JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Refinery Company Is Still Blowing Smoke, Still Sleazy

Last week, William Prentice, the slickster CEO of Meridian Energy Group, which wants to build an oil refinery 2½ miles from Theodore Roosevelt National Park, blew a bunch of smoke up the ass of a young reporter for The Dickinson (N.D.) Press, and the kid, who’s actually a pretty good writer, wrote a real puff piece about how great the refinery is going to be for western North Dakota.

Worse, the Bismarck Tribune reprinted most of it this week. Even worse, Forum Communications’ other North Dakota papers — in Fargo, Grand Forks and Jamestown — all printed the story, under the headline “Refinery near national park would bring jobs, revenue to western ND county.” You could read it here if you want to. This kind of positive publicity coup for a controversial project had old Bill Prentice drooling out of both sides of his mouth.

Prentice said taxes collected from the refinery would provide Billings County “funds to improve schools, roads and anything else. The influx of money and workers could even help return a grocery store to the town, as Belfield has lacked one for years now.”

“Everything needs a little bit of tender loving care,” Prentice said.

Gag.

P.S. Belfield is in Stark County, not Billings.

Now maybe the young reporter is going to do another story sometime talking about the problems a refinery near a national park poses. If so, he might want to talk to some folks from the National Parks Conservation Association, one of the fiercest and most stubborn opponents of the refinery’s proposed location. That’s the nonprofit organization whose only agenda is to support and seek protection for national parks all over the U.S. Because of this severe threat to North Dakota’s national park, NPCA has jumped into this battle with both feet.

To that end, NPCA commissioned an independent analysis of Meridian’s application materials for an air-quality permit from the North Dakota Department of Health. In its application, Meridian claims that the proposed refinery is a “minor” source of pollution. Uh huh.

In her analysis of the application, Dr. Phyllis Fox, an environmental and chemical engineer from Florida who has prepared air permit applications on behalf of refiners and who has reviewed and commented on hundreds of permit applications, says the refinery “is almost certainly a ‘major’ source of pollution that would release substantial amounts of carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and hazardous air pollutants — all harmful to human and ecological health.” Uffda.

The designation matters, Dr. Fox says, because unlike major sources of pollution, a minor source permit does not require a rigorous assessment of pollution impacts as well as the best pollution controls. A major source permit requires serious scrutiny, which Meridian wants to avoid.

Her analysis also found that Meridian significantly underestimated or omitted emissions in its application from sources, including flaring events; startup, shutdown and malfunction; and associated equipment, among other sources.

Well. That’s not surprising. As I said in an earlier post here, Meridian is one sleazy company. They’ve told outright lies to the North Dakota Public Service Commission to avoid undergoing an environmental assessment in order to get a site permit. And now, we learn they’ve lied to the State Health Department as well. I asked both those agencies to comment on Dr. Fox’s report.

Craig Thorstenson, the environmental engineer for the Health Department who is responsible for these kinds of things (and who just happens to be the nephew of my Hettinger High School wrestling coach, Chuck Thorstenson, a really good coach who won the state championship and was named North Dakota High School Wrestling Coach of the Year in 1966, the year AFTER I graduated) replied, “We are still reviewing the Meridian application to determine if the application is complete and if emissions from the facility will be expected to remain below the major source thresholds. It will likely be at least two months before we make a determination.”

Craig also told me that when the review is done, there will be a 30-day public comment period, and he said Dr. Fox’s report will be considered if she submits it to the Health Department during that time period. My guess is they will take it seriously. Bill Prentice won’t like that.

Prentice, by the way, was trying to blow smoke up Craig Thorstenson’s ass in the Dickinson Press story, too. Seeking to get out ahead of Dr. Fox’s report, Prentice said, “The North Dakota Department of Health is as knowledgeable, if not more knowledgeable than any other agency we’ve worked with on a complex project, including federal agencies. They are a world-class organization.”

More blowing smoke: As far as I can tell, Meridian Energy is a brand-new company and this is its first project, so I’m not sure what agencies, “including federal agencies,” they’ve “worked with.” Kind of a Trumpian claim, in keeping with the times.

I do think the Health Department is doing a pretty thorough review of the application. I won’t be surprised if they agree with Dr. Fox.

Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak, to whom I have no such close association as I do with Craig Thorstenson and his now deceased Uncle Chuck (although I often sit behind Julie’s brother in church — I sit in the third row on the left side because I am hard of hearing and that’s the spot with the best acoustics, and I don’t want to miss Msgr. Chad Gion’s homilies because they’re very good — and Mike and his family usually sit right in front of me) replied, “Per the law, the PSC can’t require them to site the project. If they begin building without a permit then we could at that point take legal action against them if we believe they are violating the siting law. That’s the legal landscape. Our staff is working on a meeting with the company so we can speak directly with them about their plans, timeline, that site, their technology, etc., rather than through letters.”

