JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Whither The Measure 6 Coalition?

Word comes this week that the organizing committee for a group of North Dakotans who want to raise North Dakota’s Oil Extraction Tax back to the level it was at before the Legislature cut it in 2015 has decided to postpone its initiated measure campaign. Postpone but not abandon. A wise choice, I’d say.

Although the group already has its petition language approved by the Secretary of State, signature-gathering time is short, and the task becomes even more difficult without the institutional support of organizations that were instrumental in the initial passage of the tax in 1980.

To review: We have an Oil Extraction Tax because of an initiated measure passed by the people of the state by a wide margin nearly 40 years ago. It came during our state’s first short-lived oil boom and was set at 6.5 percent of the price of a barrel of oil, which was added to an existing Oil Production Tax of 5 percent, giving us a total tax on oil of 11.5 percent. One of the highest, if not THE highest in the country.

The measure passed at a time when oil was gushing from the ground in western North Dakota and red ink was gushing from state coffers and agricultural balance sheets after the devastating hard times in agriculture in the 1970s.

The 11.5 percent tax stuck in the craw of the oil industry and Republican politicians for more than 30 years, although Republicans, who generally have governed the state since 1993, enjoyed the fruits of the income from the tax and the budgets it balanced for them.

But finally, in 2015, at the peak of the last oil boom when the state was flush with cash from the oil tax and a humming economy, Republicans mustered the courage to tackle the citizen-initiated tax and cut it from 6.5 percent to 5 percent. It was a devastating miscalculation. Within weeks of the governor signing the bill, oil prices began a death spiral, dropping from more than $60 per barrel to less than $30 (I don’t think there was any relationship between our tax cut and the price of oil, but still … ), and state budgets began bleeding red ink again.

It’s taken until now, more than two years later, for the price of oil to reach above $60 again. That combination of low oil prices and a lower oil tax means legislators have been forced to cut budgets, including some popular programs most North Dakotans like, such as property tax subsidies.

So sponsors of the current proposed initiated measure figured the time was right to go back to the people and ask them to raise the tax back to 6.5 percent. And they’re probably right. But there’s a difference between now and 1980. It’s the players.

Among political observers my age, we speak with reverence and awe of the “Measure 6 Coalition” — and those who organized it. It was probably the most powerful political coalition ever put together in North Dakota. It was the group that passed Measure 6, which created the 6.5 percent Oil Extraction Tax.

It was four organizations, led by four extraordinary men:

  • The North Dakota Farmers Union and its president, Stanley Moore.
  • The North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives and its executive director, Chub Ulmer.
  • The North Dakota Education Association and its executive director, Adrian Dunn.
  • The North Dakota AFL-CIO and its president, Jim Gerl.

Those four organizations probably represented a third of North Dakota’s population. And their members were activists, willing to rally behind their leaders because of the enormous respect for those four men, longtime leaders, giants of their era. I knew each of them personally and treasured any time they would share with me, sitting at their feet, as I was just entering the world of liberal political activism.

The four were brought together by then-Tax Commissioner Byron Dorgan and two of his chief lieutenants, Kent Conrad and Jim Lange. Dorgan, who had led the successful fight in the 1970s for implementation of a severance tax on coal, was the face of the movement. Conrad was the strategist. Lange was the number cruncher who figured out how and where to get the votes to pass it.

Those were halcyon days for populist activism in North Dakota, but they were nearing their end. 1980 was the year of the Reagan landslide. It was a wave election for Republicans, nationwide and in North Dakota. Republicans won every statewide election here but two in 1980, including the governor’s race, which saw the defeat of incumbent Gov. Art Link by Attorney General Allen Olson.

The only two Democrats to survive that election were the two men who went out on the stump and tirelessly, relentlessly, advocated for the passage of Measure 6, the Oil Extraction Tax: Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad. Dorgan was leaving his post to run for the U.S. Congress, a seat vacated by Mark Andrews, who was running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Milton Young. Conrad was running for tax commissioner, to replace Dorgan in that office. Both won by wide margins.

