JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Of Refineries And Bridges

There is news this week on several fronts involving threats to the North Dakota Bad Lands. There are some long documents to read. Here’s a summary. More when I get done reading them.

THAT DAMN REFINERY

First, Meridian Energy’s proposed oil refinery near Theodore Roosevelt National Park. You probably read that the Dakota Resource Council and its legal ally, the Environmental Law and Policy Center, filed a complaint with the North Dakota Public Service Commission asking the PSC to assume jurisdiction over the siting of the refinery before construction can begin.

On Monday, the PSC accepted the two groups’ complaint and agreed to serve the complaint on Meridian. What that means is that Meridian will now have to respond to the request for a full site evaluation. I’m pretty sure it also means that it cannot start construction of the refinery (Meridian has its Permit to Construct for a month but have not started any work at the site yet) until the PSC hears both sides of the story. The PSC has heard the environmental group’s side in the 17-page complaint, and now it will l get to hear Meridian’s case, arguing that it is not subject to PSC review.

And then, the PSC will decide whether to accept jurisdiction over the plant and require Meridian to undergo a full site review to decide if this is a good place to put a refinery. If it does that (and I won’t be surprised if it does), expect Meridian to go to court and challenge the PSC’s ability to do that. If Meridian doesn’t, expect ELPC to go to court to try to get a judge to order it done.

ELPC’s complaint asks for a cease and desist order, keeping Meridian from going ahead. I’m not sure if Monday’s motion grants that order. I’m waiting for a call back from an attorney to answer that question, but I’m guessing it does. I’ll keep you posted.

THAT DAMN LITTLE MISSOURI BRIDGE

The second long document I have to read is the long-awaited 80-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement on Billings County’s proposed Little Missouri River Crossing north of Medora, which was released a couple of weeks ago.

I say long-awaited because public hearings on this project were held in the summer of 2012, and we’ve been waiting more than six years now to see this document. No one seems to know what the holdup was, but no one was complaining, except the Billings County Commission, which has shelled out millions of dollars to the engineering firm KLJ for it.

The EIS identifies the proposed location of the new bridge — about 12 miles north of Medora — and explains why this is the best location for a new Little Missouri River crossing. The location is on private land — the historic Short Ranch — in spite of the fact that Commission Chairman Jim Arthaud said unequivocally at the public hearings on the project in June 2012 that the bridge would be built on public land.

Apparently KLJ couldn’t find a place to put it on public land. It will be interesting to hear Arthaud try to explain what happened. It will also be interesting to hear him explain why no one has bothered to even contact the Short family to let them know what is going on. The bridge is proposed to cross the river just downstream from the Short’s home place, within eyesight of the ranch headquarters, and no one from the county or the engineering firm has even bothered to talk to them.

The release of the EIS also triggers a new round of public hearings, scheduled in Bismarck and Medora. The DOT ran some huge, 25-column-inch ads in the Bismarck and Medora papers a couple of weeks ago advertising the public meetings, scheduled for next week, in Bismarck and Medora. But then, with no public fanfare, DOT changed the dates to the following week with just a short notice buried deep on the Billings County website.

So here’s the deal. The Medora hearing is now scheduled for 5 p.m. (MDT) July 23, in the Medora Community Center. The Bismarck hearing is at the Courtyard by Marriot Hotel in North Bismarck at 5 p.m. July 26.

These hearings are to gather public input on the bridge project. If you don’t like the idea of another bridge across the Little Missouri, in the middle of no goddam place, you should go to one or both of these hearings and make your feelings known. You should probably read the EIS before you go. You can find links to it here.

THAT OTHER DAMN BRIDGE

The third thing in the news this week is a notice from Bureau of Land Management that it is “seeking public comments regarding an application to authorize an existing single-lane ranch bridge over the Little Missouri River, with an associated access road, in Dunn County.”

You read that right. An application to authorize an existing bridge.

This is the bridge I’ve written about before, built by rancher Wiley Bice, west of Killdeer, on BLM land without BLM permission. The BLM knew nothing about this bridge on its land until I told them about it last year, even though it had been there for a few years. Bice also planted alfalfa on BLM land without permission.