I think Julie and her fellow PSC members are serious, too. I don’t think this is a done deal yet with either of those agencies. We’ll see in a few months.

Meanwhile, don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers. If you want something to believe, read the NPCA press release, complete with a link to Dr. Fox’s thorough, 28-page report, here.

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — President Theodore Roosevelt Crashes The Birthday Party

The most auspicious day on our calendar arrived. My husband and our twin daughters share the same birthday. (Karma, eh?) And we celebrate big each year.

This year was ramped up by a long shot because it was Jim’s 70th. Around this milestone, we planned a family reunion with his six siblings and their spouses, held in historic Medora, N.D.  Much laughter and sharing of memories ensued, and more than a few bottles of wine met their demise.

The coup de grace was at Saturday night’s dinner party in the Rough Rider Hotel, when during the toasts, President Theodore Roosevelt popped in to extend his birthday greetings to Jim and his well wishes to the gathering. Everyone’s expression when I walked into the banquet room on the arm of TR was priceless, especially Jim’s.

Jim’s sister, Sue, took video of the speech, and if she figures out how to upload that to YouTube, I’ll add a link. TR is portrayed by our good friend, Joe Wiegand, a true ambassador for Medora and the Bad Lands.

Everyone’s toasts were very heartfelt and moving. Jim is the much loved and admired patriarch of the family, and has been for several decades, sadly due to the early death of his father.

A fish feast prepared by Blake and Blair.

This group takes their Bloody Marys very seriously.

Rachel and I enjoyed watching people play minigolf while some of the Fuglies golfed at Bully Pulpit and Chelsea enjoyed TR National Park.

Our little family ended the weekend in the Bad Lands by eating at the Pitchfork Fondue and attending the sold-out Medora Musical! And we had a grand evening with almost 3,000 others.

After a weekend of more good Medora memories, it was home to Bismarck, where we hosted a gathering of good friends for this occasion.

And finally came the time when I gave Jim the present I’d stashed away months ago: a signed, first edition of Hermann Hagedorn’s “Roosevelt in the Bad Lands.”

Lordy, I love this man and our life!

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Another Trip Around The Sun

Sometime after I went to bed last night, I completed my 70th trip around the sun. Today I begin my 71st.

They’ve been interesting trips. I’ve enjoyed most of all of them. They’ve all been different. If I could do them over, there are probably a few different roads I’d choose, a few different off-ramps I’d take, a few different corners I’d turn. But for the most part, they’ve been pretty good trips. If I viewed them as just different parts of one long trip, I’d agree with Jerry Garcia — it’s been a long, strange trip.

But I like looking at them as separate trips. The first few were in Chicago, where I learned to walk and talk. The rest, for the most part, have begun and ended in North Dakota, the place I love. My parents made the decision to bring me here for my fourth trip, looked after me for the next 15 or so, and then I made the decision to spend most of the rest of them here, with the exception of minitrips outside the state to make life a little more interesting, and the four trips my Uncle Sam took me on around the globe.

I’ve made about eight more trips than my dad did, but I’ve got a ways to go to pass my mother’s record. That would be a good goal, I guess. She made 85. And by God, she made the most of them. If you’d have asked her as she approached the end of her last trip, she’d have said every one of them was a good one. She was the most positive and optimistic woman I’ve ever known. Maybe that’s where I get it from.

I was reminded over this just-passed long weekend of the value of family and good friends. My siblings and I all gathered for a couple of days in the North Dakota Bad Lands, and they all said nice things about me at supper Saturday night. I am grateful for all of them, and to my parents for giving them to me.

And in a little gathering on my patio yesterday, a kind of a spontaneous rally around a cake and a jug of lemonade, friends gave me little gifts and encouraged me to make a whole bunch more trips.

I think I will. And I think I’ll follow Neil Young’s advice: “My, my, hey, hey, it’s better to burn out than fade away.” Lillian gave me this T-shirt yesterday. I’m going to wear it once a week for the rest of my trips. Until I burn out.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Ben Hanson For Congress: A Good Idea

So it begins. North Dakota has its first official candidate in the 2018 election. Given all the weird shit (read: Trump) that’s been going on over the past eight months or so, I’m eager for a fresh start, and my young friend, Ben Hanson, has provided that. Thank you, Ben.

Ben sent me an e-mail shortly after midnight last night announcing he is running for Congress, to represent the great state of North Dakota in Washington, DC. I hope he wins.

He’s running against another friend of mine, Kevin Cramer (who I used to vote for until he went crazy on me in this Trump thing), if he gets the endorsement of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party next spring. To do that, he may have to sneak past a couple of other Democrats who are said to be considering the race, former State Senator Mac Schneider and current State Senator Merrill Piepkorn.