The two were the only Democratic-NPL candidates to campaign on a tax increase in a year when the country was headed inevitably to the right behind Reagan —  the rest of the Democratic-NPL ticket shied away. But Dorgan and Conrad had set the stage earlier, with their successful coal tax effort in the mid-1970s. Dorgan had even held a series of debates around the state with then-Republican House Majority Leader Earl Strinden, the two arguing both sides of a coal severance tax. It was classic North Dakota politics, the kind we don’t see any more. And Conrad was Dorgan’s chief strategist, behind the scenes then.

The pair, Dorgan and Concrad, were classic populists, leading the charge first against Big Coal and then Big Oil — and the people embraced them.

But in the end, it was Gerl, Ulmer, Moore and Dunn, the four coalition leaders, and their members, who swept the new oil tax into state law. And that’s what’s missing today. Those organizations, and their leaders.

To be fair, I can’t say whether the four leaders of those organizations today have the leadership capabilities to undertake such an effort, but what is obvious from the words of today’s organizing committee for the new initiated measure, is they are not yet all on board. Nor is there a Byron Dorgan or a Kent Conrad at the ready to lead them.

In the words of the organizing committee’s leaders, which I received in an e-mail today, “What we lack is endorsement from groups and organizations and their communication channels and infrastructure, all of which we need to get our message out to voters.”

Well. That could not be more clear. So they’ve made a timely, wise decision.

The strategy shifts now to the introduction of a measure in the 2019 Legislature to raise the Oil Extraction Tax back to 6.5 percent — an effort not likely to succeed, given the makeup of the Legislature. That’s what the Measure 6 Coalition understood back in 1980, and why they went directly to the people. Still, a concerted effort in the Legislature could attract a lot of attention and set the stage for an initiated measure in 2020.

But the Measure 6 Coalition does not exist today. A new coalition, with new leaders, must be assembled. Of the four leaders from 1980, only Jim Gerl is still alive. I think he’s approaching 80 and spends much time in Florida. But maybe we could get him back here to consult a bit.

I hope that the organizing committee for this effort can succeed in putting a new-old coalition back together. For in that effort lies success.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Donald Trump, Harold Hamm And Kevin Cramer

Most of my Democratic friends have a hard time understanding why I like Kevin Cramer. I think it’s because they’ve never been a part of a brotherhood. Let me explain.

I’m was thinking about this Wednesday because of Gary Emineth’s announcement Tuesday that Kevin Cramer would run for the U.S. Senate against Heidi Heitkamp. Thanks for that, Gary. I’m sure Kevin is grateful as well. Saved him a whole bunch of time and trouble putting together an announcement statement and lining up a place for a press conference and notifying the media and all the rigamarole that goes with announcing a campaign.

A couple of my Republican friends told me they are disappointed in the way things turned out. I think they wanted Emineth to run and Kevin to stay in the House. Well, me too. More about that in a minute.

I’ll give you a couple of names of people who are not disappointed.

Hey, Kevin …

Donald Trump and Harold Hamm. The two of them were the most instrumental in getting Kevin to change his mind, after he announced he would seek re-election to the House and not make the race for the Senate. Both put some persuasive pressure on Kevin to run against Heidi, but I’m told it was Hamm who closed the deal, after Trump had called Kevin and been turned down.

Harold Hamm, the deal closer.

I don’t know what Hamm promised, but it must have been significant, because Kevin was pretty sure, to the point of a public announcement, he would seek re-election to what most people consider a safe seat, and now he’s giving up a lot of security on a big gamble.

Well, of course, as of today this is all speculation, because there’s no formal announcement yet from Kevin, and likely no one except Harold and Kevin know what the deal was.

Kevin Cramer — an unlikely senator.
Kevin Cramer — an unlikely senator.

I’m disappointed because I’ve considered Kevin a friend for many years, and I don’t like it when my friends lose elections, no matter what party they belong to. And he’s pretty likely going to lose against Heidi. Which is OK, I guess. Even good, in fact, because Heidi’s been my friend longer than Kevin, and we all know the importance of seniority in politics.