In February, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see the application Bice submitted for this bridge, but even though the government is compelled by law to give me that application, it refuses to do so. Now I’ve received a letter asking me to comment on an application I have not seen.

I’ve pretty much lost patience with the BLM. Noted author Ed Abbey called it the Bureau of Livestock and Mines. A friend of mine in Montana called it the Bureau of Leasing and Mining. Both were pretty accurate. I know the BLM has been busy with an oil boom in North Dakota, although it hasn’t been booming so much the last couple of years, but it is apparent to me that it doesn’t even go out and look at its land to see what is going on.

I’m pretty sure no one had looked at the parcel that Wiley Bice built his bridge on — and planted alfalfa on — and built a road on, for more than five years. They’re the Bureau of Land MANAGEMENT. How can it MANAGE our public lands if it never goes look at it to see who’s abusing it?

Anyway, according to this letter, if you go to this website you will find all you need to know — not really, just all they want you to know — about this project, and how to comment. You have until Aug. 13 to respond. I have no idea what will happen after that.

Well, actually, I kind of do. The BLM will conduct an Environmental Assessment (a little bit cheaper version of the document Billings County did for their bridge) on the project, and then tell Bice to go ahead and build his bridge. Oh, wait, it’s already built. Never mind.

In a separate letter I found a copy of Tuesday, North Dakota BLM manager Loren Wikstrom writes that the alternatives being considered in the EA are:

  1. Take no action (leave the bridge, road, pond, and alfalfa fields on the land as-is). This would not achieve the project purpose, but the BLM will analyze the effects to serve as a baseline;
  2. Remove the bridge, road, pond, and alfalfa fields and rehabilitate the public land to a condition similar to that of the surrounding public land.
  3. Sell or exchange the affected public land to the adjacent landowner;
  4. Authorize the bridge, road and pond through rights-of-way, and the alfalfa fields through a lease; and
  5. Authorize only the bridge and access road through a right-of-way, remove the pond and alfalfa fields and rehabilitate the public land. In the event a right-of-way for the bridge and road are granted by the BLM, the site would still remain inaccessible to the public, via road, due to the lack of public roads to the site.

Loren has already told me that No. 5 is their preferred alternative, and that they’re not looking to make Bice  tear down a bridge that cost a couple of million dollars. He’s also told me they are making Bice pay for the cost of the EA and the reclamation. No big deal to Bice. As I wrote here earlier, he sold his oilfield trucking company for about $100 million. This is small change for him.

So I wouldn’t waste time writing letters to the BLM about this. It’s a done deal. A rich guy builds a bridge on public land, gets his hands slapped and lives happily ever after. That’s how the Bureau of Land Management manages your land.

Anyway, those three things are a pretty good indicator that there are still plenty of threats to North Dakota’s Bad Lands. So many it’s hard to keep track. I’ll try to write about each of them as things progress. Somebody has to keep an eye on these bastards.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — What Will Happen To The Newest Bridge Across The Little Missouri State Scenic River?

Last summer, I wrote an article about a North Dakota Bad Lands rancher who built himself a big bridge across the Little Missouri State Scenic River on federal land without getting permission. I wrote then, last July, “The folks at the BLM office don’t seem to know anything about the bridge or the road or the water pits, but they should, since things like that would certainly need ‘permission slips …”

Well, I asked the federal land agent at the Bureau of Land Management office in Dickinson, N.D., about it. He promised to get back to me. When he did, it was with these succinct words: “We’ve got a situation here.”

Since then, Loren Wikstrom, the manager of the BLM’s North Dakota field office, and I have talked by phone, e-mailed and even snail-mailed a few times, and a couple weeks ago, I spent some time with him in his office. He’s pretty close to getting to the bottom of this “situation.” Here’s an update.

The rancher’s name is Wylie Bice. His ranch is a few thousand acres beside the Little Missouri State Scenic River in Dunn County, just west of the Killdeer Mountains, in western North Dakota. Bice made a fortune — $100 million or so — selling his oilfield trucking company before the bust hit the oil patch. I guess he really wanted to be a rancher instead of a trucker, so he used some of the money to buy the ranch adjacent to his, which happened to be on the other side of the river.