Both are better known across the state, Schneider, the former Senate Minority Leader and Grand Forks attorney who was ousted from his District 42 State Senate seat last November, and Piepkorn, the longtime voice on Prairie Public Radio, who won his first race for the State Senate in the same election in Fargo’s District 44. Neither has announced, but if they do, it will be a healthy thing for the Democrats.

I can see them traveling around the state together seeking the party endorsement, like the four Democrats — George Sinner, Art Link, Buckshot Hoffner and Walt Hjelle — did in the run-up to the 1984 Democratic-NPL convention. That was good for the party, and the attention it got helped Sinner defeat incumbent Allen Olson in the November election that year.

I really like Hanson (no relation to Bob Hanson, the former Democratic-NPL state officeholder) and will support him in his efforts to get the nomination, despite my friendship with Schneider and Piepkorn.

I first met him in 2006, when he was a teenager getting involved in Democratic-NPL Party politics. He was making a video about Art and Grace Link, and I think we showed it at the State Democratic-NPL Convention. I could see he had an intense interest in politics, even as a young college student.

He went on to get his college degree and become a real estate broker. He got involved in his local district party and got himself elected to the state Legislature from Fargo’s District 16, where he served two sessions before losing a re-election effort last year. He quickly got involved in leadership in the Legislature, becoming his party’s House Caucus Co-Chair, and he called me from time to time to get together and talk strategy for the future of the party and the state.

He called last spring, and we sat and drank a beer, and he said he thought he’d like to run for Congres, and asked me what I thought. I said, “Go!” in the strongest possible terms. I like his ideas about our state, his political knowledge despite only being 30 years old and his belief that people should be involved in politics for the future of the state, not the future of the candidate. Whether or not he becomes our state’s congressman, he’ll be around in leadership roles for a long time.

It’s heartening to see young people like Hanson getting involved in politics and government at this level. I hope he becomes our congressman. Here’s what he had to say in his announcement e-mail:

BEN HANSON ANNOUNCES BID FOR CONGRESS

Vows to fight for North Dakota families, create good middle-class jobs & grow North Dakota’s economy

(FARGO, ND) — Lifelong North Dakotan Ben Hanson announced today his intention to run for North Dakota’s lone seat in the United States House of Representatives. Hanson released the following statement:

“I’m excited to be running to become North Dakota’s next Congressman because I love North Dakota. I was born here, raised here, and my family has farmed North Dakota ground for generations. They taught me North Dakota values like hard work, dedication and looking out for your neighbor. These values have guided me this far in life and just as I have lived by them I will run by them.”

“I’m running because I believe that North Dakota deserves a congressman who will focus on the needs of hard-working North Dakotans — creating good paying jobs for working families, strengthening the middle class, and building an economy that works for everyone. Over the course of my campaign, I will focus on boosting job growth and jumpstarting our economy by investing in small businesses, an all-of-the-above energy strategy, and rebuilding our infrastructure.”

“North Dakota needs an advocate in Washington to help solve problems and navigate its complexities. Unfortunately, Kevin Cramer has lost focus on issues that matter to North Dakotans and instead has become part of the mess that is Washington, D.C. Together we can move forward — with an eye toward bringing North Dakota values and work-ethic to the halls of Congress. I look forward to the privilege of representing the people of North Dakota and earning your support.”

  • Kenton Onstad, Former House Minority Leader, Parshall School Board Member: “Ben not only understands the complexities and the dynamics of Western North Dakota but the entire state of North Dakota. He would represent all of the citizens of our state. Young or old, male or female, those fortunate or less fortunate, Ben would be proud to represent you, as you would be of him.”
  • North Dakota State Senator Tim Mathern: “I’m excited to see Ben Hanson enter the race, as well as this new leadership for our state, and a rebirth of the party. As an added bonus Ben Hanson’s roots are deep across North Dakota, from Crosby to the Red River Valley. We will all benefit with Ben Hanson in Congress.”

About Ben Hanson:

With family from Crosby to Casselton, Ben Hanson is a lifelong North Dakotan with deep roots in this community. Ben grew up in the Red River Valley, attending Fargo South High School, and he is a graduate of Minnesota State University-Moorhead.

As a North Dakota state representative, Ben was focused on making North Dakota a leader in creating good-paying technology jobs and making state government more transparent.

Ben currently works as a commercial broker for Archer Real Estate Services and lives in Fargo.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Halek Sentencing Delayed Again

If you’ve been following the saga of Jason Halek on my blog for the last four years, you know that on July 31 he was supposed to be sent off to jail for dumping 800,000 gallons of poisonous oilfield brine down an abandoned well south of Dickinson. I last wrote about him on April 13, the day he pleaded guilty to three felonies, committed in late 2012 and early 2013. I ended that with the words “I’ll report back July 31.”