I’ve known Heidi since her 1984 campaign for North Dakota State auditor. Anybody else remember that? I got to know Kevin in 1992, when he was chairman and executive director of the North Dakota Republican Party. He was a good one, unlike most of those party hacks who preceded him. But I need to back up a minute.

I had the job of executive director of the other party, the Democratic-NPL Party, in 1984, the year Bud Sinner got elected governor. I’m not boasting when I say I played a pretty significant role in his election.

After the election, as his transition team began filling available jobs in the Capitol, I got a call from Joe Lamb, who was chairing the transition team, asking me if I wanted a job in government. I said I was pretty happy with what I was doing, but if it meant a pay raise, I’d consider it.

I considered it, but I stayed on in my job with the Democratic-NPL Party until summer, meanwhile looking around at what might be the best job in state government that I dared ask for. I found one. I called Chuck Fleming, who had been Sinner’s campaign manager and then became his chief of staff in the governor’s office, and said a really cool job would be the manager of Lake Metigoshe State Park. I loved parks, and I loved camping, and I loved the Turtle Mountains, and I told Chuck that if I could manage a whole state political party, surely I could manage one square mile in the Turtle Mountains. Chuck said he would see what he could do.

A few days later he called me back and said, “Sorry, but you have to be QUALIFIED to get that job.” Turns out it is a civil service position that falls under the state’s personnel system, not subject to patronage. Dang.

But Chuck had another idea. He said I might make a pretty good State Tourism director, and that job might come available. Well, I didn’t know much about tourism, but I knew enough about marketing, which was what the job was all about, and apparently you didn’t have to be QUALIFIED to take THAT job, so I took it.

I wasn’t prepared for the phone call the next day from a reporter from The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead asking me what my qualifications were to be Tourism director. I stammered out something like “Well, I know the state pretty well, and I’ve camped in every state park in North Dakota …”

The answer looked pretty lame in the paper the next day, but somehow I got by that and had a fun seven  years in the Tourism Office.

Fast-forward to November 1992. I resigned from the Tourism Office that fall, and Ed Schafer got elected governor. Not long after the election, I ran into Kevin Cramer at lunch time at the Peacock Alley in downtown Bismarck, and I congratulated him on a great campaign and on getting Ed, who I liked immensely (and who I had voted for), elected governor.

And I said that now precedent had been set — Sinner got elected on my watch, and I became Tourism director — so now it was his turn. And I said, it is the best job in state government (way better than being a state park manager).

Well, it took Kevin a few months to warm to the idea, but eventually he did it, and held that post a few years, joining the Brotherhood of North Dakota Tourism directors. I was only the fourth person to hold that job in the state’s history, and Kevin became the sixth. Ed kept Tracy Potter, who was Deputy Tourism director when I was there, in the job on an interim basis, until Kevin was ready to leave his post with the party and go to work in government, so Tracy was fifth.

The rest is history. Kevin did a fine job, got promoted to Economic Development director, ran for Congress a couple of times and lost (if you went through his bank statements from his 1996 and 1998 campaigns, you’d find a couple of checks from me in there — sorry, Earl), and he finally did get elected to Congress a dozen or so years later.

He should stay there. He can continue to make as many BAD votes there as he wants to without really doing any harm. Although young Ben Hanson, the Democrat running for that job, would give him a pretty good run for his money. It’s going to be a darn good year for Democrats, and Ben’s a darn good candidate, and you never know …

What I do know is that Ben is the third person, behind Trump and Hamm, who’s really happy to see Kevin make the jump, if that is what happens this week. His job as a candidate just got a whole lot easier, no matter who the Republicans run for that seat.

Questions remain.