It’s a pretty nice bridge! Cross over and you’re on federal land.
It’s a pretty nice bridge! Cross over and you’re on federal land.

That ranch had a federal grazing lease on some BLM land. which just happened to be right up against the river, where Bice wanted to put his bridge. So he did.

And not only did he put a bridge there, but he built a road to get to it, and he built a couple of large water ponds for storing water for sale to the oil industry for fracking, and he also spilled his farming operations over onto that BLM land. All of that without telling the BLM, or asking permission. Yep, I’d say that qualified as a “situation.”

So the BLM dispatched one of its employees up to see Bice. They went out and stood beside the bridge and talked about it. And then the employee came back to the office and wrote up a report for his superiors. And the BLM began taking action.

What they did is, they opened up what they call a “trespass file.” I don’t think it is a criminal file, just a civil matter, but the BLM considers it a serious violation, because they told me the trespass file is closed to public inspection until it is resolved. They did, however, tell me what is going on.

First, they told Bice he had a bridge and a road on BLM land without a permit, and they sent him an application for a right-of-way permit, which would essentially grant him permission to build a bridge and a road on their land (never mind that both of them are already there). They told him to fill out the application and to send it back, along with the engineering plan for the bridge and the road, so they could see if it meets their specifications.

Once he’d done that, if everything was in order, they would consider giving him the missing permit for the bridge and the access road. I thought that was a pretty nice reaction. It’s a pretty expensive bridge, probably a million dollars worth or more. I’m sure Bice would not want to have to tear it down.

The BLM gave him until January 15, 2018 — a couple of weeks ago now — to submit his paperwork. When I met with Loren Wikstrom a couple days after that deadline, he thought he might be able to give me the paperwork to look at in early February. I’m going to take him up on that.

If they do decide to issue a permit, Bice is going to have to pay rent on the land that the bridge and the road are on, and there’s going to be an administrative fine. They haven’t told me what the fine is going to be.

Along with the application, the BLM is requiring him to send his plan to “reclaim” his water depot. That’s right. Bice built two big ponds — I mean really, really big — into which he pumps water from the Little Missouri, where it is stored until an oil company needs it for fracking. Then he sells it, and the oil company comes and hauls it away.

A number of Bad Lands ranchers are doing this right now, thanks to our North Dakota State Engineer’s office, which issued more than 600 illegal water permits in the last few years to help out the oil industry. I wrote about that here last year. Seems like North Dakota’s state government is a lot more willing to just look the other way to help the oil industry than the federal government is.

It turns out that part of Bice’s water depot is also on BLM land, and the BLM isn’t going to allow that, so he has to remove the ponds and reclaim that land. The BLM also is going to charge him back rent on that land and fine him for putting that water depot on their land.

Bice also started a farming operation on that side of the river, although I don’t know what he planted. But part of what he planted was on BLM land. The BLM didn’t like that at all. It’s probably going to fine him for that as well and make him reclaim that land.

The BLM told me in a letter dated December 7, 2017, “BLM will oversee application of the National Environmental Protection Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, Endangered Species Act and other applicable laws in considering the proposed right-of-way.”

The BLM guys went on to say that Bice “remains responsible for all applicable fines and back rent during the application processing period. In the event a right-of-way is granted, all fines and rent must be paid before issuance of right-of-way. Should the right-of-way be denied, the bridge, access road and other developments must be removed and the sites fully reclaimed to their original state at the expense of the responsible party (Bice).”

Well. Sounds like the BLM means business.

Then there’s another consideration. When someone wants to build something on federal land, especially in areas near Indian reservations, that darned old Historic Preservation Act comes into play. The BLM guys told me they never did get archeologists out there to do a cultural survey. That will likely have to take place once they get a completed application from Bice. The worst-case scenario, they told me, is “if they were to find artifacts or stone circles in the vicinity. That would be bad.”

