Posted 1/28/14 (Tue)
By Neal A. Shipman
The North Dakota Industrial Commission has recently embarked upon what could very well be one of the most contentious and challenging aspects of their job in regulating the oil and gas industry. And that challenge is crafting a new set of rules that will help protect some of the most scenic, historic or culturally sensitive areas of the state from the impacts of oil and gas drilling.
Virtually no one in North Dakota would argue that there are places in the state’s oil patch that shouldn’t be drilled for oil and gas. Places like Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the wilderness areas in the National Grasslands, state parks and sensitive Native American cultural sites come to mind. We’ve already seen the Industrial Commission approve controversial drilling permits in the Killdeer Mountains, the Little Missouri Bay State Park and around the Elkhorn Site of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
And as the state’s oil industry continues to ramp up to a projected 30,000 new wells on top of the state’s existing 9,000 wells, it is almost inevitable that an application for a drilling permit on or near a place that is dear to the hearts of many North Dakotans will be brought to the Industrial Commission for approval. And without a doubt, some of these wells are going to be drilled in places that many folks wished they hadn’t been.
And that is where the Industrial Commission, which is comprised of Governor Jack Dalrymple, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goerhing, comes in. This commission, through its oil and gas division, is charged not only with approving oil wells, but also with protecting the state’s environment and quality of life.
It’s a tough balancing act.
During last week’s Industrial Commission meeting, the group discussed a proposal that would include a list of 18 places for special protection that possess “exceptional cultural, historic, scenic, recreational and other spiritual or other value” from drilling activity in western North Dakota. And as part of the proposal, a buffer zone from one-half mile to a maximum of two miles would be created around these areas and would require an extensive mitigation plan by producers intending to drill in these areas.
And almost immediately there were huge objections not only from the oil companies, but from the mineral and land owners in western North Dakota. And that objection was obvious when you realize that virtually all of the oil wells that are being drilled in western North Dakota are on private lands.
While Stenehjem, who is bringing the proposal forward, says that creating the unique protection areas would not bar oil development on private land and that the proposal was never intended to interfere with that right, at the onset, it is hard to see as to how that would not happen.
And so the balancing act continues for the Industrial Commission.
Protecting unique areas of North Dakota is vital to the state’s citizens. But so is protecting the rights of the private landowners to lease their minerals and for the oil companies that have leased those minerals to develop them.
It is up to the Industrial Commission to try and find the happy medium that will meet these two competing interests.