Well, July 31 has come and gone, and no sentencing yet. Judge Daniel Hovland in the U.S. District Court here postponed sentencing until Oct. 11. I’m not sure why, but when I read through the court docket on the case I learned that on July 19, Halek’s attorney, Alex Reichert of Grand Forks, filed a motion for an extension of time to object to the presentence investigation report. I’m guessing that Reichert’s motion was approved, based on the postponement of sentencing.

Halek’s associate, and the guy who fingered him, Nathan Garber, was also scheduled to be sentenced that day, but his sentencing date has also been moved to Oct. 11. He’s going to get off easy, I think, because Halek was the guy the government really wanted, and Garber gave him up.

If you’re new to this case, or this blog, you can read the whole history of it here. I’m not going to burden you with it again.

But let me just say that I am confused about the delay in sentencing, since Halek appeared in court April 12, and when asked by Hovland how he pleaded, he said “Guilty, your honor.” I guess Hovland called for a presentence investigation, but I missed that. And I guess that’s the reason for the delay.

This is now the 10th article I’ve written about this case, and it looks like there will be one more, on or about Oct. 11. It’s actually been a little bit of fun, which it shouldn’t be, because what this guy did is serious business, serious enough to send him to a federal prison for up to three years for violating our country’s Safe Drinking Water Act.

But I’ve had some fun correspondence, from people I don’t know, who have read the blog stories and got in touch with me. Like this one from a guy in Mexico:

“I had the misfortune of working with Jason Halek in Texas where I finally met with him and his dad one morning and told them they were ripping off investors … and they promptly fired me. Best thing that happened to me for sure. I read with interest he may go to jail soon. Would love an update if possible. I would enjoy being there to hear the judge pass sentence too! Keep up the good work … this man is an amazing scam artist and I hope he goes to jail.” (He sent me his phone number and e-mail address, so I will let him know when something happens.)

NOTE: Last I heard, Halek is still on the hook for $22 million he ripped off from those investors. Oh, and he’s still on the hook for about a million and a half dollars in North Dakota fines. Remember that big, black headline back in 2013 screaming “$1.5 Million Fine” on the front page of North Dakota newspapers? As far as I can tell, Halek hasn’t paid a penny of that — the state has received $40,000 from the bond company that Halek engaged when he went into business here, and that’s it. He  still owes of most of that $1.5 million. He’s been selling used cars lately. Gonna take a lot of used cars to clean that up. And he probably won’t have much income for the next few years.

Steph BL. Really, that’s her.
Steph BL. Really, that’s her.

And then just this week, I had a Facebook message from someone I don’t know, and I responded. Here’s the conversation:

MON 12:21PM Steph BL: Did Jason Halek get sentenced yet?

MON 3:41PM: Me: Sentencing postponed to Oct. 11.

MON 3:42PM Steph BL: Wow it just keeps dragging on. I was his first girlfriend in 1994 and have been following his story. Lol. Thanks for the reporting. He gets out of everything it seems.

MON 5:23PM Me: Well he has a good lawyer, but I’m guessing he’s going to the pokey for a couple years. We’ll see.

MON 5:24 Steph BL: Probably what he needs in order to hopefully wake him up. He thinks he’s untouchable invinceable (sic). A true narcissist. I think I probably dodged a bullet when he dumped me. Lol.

Ya think, Steph?

Stay tuned.

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.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — The Little Missouri State Scenic River Commission Is Back In Business

When the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission meets Wednesday in Dickinson, N.D., it could have a cake with 10 candles on it to celebrate. It will have been just 20 days shy of 10 years since the Commission last met — Aug. 29, 2007.

The newly formed commission, put together hastily this summer to comply with strict orders from Gov. Doug Burgum, will meet at the Grand Dakota Lodge just off state Highway 22 in North Dickinson at 7 p.m. MDT. Its last meeting was held just across the highway in the Dickinson AmericInn 10 years ago. Likely the only person at Wednesday’s meeting who was also at the last meeting will be Jennifer Turnbow from the Bismarck Engineering firm KLJ.

At that meeting, Turnbow was the only person on the commission’s agenda. She was there to outline plans for a new crossing over the Little Missouri River in Billings County, N.D. More about that in a minute. She’s on Wednesday’s agenda for a much bigger project — a four-lane, multimillion dollar bridge over the Little Missouri State Scenic River to replace the Long-X Bridge on U.S. Highway 85 on the east edge of the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The North Dakota Department of Transportation is turning Highway 85 into a four-lane highway from Williston to Bowman and is either going to have to widen or replace the existing bridge. It’s a contentious issue because the highway actually runs through the east end of the national park, and there’s great concern about the impact of four lanes of 70 mph traffic zipping through the park.