I’m not sure exactly what “that would be bad” means, but I suppose it could mean denial of the right-of-way, and/or additional fines for violation of the Historic Preservation Act. The law is pretty clear on things like that, I suspect. I’m not going to look it up. I’ll let them tell me if that’s the case.

The water depot on BLM land, which is going to have to be removed.
The water depot on BLM land, which is going to have to be removed.

I don’t know if Bice is going to peaceably go in there and rip out the plastic liner in his pits, bulldoze them back to level ground, plant grass for the critters, pay his fines for trespassing, catch up on his back rent for the road and the pits and the bridge and the farming operation, or if he’s going to resist and set up another Cliven Bundy standoff situation. We’ll have to see how this plays out.

I did ask the BLM what happens if Bice doesn’t cooperate. The BLM’s response: “The BLM first tries to work with the responsible party in resolving trespasses amicably. However, if a trespasser is uncooperative, applicable civil or criminal measures may be pursued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”

Uh-oh. As we saw in the case of Jason Halek, the fellow who violated the U. S. Safe Drinking Water Act by dumping 800,000 gallons of saltwater down an abandoned oil well near Dickinson, which I wrote about here a few months ago, the U.S. Attorney in North Dakota doesn’t take these things lightly. So that’s when the lawyers get involved. Bice has plenty of money for lawyers. And things can drag on for years.

I also learned this week that Bice has obtained two new industrial water permits (one issued just last week) to pump water from the Little Missouri into his water pits. (You can look at them here and here if you want to.) Nothing surprising there. The water’s free, and the State Water Commission engineers love giving it away. They did place some restrictions on the permits, pretty standard stuff, such as taking precautions to minimize the visual and audible disruption to the scenic Little Missouri River valley, by keeping the shorelines in and around intake locations free of construction debris and litter, keeping pumps and motors sheltered from view of canoeists, setting pumps and motors away from the shoreline to make sure gas and oil leaks don’t get into the river, and putting mufflers on internal combustion motors “to maintain the tranquility and ambiance and minimize audible disruption of the scenic river experience.”

Uh, huh. We’ll see how that’s going when I canoe through there this spring (which I am surely going to do). I’ll also see if his scrapers and bulldozers have completed the job of getting rid of those big water pits on land you and I and the rest of the people of the United States own, and if Bice has planted some grass and a few cottonwoods alongside the river. I get the feeling the bridge will still be there. For a long time. I’ll let you know what I find.

Meanwhile, if you want to have a look for yourself, I can tell you the legal address is the West half of Section 33, Township 148 North, Range 97 West.

That’s it on the left, on the Forest Service map. White is private land, yellow is public land – owned by the BLM. You’ll have to get a Forest Service map and follow the winding gravel and sometimes two-track, roads. The road from the east is a private road through private land, so you probably should go there from the west, across public land. And you probably shouldn’t cross the bridge, like I did, because you’ll be trespassing once you get about halfway across the river.

As I wrote last summer: “Y’know, with all the things I’ve learned, and all the stories I’ve heard, about the Bakken Oil Boom, this takes the cake.”

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Conflicts Of Interest Could Plague Scenic River Commission

The North Dakota Legislature approved, and Gov. Doug  Burgum signed, legislation last May authorizing the use of water from the Little Missouri State Scenic River for fracking oil wells. Now our state engineer, Garland Erbele, has issued industrial water permits authorizing more than 2.1 billion (that’s 2,142,000,000)  gallons of water to be taken from the river. So far.

The withdrawals are actually measured in acre feet, and the allocation by the state engineer, who works for the State Water Commission, is about 6,600 acre feet between now and next Oct. 30. An acre foot is enough water to cover one acre of land a foot deep in water. That takes about 325,000 gallons. I don’t know if the permittees will get as much as they’re authorized, but they could, if the technology is there, and the river cooperates.

I also don’t know how much water there is in the river, but I do know the river has been running pretty close to dry all summer and fall.

It’s a big number, but I am not really concerned about that. As the oil boys will tell you, if we don’t take it out, it just goes to New Orleans, and they have plenty of water.  There are plenty of other things I am concerned about, though. Like the impact of all this industrial activity on the integrity of the Little Missouri Scenic River Valley, North Dakota’s only State Scenic River. And conflicts of interest.

