hunt there or deny them access, or build structures on the property.
If landmen come back to the doorstep and ask us to sign leases allowing oil companies to drill the land, we’ll probably do it. And if they decide to drill there, it will be far from a perfect situation. But the choice is ours. If we want to gamble with the land and allow for oil exploration there, it’s our prerogative.
The same goes for people who own White Butte, Sentinel Butte and other private lands designated under the proposed “extraordinary places” policy. If they own the land and/or the mineral rights and don’t mind having oil wells there for the next 30 to 50 years, then that’s their choice.
Yes, there are some places in the state that must be protected from energy exploration. Of course we shouldn’t be drilling for oil in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. And yes, areas near water do indeed need special attention.
But if land is privately owned, the state government should let the person who owns the land and the mineral rights unequivocally have the final say in whether or not they want drilling on the land.
The public, a special interest group or a government agency shouldn’t have the ability to dictate what happens on private land - no matter how pretty or “extraordinary” that land may be.
Monke is the managing editor of The Dickinson Press. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, tweet him at monkebusiness and read his past features and columns at monke.areavoices.com.