A decision is going to have to be made pretty soon about how to get those cars and trucks across the Little Missouri State Scenic River with the least possible impact on the park. That’s what Turnbow will discuss Wednesday. We’ll have to wait and see if she has a formal recommendation.

Kudos to Gov. Burgum, and whoever put together the agenda, for putting the bridge project up for discussion at this historic first meeting of the commission in 10 years. Actually, credit really goes to Jan Swenson, executive director of the Badlands Conservation Alliance. Last year, in submitting comments on the draft of the Environmental Impact Statement on the Highway 85 project, Jan suggested that the North Dakota DOT consult the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission.

Well, Jan’s comments set us all to scrambling to find out what the hell that commission was all about. So we all refreshed our memories (here’s an article I wrote about it last year) and reminded ourselves that it was created by the 1975 Legislature to “advise local or other units of government to afford the protection adequate to maintain the scenic, historic, and recreational qualities of the Little Missouri River and its tributary streams.”

That’s quoted from the Little Missouri State Scenic River Act of 1975, now Chapter 61-29 of the North Dakota Century Code. A little-remembered but significant state law. So, some of us began lobbying newly elected Gov. Burgum last winter to revive the commission, and sure enough, he did, and now we’re going to a meeting.

Thank you Jan, and thank you Gov. Burgum. This is important because Chapter 61-29 also says, “The commission shall also have the power and duties of promulgating management policies to coordinate all activities within the confines of the Little Missouri River when such action is deemed necessary.”

And if there was ever a time when activities in the Little Missouri State Scenic River Valley need some oversight, it’s now. Because in the absence of the commission during the Hoeven and Dalrymple years, there’s been a lot of bad shit going on in the Little Missouri River Valley.

And so last week, Jessie Wald, public information officer for the State Water Commission, sent out a press release announcing:

“Gov. Burgum has requested that the Little Missouri River Commission reconvene to discuss water management and development issues in the Little Missouri River Basin. The meeting is scheduled to be held on Wednesday, Aug. 9. It will take place at the Ramada Grand Dakota Lodge in the Freedom Hall at 532 15th Street West in Dickinson, N.D., from 7 to 9 p.m. MDT.”

Jessie went on to say:

“The Little Missouri River State Scenic River Act (Act) was created and passed in 1975 by the North Dakota Legislature. That same legislation also established the Little Missouri River Commission to administer the Act — though as an advisory commission only (emphasis added).

“LMRC membership, by statute, includes the Director of the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department, the State Health Officer, the Chief Engineer of the State Water Commission, or their designated representatives; and one member each from McKenzie, Billings, Slope, Golden Valley, Dunn, and Bowman counties.

“The Aug. 9 meeting will provide background of the LRMC, include an election of officers, and there will be various presentations and discussions pertaining to current natural resource management issues along the Little Missouri River. The last LRMC meeting convened in 2007.”

I underlined the language above because it kind of pissed me off that Jessie’s superiors found it necessary to say that it only has “advisory” responsibilities. These are the same fellows over at the State Water Commission, also known as the State Engineer’s Office, who flouted this same state law for years by issuing more than 600 illegal industrial water permits to let the oil industry use Little Missouri River water to frack their oil wells, despite the law’s language that said (at the time — it’s been updated by the 2017 Legislature to allow industrial uses of Little Missouri River water)  “Channelization, reservoir construction, or diversion other than for agricultural or recreational, purposes … are expressly prohibited. I wrote about that back in April.

And so, when this body of six ranchers, one from each of the Bad Lands counties, and three state officials, get together Wednesday night, the first item Jessie’s bosses put on the agenda is a review of an old attorney general’s opinion issued by Nick Spaeth back in the 1980s.

In that opinion, Spaeth said he felt the law limited the commission to “adopting advisory policies for consideration by regulating bodies.”  Spaeth said, “It is my opinion that the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission may not regulate activities affecting the Little Missouri River.”

So, we and commission members, are being told, at the commission’s first meeting in 10 years, that they really don’t have any authority over what goes on in the Little Missouri State Scenic River Valley.

Except that Spaeth went on to say that “Regulating bodies are to recognize that the commission has an important role to play in managing the river. The commission, because of its composition, is able to provide a unique local perspective to management issues. Therefore, regulating bodies should carefully consider the Commission’s recommendations.” (emphasis added)

And that’s why Jennifer Turnbow, representing KLJ, which is engineering the Highway 85 project, will be at Wednesday’s meeting. When she completes her EIS, she wants to be sure she acknowledges the feelings of the Little Missouri River Commission.