For example, the newly elected chairman of the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission, Joe Schettler of Killdeer, is a partner in a company called Streamline Water Services, and his company, which sells water to oil companies for fracking, has industrial water permits to draw 715 acre feet between now and next August.

And Scott Kleeman, Schettler’s proxy on the Commission if Joe can’t make it to the meetings, is part of a family operation that has an industrial water permit to draw 900 acre feet and sell it to oil companies between now and next April.

There’s also one more potential conflict. At last week’s meeting, neither the McKenzie County Commission member David Lee Crighton, nor his proxy, Kit James (who also has an industrial water business), was able to attend, so they sent Kaye Nelson to represent the county. Kaye is the widow of Alvin Nelson, the former commission chairman back when it used to have meetings, around the turn of the century. Apparently she attended a lot of the meetings with Alvin, so the county felt like she could represent them well.

The problem is, a company called Select Energy Services has a water depot on her ranch along the Little Missouri west of Grassy Butte, and it has an industrial water permit to take about 100 acre feet of water between now and next May.

To be fair, all of them have been in the water business a long time, and were in it when they took their seats on the commission. I’m guessing the county commissioners in their counties who appointed them knew about that. But they’ve not taken advantage of their positions on the Scenic River Commission for personal gain. So far.

Still, it would seem like there’s a pretty big potential conflict of interest there. One of the other commissioners told me this week that the fact they are in the water business threatens the integrity of the whole commission.

Right now, the industrial permits are being given out by the state engineer under an “interim” policy allowing river water to be used for fracking. “Interim” because Gov. Burgum wants the approval of the Scenic River Commission before he makes it permanent.

At last Wednesday’s commission meeting (I wrote about it earlier this week), there was a motion to approve Burgum’s “interim” policy. It was made by Gene Allen of Golden Valley County. But no one seconded the motion, so it died. And they voted to postpone consideration of the policy until their next meeting. Schettler was chairing the meeting, so he couldn’t second it. Nelson also demurred. Maybe she thought it would be inappropriate because she has a potential conflict. Or maybe it was because she really isn’t a member of the commission, and was just filling in.

In any case, it would be good if the members who are already in the industrial water business made that fact known to the rest of the commission and to the public. Well, I guess I just did that for them. If there are any other members who are in the water business, or have a potential conflict, I don’t know about it. If so, they should ‘fess up as well.

The rest of the list of industrial water users who have gotten permits since the governor signed the bill May 2 is pretty interesting, too. Erbele didn’t waste any time. On May 5, just three days after the bill became law, he signed the Kleeman family’s permit for 900 acre feet.

The second one was even more interesting. On the 9th, he granted a fellow named Wylie Bice 700 acre feet. You might remember that name. I wrote about him last summer. He’s the guy who sold his trucking company for $80 million or so, bought the ranch next door on the other side of the Little Missouri Scenic River and then built a bridge over the river to get to it.

One side of his bridge is on federal land, owned by the Bureau of Land Management, as is a road he built on federal land to access it. And then he put in an illegal water depot on BLM land beside the Little Missouri River, a big plastic-lined pit to store the water he’s taking from the river to sell to oil companies.

Wylie Bice’s illegal water depot, on BLM land.
Wylie Bice’s illegal water depot, on BLM land.

The BLM has been up to see Bice, and it’s given him an application to apply for a bridge and a road, to “get things legal.” I don’t know about the water depot.

I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that the BLM might give him a permit for a bridge and a road after he’s already built them. I’m going to go out to Dickinson to the BLM office one of these days and take a look at that application.

What I’m not going to get a look at, my friends at the BLM tell me, is what is called a “trespass file.” I’m not sure exactly what’s in there because it’s confidential right now, but I have to guess they’re considering some kind of legal action against Bice for putting stuff on federal land without permission. I’ll find out more about that when I get to Dickinson, too.