  • What of Tom Campbell, the only other serious Republican in the Senate race? He’s rich and could primary Cramer, just like Cramer primaried Brian Kalk six years ago. If not, Campbell could run for the House.
  • But who else might want that House seat? Maybe someone who had it once before, like Rick Berg? That could make for an interesting state convention, and/or primary.
  • And what of Gary Emineth? Well, he’s embarrassed the party by calling the president of the United States (not the current one, but if the shoe fits …) a Piece Of Shit in a Facebook post and might be tempted, but he’s unlikely to get a party endorsement any more. That’s why he pulled out of the Senate race and made Kevin’s announcement for him.

Could I make a prediction? Well, partly. Anticipating this possibility, young Ben Hanson got out there really early and pretty much has a lock on the Democratic-NPL slot. Smart kid. But an open seat for Congress could draw a flood of Republicans to the race. I wouldn’t be surprised to see as many as half a dozen.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves in this Senate race. Let’s wait for Kevin to come home and talk to us.

To paraphrase Priscilla Alden, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, Kevin?”

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie —A Short Message About Our National Park

This might be the shortest blog post I’ve ever written. Or will ever write. But it’s an important one, so if you are concerned about the possibility of an oil refinery being built next to Theodore Roosevelt National Park as I am, please take just one minute to read it.

I had a chance encounter with Gov. Doug Burgum this weekend. We had a lengthy, frank and off-the-record discussion about the Davis refinery.

Off-the-record, but I think I can share a few things with you after the conversation without him objecting.

First, I don’t think the governor wants an oil refinery next to our national park any more than you and I do, but I believe he is committed to letting the regulatory process play out, without interfering with his agencies.

Second, I think that he believes, as do many of us, that there will be a legal process before construction begins on the refinery and that he is committed to letting that legal process play out as well.

And third, if the refinery gets its permits and survives a legal challenge, I am starting to get the feeling that we might be able to convince the governor to intervene personally with the company and try to get them to move it away from the park.

To convince him, we need to let the governor know that we will support any efforts he undertakes to get the company to move the refinery away from the national park by sending him an e-mail at governor@nd.gov. We can do that now, or we can do that after the legal process is over. But now might be better.

To quote my new online friend and fellow blogger, Judge Tom Davies: Amen.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Should A Governor Take Free Super Bowl Tickets?

I just read on The Forum’s website that Gov. Doug Burgum is taking free tickets to the Super Bowl. “Burgum and first lady, Kathryn Helgaas Burgum, will be attending the game at the U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis as guests of Xcel Energy, which leases a suite at the venue, Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki said.”

“’So they are not paying for their tickets,’ he said.”

Really? Burgum’s going to do that?

Now I understand why there is a petition being circulated to create a North Dakota Ethics Commission. I’ve been skeptical of that idea. No more.

Xcel Energy, one of the biggest corporations in one of the most highly regulated industries in North Dakota, is paying for tickets for the Super Bowl for not just our state’s top elected official, but also HIS WIFE.

Well isn’t that special. Y’know, there ought to be a law. Especially when it involves Xcel. The company has long been in a dispute with North Dakota regulators — read governors — over whether North Dakota customers should have to pay higher rates for electricity because Xcel is moving more of its power generation in Minnesota to higher cost renewable sources. The conflict has been in and out of court for many years, as well as the subject of discussion between Xcel and our regulators — read, the governor.

So Sunday, in a fancy suite overlooking the biggest sporting event of the year, Xcel executives are going to say “Now, now, Gov. Burgum, don’t you worry your pretty little head about those electricity rates. You don’t live in Fargo any more, you’re out in Bismarck, in MDU territory now, so it doesn’t affect you anymore. Here have some more champagne and cheer for your favorite team today. Wait! What? You’re cheering for the Eagles?”

I am reminded of the summer of 1991, when Tracy Potter and I were working for the North Dakota Tourism office, and our ad agency called and said they had two tickets for the U.S. Open Golf Tournament that was being played in Minneapolis, and they wanted us to use them. They knew Tracy and I were golf nuts and that we would really like to go to see all the famous golfers playing in the biggest golf tournament of the year in America.