And it is likely she will be back in front of the commission again pretty soon because as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, she’s also drafting the EIS for the Billings County bridge project. And she wrote in a newsletter for the project back in April 2008 (who’d have ever guessed a project could drag on this long?),  “Coordination with the (Little Missouri State Scenic River) Commission will be ongoing throughout the environmental process. Once alternatives have been defined and are carried forward for impact analysis, they will be presented to the commission again. At that time, the commission will determine if the proposed project is in compliance with the Little Missouri State Scenic River Act.” Here’s some more background.

Well, we’re about at that stage now. We expect to see that EIS in the next few months. And sure enough, after all these years, the commission is back in business. So, true to her word, as she always is, Turnbow will come back sometime this fall or winter, after she releases the EIS on the Billings County bridge project, and seek the commission’s blessing for that bridge. I’ll write more about that on another day.

For now, I’m going to brush up on the Highway 85 project by reading this old blog post, and put some gas in the car for the trip to Dickinson, to be part of this historic first meeting of the “new” Little Missouri State Scenic River Commission.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — The Newest Bridge Across The Little Missouri State Scenic River. What The …?

For the past 50 years or so, there have been just five places where you can drive your car across a bridge over the Little Missouri State Scenic River: in Marmarth on U.S. Highway 12, on Pacific Avenue in the city of Medora, on Interstate 94 just north of Medora (two bridges, one going each way), on U.S. Highway 85 south of Watford City (the Long-X Bridge) and on state Highway 22 north of Killdeer (the Lost Bridge).

The Billings County Commissioners have made news for the past 10 years trying to build a new bridge over the Little Missouri north of Medora. Their initial idea to put it beside the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park got shot down, and they’ve been involved in a long and costly EIS process, which has settled on a spot about 12 miles north of Medora, on the Short Ranch. The draft EIS should be released shortly, and a public comment process will follow the release.

The county has spent millions of dollars, probably enough to actually build the bridge, on the EIS process. Its still going to have to get permission from the Short family to put the bridge on their ranch. That’s unlikely to happen, so more time and money will have to be spent in a condemnation proceeding. When —  or even if —  the new bridge will be built remains to be determined by a court, and by the Commission.

They should have talked to Wylie Bice.

A couple of years ago, Bad Lands rancher Wylie Bice needed a way to get across the Little Missouri on his ranch northwest of Killdeer, so he just went ahead and built a bridge. It’s 9½ miles straight east of the Long-X Bridge, which crosses the river right on the eastern edge of the North Unit of the national park.

Here’s Wylie Bice’s story.

Bice ran a small trucking company from his ranch in northwest Dunn County before the oil boom. When the boom came, Wylie took advantage of it, buying some trucks, hiring some drivers, contracting with a lot of truck owner-operators and making a lot of money hauling water to and from oil wells.

In 2012, he sold the company to a Florida trucking company named Quality Distribution for — you ready? — somewhere between $80 million and $100 million. By the time the dust settles, the final deal will likely be closer to the second number than the first.

The Commercial Carrier Journal, a trade publication, said at the time of the sale, Bice employed 500 drivers and trucks and was “one of the largest haulers of fresh and disposal water and oil in the Bakken shale. Bice is principally an asset light business, as the company primarily utilizes independent contractors who own their own equipment.”

Well, there’s a North Dakota success story. Kind of like that guy from Fargo who sold his software company to Microsoft.

Bice had maintained his ranching operation on the east side of the Little Missouri State Scenic River and flush with cash after selling the trucking company, he bought the adjoining Hellickson ranch on the west side of the river. Both pretty good-sized spreads.

And now he had a problem. With ranches on both sides of the river, he needed a way to get back and forth, to move cows, cut and haul hay and operate his irrigation systems.

So without really telling anyone, except the Corps of Engineers, from whom he needed a permit, he just went ahead and built himself a bridge over the Little Missouri State Scenic River.

The Corps made him jump through some hoops, but he hired an engineer familiar with the process, and by the spring of 2013 he received permission from the Corps to build the bridge and was able to start construction. He’s been driving on it for about three years now.

I drove across the bridge last month. It’s a pretty substantial bridge, 240 feet long, with two large stone/concrete abutments holding it up, much like those under the railroad bridge across the Missouri River in Bismarck-Mandan, although much smaller. It’s well-engineered, though, and when I first came over the hill on the east side of the river, my reaction was “Holy S**t, look at that.” Since then, everyone I’ve shown the photo to has said pretty much the same thing.

Not only does he have a bridge, but he has a water depot there for storing water he’s taken from the Little Missouri State Scenic River, ostensibly for irrigation. The depot consists of four large plastic-lined pits, two on each side of the river.