Also troubling is the creep of fracking further south into the Little Missouri River Valley. A company called NP Resources is drilling two wells near the Little Missouri Scenic River between Medora and the Elkhorn Ranch. The wells are on land owned by two pretty wealthy friends of mine who have purchased ranches along the river to protect them from development. One is directly across the river from the Elkhorn, President Theodore Roosevelt’s historic home. In both cases, the minerals under their ranches are owned by someone else, so they were powerless to stop them. Mineral owners trump surface owners.

In both cases, NP resources applied for and was granted water permits for 58 acre feet of water from the Scenic River — bout half a million gallons each — to frack the wells. It’s troubling because the industry appears to now be making serious advances deep into the heart of the Bad Lands, in the Little Missouri Scenic River valley, not so far north of Medora and Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The rest of the permits are mostly for a couple of hundred acre feet, and ranchers are taking advantage of their location beside the river to make a little money. Maybe more than a little. Hard to begrudge them that.

But those activities are the very reason the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission exists: Our state law, Chapter 61-29 of the North Dakota Century Code, the Little Missouri Scenic River Act, says we need to “preserve the Little Missouri River as nearly as possible in its present state,” and “maintain the scenic, historic and recreational qualities of the Little Missouri River and its tributary streams.”

Let’s make sure we do that. It’s getting harder, though.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Van Hook Oil Pad Upate

A couple of months ago, I wrote about an oil well pad at the top of the Van Hook boat ramp on Lake Sakakawea. I’ve learned a few things about it since then. First, the basics.

There’s a little blue-collar resort community at the top of the Van Hook Arm of Lake Sakakawea, a couple of hundred trailers and cabins and a bait shop, a small RV park and a boat ramp. This spring, an oil company named Slawson Exploration moved in beside the resort, and with its huge machinery, began clearing a 25-acre site at the top of the boat ramp, which will be home to what now looks like an eight-well oil pad. The site is just a few hundred yards from the park and the homes in the community.

To kind of “protect” the community and people on the boat ramp from having to stare at —  and listen to —  their drilling operation, the company built a huge 35-foot-high plastic wall, probably a couple of hundred yards long. These boys could give Donald Trump a lesson in how to put up a wall in a matter of days.

When the wall comes down in a year or so, there will be an oil well complex as big as any in western North Dakota, right there beside the little town, at the top of one of the busiest boat ramps in North Dakota. A steady stream of monster trucks will haul the waste water from the well, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

To make matters worse, there’s a new well, the first of three, just drilled on a pad a half-mile away, on the other side of town. I spent the night with friends there a couple of weeks ago. The quiet of this little lakeside community is now gone, replaced by the steady, loud high-pitched hum of a drilling rig, also 24/7.

“We’ll build a wall so the folks at the boat ramp won’t see us drilling.”

Yeah,  right.

The rig has since been moved to the new pad at the boat ramp and should be in operation any day now. Drilling at least eight wells, maybe as many as 11.

Whose fault is this?

Well, as a friend of mine said recently, the North Dakota Industrial Commission will permit anything, anywhere. Especially now, with oil in the doldrums. Eleven new wells is nothing to trifle with. Tax dollars and jobs. Never mind the fishermen and recreational boaters and their formerly quiet little community. The Industrial Commission could have found a way to require the company to move away from the Lake. But it didn’t.

Now I’m told the Bureau of Land Management also bears some responsibility. The BLM manages the minerals under Lake Sakakawea owned by the federal government. That’s where the oil is that Slawson is going after, with miles of horizontal pipe under the lake.

The BLM could have required Slawson to move the well pad half a mile farther away from the lake and the community. But they said, in an environmental assessment, “that would not meet the purpose and need of the project in that it would not permit (Slawson) to fully develop the minerals located on their lease due to the technical challenges of a longer directional drilling length.”

So it looks like the BLM’s main concern, like that of the North Dakota Industrial Commission, was for the oil company, not for the land, the water, the air, the wildlife and the people. Welcome to the Wild, Wild West.