Well, I was pretty nervous about taking them. So I called the attorney general, Nick Spaeth, and asked him if it was OK to do that. Nick said it was a bad idea. We could take them, he said, but we should pay for them, to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

Well, we did that. They weren’t cheap, but Tracy and I figured that opportunities like this don’t come along very often, so we splurged, paid the ad agency what they had paid for the tickets and went to the tournament. And we paid our own expenses. And we felt good about that, and we never regretted doing that.

(Aside — we were walking alongside one of the fairways and spotted none other than Nick Spaeth in one of the corporate booths, stocked with fine food and drinks. We never did ask Nick if he paid for his tickets, but I can guarantee you Tracy and I paid for our own beer and burgers.)

So this Sunday our governor is going to the Super Bowl, free, courtesy of one of the most highly regulated companies in North Dakota, and I’m guessing he’ll be sitting with the lobbyists who work the North Dakota Capitol on a regular basis. Damn, that looks bad. It looks cheap. It looks shady. I’m really disappointed in him. I mean, it’s not like he can’t afford to pay for his own tickets …

Oh, and by the way, the governor is throwing in some official business while he’s there — lunch with Minnesota’s governor, to discuss state-to-state business — so I wonder if the taxpayers of North Dakota will be picking up the expenses for the trip. And if he’ll be flying down there in the state-owned airplane, at state expense.

Minnesota’s governor, Mark Dayton, by the way, paid for his own ticket to the Super Bowl, according to The Forum’s website. Dayton said he paid $6,000 for his ticket. (Don’t worry, he can afford them too.) So Xcel’s cost for Burgum’ tickets, and his wife’s, might be as much as $12,000. Plus chips and dip. And maybe some wings. And a beer or two. You can read the whole story here if you want to.

The initiated measure, which will be gathering signatures any day now, deals directly with this kind of thing. It reads, in part, “The ethics commission may …adopt ethics rules, including rules on disclosure, campaign finance, conflict of interest, lobbying, use of position, government contracts, gifts to public officials …”

So I guess if I was one of the sponsors of that petition drive to create a North Dakota Ethics Commission, I might now have a really good reason for why we need one. A $12,000 reason. With chips and dip. And wings.

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.”

TOM DAVIES: The Verdict — 2018 … Ready or Not, Here We Come

It’s odd how people will read this column or one of my posts on Facebook and conclude I don’t like folks at the local and state level. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

On an individual basis, I like everyone on the Fargo City Commission. I have not met a state or county official I don’t personally like. At the federal level, I guess they’re right, at least about two out of three. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp is my favorite. I have no difficulty separating friendship from political ideology. Surprise! While I have Democratic leanings, I also have many Republican friends. That won’t change.

Now we learn that POTUS 45 has directed the Centers for Disease Control to ban the use of the words “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender” and “fetus,” along with “evidence-based” and “science-based.” Reports indicate that the entire Health Department may follow suit.

It’s odd how those words describe groups most in need of protection. First, he attacks the media! Then he attacks the courts! Then he praises hate groups like the KKK! Then he limits freedom of speech! Then he proposes that opponents and reporters should be jailed! Then he relies on Fox News and Sean Hannity for his world view! Then he blows his cork each and every time someone says or does something he doesn’t like — like the recently revealed story from last June, when he considered dumping his Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch for telling a senator he found 45’s attacks on the court system “disheartening and demoralizing.” I could fill up the rest of this paper with a list of his attacks on countless targets. You get the idea.

This man apparently wants to be a dictator, emperor or king. He has no idea what it takes to actually govern a democracy.

The dumbest lawyers in the world seem to be those who are trying to provide advice to this president. He takes no advice. His legal counsel are apparently too stupid to tell him that he must either take their learned advice … or they will walk.

Any good lawyer controls his client, and any good lawyer kicks that client’s butt right out the door if he doesn’t take sound legal advice.