Setting up an irrigation operation on BLM land.
Setting up an irrigation operation on BLM land.

The day I was there in June, it appeared there were two hired men pumping water from the river to supply the irrigation system. At least that’s what they said they were doing when I stopped to visit with them.

He does have a couple of water permits, and I looked at them on the North Dakota Water Commission website. It shows that he hasn’t taken any water out of there in the past 20 years. The Water Commission’s website can be a little cumbersome, so maybe I’m not reading it right, or maybe the info is buried somewhere else on the website, or maybe someone hasn’t been reporting the water they have taken from the river. Someone named Wylie Bice. I think there are some guys over at the Water Commission who read my blog, so maybe they’ll do a little checking for me.

But what Bice doesn’t appear to have is permission from the Bureau of Land Management to put a bridge on their land, and a road to it, and two water storage pits.

See, Bice owns the land on the east side of the river, but the BLM owns the land on the west side of the river. Likely the grazing rights went along with the purchase of the Hellickson ranch, but the federal government — you and I — own the chunk of land there — about 100 acres — and likely Bice has been paying rent to run cows on it. There’s quite a bit of BLM land nearby, probably also part of Bice’s grazing permit.

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,” and I’m guessing they’re checking on that right now as well.

The folks at the North Dakota Department of Transportation, which is responsible for inspecting bridges to make sure they are safe, doesn’t know anything about the bridge, and maybe they don’t have to, since it is a private bridge. Still, it’s on public land, and you’d like to think the DOT knows about all the bridges in the state, especially one of this size, crossing our state’s only designated State Scenic River.

The folks in the Dunn County Courthouse do know about the bridge, but weren’t involved in permitting it, since they don’t maintain the roads to it. None of them have been out to see the bridge, from what I can tell. In fact, I may be the only person other than Bice, his hired men, the engineers and the guys who built it who have actually seen the bridge. Too bad. It’s an engineering marvel out there, deep in the heart of the North Dakota Bad Lands.

The Little Missouri Scenic River Commission, had it been active when this was built, would surely have been involved in passing judgment on it, but the commission has been inactive for about 15 years under the Hoeven and Dalrymple administrations. Our new governor, Doug Burgum, has ordered it reactivated, though, and it might hold its first meeting as soon as this August. I’d hope there would be some discussion of this bridge at that meeting.

My friends and I, and my wife and I, canoe the Little Missouri State Scenic River pretty often, but since the boom we’ve avoided that stretch of the river. Too much noise, too much dust, too many flaring oil well pads. On our last trip, maybe10 years ago now, we stopped short of the bridge—  which wasn’t there yet —  at the ranch of my friend, Curly Haugland, which is about three miles west.

There might have been a canoer or two by there since it was built, but I sure hadn’t heard any reports from any of them about a new bridge. It’s not on the Forest Service map, which is the Bad Lands user’s bible, so I suspect it would be quite a shock to come around a bend in the river and see a brand-new bridge there. Maybe one of these days, if the river ever gets any water in it …

Well, that’s what I know for now. I can’t give you directions to the bridge, but 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.

I’ll be checking back with state and local permitting agencies, and I’ll report back here if I learn anything new.

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 — Refinery Company To PSC: ‘Screw You’

Of all the sleazy companies to show up in North Dakota’s oil patch in the nearly 10 years since the Bakken Boom began, the sleaziest of them all has to be Meridian Energy, the company proposing to build an oil refinery called the Davis Refinery just three miles from Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  Here’s why I say that.

Normally, when a company wants to build a large energy plant, like a refinery, it applies for a siting permit from the North Dakota Public Service Commission.  Most good companies do that. It’s the law. In the case of oil refineries, if the refinery is going to be capable of processing more than 50,000 barrels of oil per day, they have to obtain a site compatibility permit from the PSC.

Here’s Section 49-22 of the North Dakota Century Code:

“The legislative assembly finds that the construction of energy conversion facilities and transmission facilities affects the environment and the welfare of the citizens of this state. Therefore, it is necessary 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 acquired pursuant to this chapter. The legislative assembly hereby declares it to be 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. In accordance with this policy, sites and routes shall be chosen which 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.” (My emphasis added.)

Well, that’s reasonable enough, I guess. Take care of the people and their environment while providing the energy we need. The two should be compatible. You’d think that it might also keep a refinery away from the boundary of a national park.

The proposed Meridian refinery is a 55,000-bpd facility. The Davis Refinery stock offering from January 2017 says: “Meridian Energy Group Inc. (“Meridian” or the “Company”) is a closely held South Dakota corporation that will construct and operate the Davis Refinery, a 55,000 barrel per day high conversion crude oil refinery on a 715-acre site in Billings County, near Belfield, North Dakota, in the heart of the Bakken formation.”