Now there’s more news. There was a legal notice published in the paper last week by the North Dakota Industrial Commission that read like this:

Case No. 25984: (Continued) Application of Slawson Exploration Co., Inc. for an order authorizing the flaring of gas from certain current and future wells completed in the Big Bend-Bakken Pool, McKenzie and Mountrail Counties, N.D., for a temporary period of time and to allow the volumes of flared gas to be excluded from the calculations of statewide and county wide flare volumes as an exception to the provisions of Commission Order No. 24665 and such other relief as is appropriate.

The hearing is Aug. 24. According to Jan Swenson, executive director of Badlands Conservation Alliance, there is no listing of wells in the case file yet, but sometimes companies submit exhibits prior to the hearing date. With these applications it could be a few specific wells, or an extraordinary number.

“The ‘current and future’ language is always a red flag to me,” Jan said. No kidding.

So we don’t really know if Slawson is applying for permission to flare the 11 wells at Van Hook. But anybody want to take bets? I guess if I had a cabin at that little community, I’d probably want to go to the meeting and ask some questions. Because the roar of a gas flare is something to behold. But then, maybe the town won’t need street lights for a while, saving on their electric bill.

You know, it was bad enough that the Industrial Commission granted a permit to Slawson to drill these wells on the doorstep of this little community — and at the top of their boat ramp. Granting permission to flare would be beyond the pale.

Oh, one more thing. What’s up with allowing this “flared gas to be excluded from the calculations of statewide and countywide flare volumes as an exception to the provisions of Commission Order No. 24665” business?

Each month, the Industrial Commission’s Oil and Gas Division releases figures on the amount of gas being flared statewide, as a percentage of all the gas being produced. Are they not counting all of it? WTF? Here’s the policy, Order # 24665. Time to find out what these “exclusions from the calculations” are.

MARTIN C. FREDRBlow It Out … Your Gas

Call Your Senators — Oppose Efforts to Repeal the BLM Methane Flaring Rule

The splash of light in the center of North America at night, seen from space, shines like the opposite of a black eye. It doesn’t mark a big city or conglomeration of cities like the other light spots across the continent. In fact, it’s coming from where there are few cities at all.

The bright spot is the oil patch in and around the Badlands in western North Dakota. It’s flaring of natural gas from oil rigs.

It’s also cash disappearing, literally, into thin air. It’s the potential for thousands of jobs going up in smoke. It’s a resource that could help our nation be less dependent on foreign energy sources. It’s the atmosphere being polluted by dangerous methane and other toxins from an industry that comes in, tramples over a state’s public lands and ultimately leaves with millions and millions more in its stained pockets. Some of those millions make their way into the re-election coffers of members of Congress.

These are members of Congress who — surprise, surprise — want to repeal the Bureau of Land Management Methane and Natural Gas Waste Reduction Rule that curbs flaring and venting on public lands.

Methane and Natural Gas Waste Reduction Rule

Flaring refers to burning off natural gas that is a byproduct of fracking, and venting refers to releasing natural gas into the atmosphere.

The BLM finalized the rule near the end of President Obama’s term. According to the BLM, it’s intended to, “… help curb waste of our nation’s natural gas supplies; reduce harmful air pollution, including greenhouse gases; and provide a fair return on public resources for federal taxpayers, Tribes and States.”

Sounds reasonable.

But the oil and gas industry doesn’t think so. It argues that forcing oil extractors to update equipment and technologies to capture and distribute the natural gas will be too costly and ultimately will make them less likely to keep extracting oil.

Balderdash. Ballyhoo. Bullpucky.

If there’s oil to be got, those companies will be here to get it. They just don’t want to spend the money. Instead, they’d rather keep sending ours up in flames, along with public health and the health of the planet.

And members of Congress — mostly Republican, but a few Democrats, too – want to help them by repealing the Methane Flaring and Natural Gas Waste Reduction Rule.

Money

Speaking of money …

Natural gas is a valuable fuel source. According to the Environmental Defense Fund:

An in-depth analysis by ICF International estimates that fugitive and vented losses from oil and natural gas operations on federal and tribal lands amounted to over 65 billion cubic feet in 2013. This gas would be worth nearly $330 million at current prices.

That’s $330 million of a TAXPAYER-OWNED resource that will go back to being burned off and released into the atmosphere by private, for-profit businesses. Taxpayers get ZERO return.