Lawyers should have told 45 that some of his federal district and appellate court nominees were totally unfit for the positions offered. In fact, they tried. The American Bar Association, which is nonpartisan, rates candidates for lifetime appointment to the bench. Its committee recently found some of the current crop are not just “unqualified,” but “totally unqualified.” Yet these nominees’ names still made it out of the Senate committee. (Several were subsequently withdrawn because of public outrage.)

That begs the real question: What is the IQ of those who submitted these misfits for approval in the first place?

The best gift for all of the people of this country, for this holiday season and far beyond, would be a positive, simple but far-reaching realization by all of our government leaders, from the top to the local level, to remember that we live in a democracy where the will of the people counts.

We live in a country where we should (but in too many cases do not) judge people by who they are, not by their color, sex or religion.

* * *

Now that the tax bill has passed, the wealthy have every reason to be happy with the law that Congress did not even read before passing. We who are not so financially comfortable — we who need affordable health care, the average citizen — will take it in the shorts. Remember, the tax cuts they’ve legislated for individual citizens all expire in 2025 and go back to where they are today. But the tax cuts for corporations and businesses are permanent, ad infinitum!

Because my pancreas was infected and almost totally destroyed several years ago, I am now a Type 1 diabetic, with all the extreme medical expenses that carries. The United States already pays the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs. The last thing we need is to put a pharmaceutical executive in charge of the Department of Health and Human Services, which regulates prescription drugs.

Nowhere in the world are drug prices as high as they are in this country. That in and of itself is unacceptable. Yet 45 has appointed Alex Azar, the head of Eli Lily, to head the powerful agency. Azar is a man who values drug prices and profits over people’s lives. That’s a demonstrable fact.

You can take this to the bank: The judicial system will be called upon at both state and federal levels to address many problems of concern to the average citizen. There is no shortage of groups willing to take the abuse to task and into the courts. It may take time, but I am sure of one thing — we will take back our country at every level, and it’s going to happen in my lifetime. (And I’m 78, so that means it damn well better happen fast.)

At his private Christmas dinner at Mar-a-Lago with his wealthy friends, 45 announced his recent tax bill has made them all even wealthier. For once, he was telling the truth. He played the Senate like a fiddle to get the votes to pass it; lies just don’t bother the man. What is worse is that others who are in power know he’s lying, but support him anyway. Do you remember how he claimed the changes in the bill would mean he himself would suffer financially? Clearly, that’s another lie … but until he reveals his tax returns, which he refuses to do, we will not know the rest of the story.

I’m an optimist. I believe good will always prevails over evil. While this country is taking a big hit both here at home and overseas, our democratic system of government will eventually regain its balance, its prominence and its leadership role in the world. This is my wish for the new year. Amen.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Refinery Near National Park Gets Preliminary OK

Tuesday’s announcement by the North Dakota Department of Health that it is preparing to issue an Air Quality Permit to Meridian Energy to build the Davis Oil Refinery three miles from Theodore Roosevelt National Park should come as no surprise.

Once again, the state of North Dakota rolls over to the energy industry, but this time it’s threatening more than just North Dakota’s environment. This time it is threatening a national park. This time, maybe, the state has rolled too far.

The Health Department would seem to have a narrow focus — numbers — but the documents it released Tuesday to back up those numbers are rife with judgments. There’s never been a refinery built like this one, the company brags in its public relations efforts, so there’s really nothing to compare it to in arriving at those numbers.

But there are a lot of people concerned about a lot more than just some numbers that purport to show that pollution from the refinery will not cause deterioration of the park’s Class I Air Quality Status.

In its announcement Tuesday, the Health Department said, “A complete review of the proposed project indicates that the facility is expected to comply with the applicable federal and state air pollution rules and regulations.”

Good. That means if the scientists at the Health Department are right, no matter where the refinery is located, in their judgment, it will not pollute North Dakota air.

But this is about more than air pollution. This is about putting a major industrial complex with stacks emitting big white plumes on the entrance road to the gate of a national park named for America’s greatest conservation president.

What are we thinking?

