The North Dakota Supreme Court on Monday denied the National Parks Conservations Association’s appeal of a lower court’s ruling that the state unlawfully issued an air quality permit to the proposed Meridian Energy Group refinery near Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Meridian, which began working on the project west of Belfield in the summer of 2018, was almost immediately the subject of a lawsuit by the National Parks Conservations Association contending that the refinery would release substantial amounts of carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and other hazardous pollutants into the national park and surrounding communities as they processed 55,000 barrels of crude oil per day.
In 2019, the district courts ruled in favor of Meridian, determining that the state’s issuance of a minor air quality permit, based on estimated pollutant analysis provided by Meridian Energy Group, was appropriate.
An independent analysis conducted following the district court ruling showed that Meridian significantly underestimated or omitted emission statistics in its application to the state — which resulted in their application’s approval. The analysis featured prominently as an argument in the appeals process.
In response to the allegations of lack of controls, the state argued that its permit adequately required emissions controls and oversight by requiring a leak detection system using an optical imaging camera — in addition to other requirements such as having monitors at the perimeter of the facility to measure benzene levels.
The ruling issued Monday upheld the previous ruling from the lower court affirming that the permitting decisions by the Department of Environmental Quality, which in June 2018 issued an air quality permit to construct the facility, was reasonable.
In the opinion, Chief Justice Jon J. Jensen said that the department, “did not act arbitrarily, capriciously, or unreasonably in issuing the permit.”
The ruling by both courts, barring any further appeals, will permit Meridian to resume construction on its refinery — located less than 3 miles from the entrance of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
With its first major legal hurdle cleared, the project continues to face an even larger problem in the coronavirus’ pandemic. Crude oil prices collapsed on April 20 by more than 114% in a span of mere hours as the pandemic continued its razing of the energy economy. As demands rose and logistical chains collapsed, rising stockpiles of crude oil overwhelmed storage facilities across the nation, resulting in prices plunging crude oil in the Bakken into negative digits for the first time in history.
According to reports by Meridian, the company is still pursuing financing for the project — with expected costs reaching $1 billion.
“This is a huge victory for our company, for the industry and most importantly for the people of North Dakota, particularly the communities that will see an immediate impact from the jobs created by the Davis Refinery," William Prentice, Meridian’s Chairman & CEO, said. "Given the current economic climate North Dakota needs modern downstream facilities such as Davis. Creating value-added industry to serve the commodity-based industry such as agriculture and energy have always been an objective of North Dakota, and that is even more important as the state claws its way to recovery from COVID."
Prentice added, "The state has made a policy decision to takes steps to add high paying permanent employment in manufacturing, energy processing such as refining, and other fundamental factory employment to act as the backbone for increased skilled employment."
The NPCA was represented in this case by Braaten Law Firm from Bismarck, ND. Following the ruling Stephanie Kodish, Clean Air Program Director for the National Parks Conservation Association issued a statement.
“Today’s ruling is a major setback for the preservation of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and all it protects. From the start, the state has attempted to cut corners in approving this permit and now one of America’s most special places, its wildlife and visitors and the communities that live nearby will be the ones paying the price for years to come,” Kodish said. “The Court’s ruling disregards all who care about our national parks, including the more than 10,000 people who voiced their concerns that the refinery would destroy the air we breathe and put the park and the local economies at risk.”
She added, “Today’s ruling is unacceptable, but the battle is not over, and NPCA will continue to work to protect Theodore Roosevelt National Park for generations to come.”
Attorney for the NPCA also issued a statement following the ruling.
“This permit has been flawed from the beginning. NPCA has been on the right side of the facts, science, and law in this fight against the Davis Refinery, and NPCA should be applauded for taking this permit to North Dakota’s highest court,” J.J. England said. “Today’s ruling is disappointing. Although today is a sad day for Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the fight is also far from over.”
According to Prentice, the Davis Refinery will employ several hundred workers during construction, and permanent direct employment will be up to 200.
"Studies by the State of Washington show a multiplier of up to 14:1 total employment in direct, indirect and derived for each direct employee – showing that the employment impact will be well over 1,000 new jobs for the area," he said. "In addition, Davis will almost triple the tax base of Billings County, enabling badly needed community and infrastructure development to proceed."
Prentice added, "A lot of positive outcomes will result from this critical decision for years to come.”