And according to the Environmental Defense Fund, “Nationwide the U.S. loses about $2 billion worth of natural gas every year through methane leaks and intentional releases (like venting) throughout the oil and gas system.”

Jobs

The methane mitigation industry has been putting people to work in high-paying jobs, according to a study commissioned by the EDF and conducted by Datu Research, an international firm created by Duke University analysts.

A story about the research at naturalgasintel.com says:

… many of the methane mitigation companies have developed effective technologies and services to capture unburned natural gas. The services “create new, well-paying American jobs for skilled workers, save industry over $1 billion in lost product and reduce air pollution.”

“These are highly skilled jobs with good pay,” Datu President Marcy Lowe said, “and they are not likely to be outsourced.”

Sounds like the kind of jobs we want in this country.

Health

Natural gas flaring and venting puts toxic chemicals into the air that we and our children and grandchildren breathe.

Multiple sources discuss the negative health impacts of carcinogens, metals like arsenic, sour gases, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide and methane released through flaring and venting of natural gas. Autoimmune problems, asthma and other respiratory illnesses, cancer and premature death are few often mentioned.

Arsenic. Carcinogens. Cancer. Premature death. These are ugly words, especially in the context of preventable activities.

Climate costs

Then there’s methane.

Methane is a big part of natural gas. When it’s released into the atmosphere, it’s a greenhouse gas that accelerates global warming.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, cited in a piece in Scientific American, said methane warms Earth 86 times more than CO2. The negatives of CO2 in relation to atmospheric degradation are well documented.

So Congress says …

Congress wants to repeal the Methane Flaring and Natural Gas Waste Reduction Rule, anyway. Right now, it’s easier than usual to do so because of what’s called the Congressional Review Act. This act allows Congress to repeal or overturn rules issued by federal agencies within a certain time period. An FAQ about the Congressional Review Act states:

Because of the structure of the periods during which Congress can take action under the CRA, there may be a period at the beginning of each new administration during which rules issued near the end of the previous administration would be eligible for consideration under the CRA.

In layman’s terms, this means this Congress can repeal or overturn rules released near the end of President Obama’s term. And they’re doing it like crazy.

The worst part of the CRA? A rule repealed under this law cannot be implemented again in “substantially the same form.” Ever. Over and out.

One Democrat who apparently is still “wavering” on how she’ll vote regarding the repeal of this rule is Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who is from my home state.

Badlands, bad mojo

I grew up in the Badlands of North Dakota.

I’ll never forget the gazillion stars and planets, satellites sailing along under the Milky Way, trailing across the dark night sky. I’d lie on my back in the campground across the Little Missouri River from the Burning Hills Amphitheater, watching in anticipation for the nightly fireworks that blasted over the crowd at the end of every Medora Musical performance.

Those stars are harder to see these days, thanks to the air and light pollution from the flaring of natural gas on public lands in North Dakota and elsewhere. If Congress repeals this rule, it’ll be harder yet, and the negative impacts will be felt well beyond the borders of my state.

Call your senators

Wherever you are, call your senators (here’s a list). In North Dakota: Sen. Heitkamp, (202) 224-2043, and Sen. John Hoeven, (202) 224-2551.Tell them to vote against air pollution, dangerous hydrocarbons, lost jobs and wasted funds. Tell them to vote against repeal of the BLM Methane and Natural Gas Waste Reduction Rule.

In short, tell them to blow it out. The gas.

Links:

https://www.blm.gov/style/medialib/blm/wo/Communications_Directorate/public_affairs/news_release_attachments.Par.74451.File.dat/VF_Fact_Sheet.pdf
https://www.edf.org/energy/substantial-loss-natural-gas-public-lands

https://www.icf.com

https://www.edf.org/sites/default/files/us_methane_mitigation_industry_report.pdf

http://www.daturesearch.com

http://www.naturalgasintel.com/articles/99911-methane-mitigation-businesses-boosting-us-jobs-prospects

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-bad-of-a-greenhouse-gas-is-methane/

https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43992.pdf