Part of the Health Department’s decision to issue a permit for the plant is based on the fact that Meridian is claiming to be a “minor source” of pollution, rather than a “major source.” I can’t go into a bunch of details about that, but basically it means that because the Department accepts that claim, the refinery is subject to different rules when it comes to determining if it will affect the park’s Class I Air Quality status. Less stringent rules.

That’s the first sham the refinery folks are pulling.

The second is, Meridian are avoiding having to get a siting permit from the Public Service Commission because it says it are going to build a refinery smaller than what it earlier applied for to the Health Department and the State Water Commission.

In North Dakota, a refinery planning to process more than 50,000 barrels of oil per day must go through a stringent siting process to determine the impact of such a facility on the surrounding area, such as a national park. Meridian’s applications to the Health Department, for an Air Quality Permit, and to the North Dakota Water Commission, for a water permit, are for a 55,000 barrels per day refinery. The siting permit process goes beyond just a numbers game. Let me quote from the PSC’s website:

“The purpose of the Siting Act is to ensure that the location, construction and operation of energy conversion facilities and transmission facilities will produce minimal adverse effects on the environment and upon the welfare of the citizens of this state by providing that no energy conversion facility or transmission facility shall be located, constructed and operated within this state without a certificate of site compatibility or a route permit issued by the Commission.

“The Legislature stated that it is the policy of this state to site energy conversion facilities and to route transmission facilities in an orderly manner compatible with environmental preservation and the efficient use of resources. Site and routes should be chosen to minimize adverse human and environmental impact while ensuring continuing system reliability and integrity and ensuring that energy needs are met and fulfilled in an orderly and timely fashion.”

Well, good for the Legislature! I think that law dates back to 1977. It’s a pretty safe bet it wasn’t passed any time in the last 10 years.

Again, the trigger for requiring a siting permit is 50,000 barrels per day. But now, Meridian now has changed its story and says it is only going to process 49,500 barrels per day, sneaking in under the 50,000 barrel limit and avoiding the siting process.

To her credit, Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak said Tuesday she wants to meet with Meridian officials to discuss the proposed location. She’s not been happy with the refinery company’s shenanigans. She’s going to meet with Meridian CEO Bill Prentice on Dec. 19. I think I’m going to be there, too.

I’ve asked Fedorchak to get the governor involved in this process as well. Between them maybe they could convince the refinery people to move the plant 10 miles east, maybe even 20. There’s another refinery already located just west of Dickinson, N.D., about 20 miles east of the proposed location of this one. And it sits next to a transload facility with the capacity to move hundreds of tank cars of refined products a day to Eastern markets. I’d think that is a good location for another refinery.

But back to the Health Department. For now, the Health Department says Meridian complies with Chapter 33-15-14 of the North Dakota Administrative Code, which requires the facility to obtain a Permit to Construct and a Permit to Operate. In other words, the Health Department believes the pollution projections given to them by Meridian. Here are their words:

“The facility has met all requirements necessary to obtain a Permit to Construct. Once the Davis Refinery completes construction and meets the permit to construct requirements, a facility inspection will be performed by the Department. Upon a satisfactory inspection and performance testing, the Davis Refinery will be issued a Permit to Operate.”

Damn!

Here are a couple other excerpts from Tuesday’s announcement by the Health Department:

“Chapter 33-15-15 — Prevention of Significant Deterioration of Air Quality. This chapter adopts the federal provisions of the prevention of significant deterioration of air quality (PSD) program. A facility is subject to PSD review if it is classified as a “major stationary source” under Chapter 33-15-15. The Davis Refinery will be subject to federally enforceable emission limitations via a synthetic minor permit to construct to remain below “major source thresholds” and therefore is not subject to PSD review under this chapter.” (Note there the significance of being classified as a minor source rather than a major source.)

“Chapter 33-15-16 — Restriction of Odorous Air Contaminants. This chapter restricts the discharge of objectionable odorous air contaminants which measures seven odor concentration units or greater outside the property boundary. Based on Department experience with sources having similar emissions, the facility is expected to comply with this chapter.” (Basing this decision on possible sources with similar emissions, this does not pass the smell test, in my humble opinion. They ever been in Mandan when the wind is from the northeast?)

“Chapter 33-15-19 — Visibility Protection. This chapter applies to major stationary sources as defined in section 33-15-15-01. The facility will not be a major stationary source and therefore is not subject to the requirements of this chapter. Given the minor source levels of the visibility impairing air pollutants, such as NOx, SO2, and PM2.5, it is expected that the Davis Refinery will not adversely contribute to visibility impairment within the three units of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park (nearest federal Class I areas).” (Note again the different standards for major and minor sources. And what about the plume rising hundreds of feet high above the park?)

Finally, here’s the summary at the end of today’s announcement:

“Summary: A complete review of the proposed project indicates that the facility is expected to comply with the applicable federal and state air pollution rules and regulations. Therefore, Meridian Energy Group Inc. has met all the requirements for obtaining a Permit to Construct and a draft Permit to Construct will be made available for public comment. Given the level of public interest, a 30-day public comment period (PCP) and concurrent 30-day EPA review period is required prior to permit issuance. In addition, the Department will hold a public meeting followed by a public hearing in Dickinson, N.D., for interested parties. Upon completion of the PCP, the Department will address all comments applicable to the state and federal air quality rules and regulations and make a final determination regarding the issuance of a Permit to Construct for the Davis Refinery.”

The public comment period begins Friday and runs through Jan. 26, 2018. Sharpen your pencils. Written comments should be sent to the North Dakota Department of Health, Division of Air Quality, 918 East Divide Ave, 2nd Floor, Bismarck, ND 58501-1947. Or e-mailed to AirQuality@nd.gov.

Mark your calendars now to attend the public hearing on the refinery at 5:30 p.m. (MST) Jan. 17 in Dorothy Stickney Auditorium in May Hall at Dickinson State University. That’s a big room. Let’s fill it up.

Here’s Tuesday’s announcement, if you want to take a look. It’s a few hundred pages.

I am reminded that President John F. Kennedy kept a small wooden plaque on his desk in the Oval Office for days like this. It read, “Oh, God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.”

Indeed, Big Oil and North Dakota government rule a mighty sea.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — How Long Will Trump Last? Make A Guess!

OK, at first it was just a sly hint, a trickle of wishfulness, but it’s become a pretty serious subject of open discussion now, both on social media and on the street: How long do you think Trump will last as president?

Some say he’s going to commit an apparently impeachable offense, and Congress will go after him. If that’s the case, he has two choices: To ride it out and hope to carry the day, with his mass of toothless supporters pressuring the House and Senate enough that they won’t convict him. Or he just pulls a Nixon and goes away.

Others, me among them, think he’s just going to get tired of all the shit he has to put up with and he’s just going to take a hike, saying “I picked a really great vice president, and I think he’ll be a great president. He’ll finish the job of making America great again.” And then he’ll just quit.

Personally, I think that he was in it for the “deal,” to prove he could do it, but we all know that as soon as he finishes a deal, he just moves onto the next one. He never sticks around to do the grunt work it takes to actually make the deal work. He’s got “people” for that.

Well, he won the deal. He got elected. He’s proven he could do it. It’s a matter of time before he tires of the day-to-day bother of being president of the United States. So let’s have some fun.

How long do YOU think he’ll stay? Just go down to the comments section below and post your guess. Name the year, the month, the date and the hour Trump officially leaves office. The contest will go on as long as Trump is president. It will end when I award the prizes — some official White House stuff I’ve accumulated over the years — to the person who has the closest guess to that day.

OK, as of this week, he’s made it two months. How much longer? Register your guess. Include your name with your guess. If you win, we’ll announce it right here, and send you an e-mail, and you can claim the prizes.

I’ll start. I’m picking at noon, July 4, 2017. Even though I hope I don’t have to wait that long.

The rest of you:  GO!