In its application for a state water permit, Meridian is requesting enough water — 645 acre feet per year — to supply a refinery processing 55,000 barrels of oil per day.

In its application for an air quality permit from the North Dakota Health Department, the company makes its projections on how much pollution they will be producing based on a 55,000 barrel per day refinery.

Well, OK then, it’s going to build a refinery processing more than 50,000 bpd. So the company has to get a siting permit from the PSC, right? Well, not according to the company’s lawyer, Lawrence Bender (I’m going to stop just short of calling him sleazy, too, but I will say the sleazy company found the right lawyer).

Bender wrote a letter to the PSC in which he says, “Please be advised that at this time, Meridian is designing its refinery to be capable of refining twenty seven thousand five hundred (27,500) barrels per day. Further, at this time, there is no design in existence nor plans to propose a design for more than 27,500 barrels.”

Huh? The company had told two other state agencies and all potential investors that the refinery is going to process 55,000 bpd. Oh, he does go on to say, “Though Meridian does not presently have any designs or plans to propose a Refinery with capacity beyond 27,500 barrels of oil per day, Meridian considers it a possibility that such addition could be made at a later date.”

Good grief. A “possibility?” Somebody better tell those investors looking at the stock prospectus for Meridian Energy that the refinery they’re investing in is only a “possibility.”

The PSC members and their staff ain’t stupid. They took note of that and wrote back, “The Commission has received information that Meridian’s application to the State Water Commission for a Water Appropriation Permit is based on a facility capable of refining 55,000 barrels per day. Further, Meridian’s applications to the North Dakota Department of Health for the construction of a new crude oil refinery are based on a facility with a nominal processing capability of fifty five thousand (55,000) barrels per day.”

The letter went on, “Since Meridian is filing applications with other state agencies for permits based on a facility that can refine up to 55,000 barrels per day of oil, and since an oil refinery of that capacity is jurisdictional to the Commission for siting under North Dakota Century Code chapter 49-22, it appears that the proposed refinery is jurisdictional under the siting law. Please let us know whether Meridian agrees, and if so, when we can expect an application.”

Well, good for Patrick Fahn, director of the PSC’s Public Utilities Division, who wrote that letter. He sent it March 1. It took lawyer Bender about three weeks to respond. He said, basically, “Screw you, PSC.”

Explaining the water permit request, Bender reiterated that Meridian only planned to build a 27,500 bpd, but again said again “it is a possibility” that the plan could expand in the future. And in response to the question on the air quality permit, he said basically, “the Health Department made us do it.” Well, of course, they did. They knew what Meridian was up to. They ain’t stupid either.

Bender then went on to say that under an old attorney general’s opinion, issued in 1976 by then-Attorney General Allen Olson, “applications to different state agencies concerning the same energy conversion facility need not be identical.”  What? That made no sense to me, so I went and read that opinion, and didn’t quite read it that way, but then I’m not a lawyer. I know former Attorney General (and Governor) Olson reads this blog. Maybe he’ll remember. Attorney General’s Opinion 76-130.

Bender’s conclusion: Meridian doesn’t believe those two applications trigger a site compatibility review by the PSC, and it will not seek a certificate of site compatibility. So it plans to just go ahead and start building a refinery, without PSC permission.

So we’ve got a standoff right now.

I’ve talked to two of the three PSC members about this, and they’re mulling it over. They gave it a run, and the company told them to get lost. So until Meridian puts a shovel in the ground, there’s not much the PSC can do. It’s pretty obvious that the reason Meridian doesn’t want to apply for a site compatibility permit  is that it believes the PSC might NOT issue a permit for this location if it applied for one. Well, that seems pretty stupid. Now Meridian has really pissed off the PSC. We’ll see how this plays out.

Meanwhile, Garland Erbele, the state engineer over at the Water Commission, did take some action, announcing he was granting a water permit for only 90 percent of the water Meridian had applied for. His logic: If he only gives Meridian enough water to build a refinery capable of processing 49,999 barrels of oil per day, then Meridian can’t build its 55,000 BPD refinery. There, take that, Meridian!

Cute. Real cute And pure pap. You don’t think Meridian might have a “fudge factor” of 10 percent or so in its request?

And what was Meridian’s reaction to that? Hey, no problem. Here’s a statement from their press release to potential investors: “William Prentice, Meridian CEO, commented on the Allocation Draft Permit, ‘We thank the Water Commission for the thoroughness and fairness of their review. While the recommended allocation is slightly less than we requested, I’m confident that we will employ our resources and determine how to make the Davis Refinery even more efficient, like we’ve done in so many areas thus far.’”

And the company’s engineer, Dan Hedrington, said in the same press release, “The Recommended Decision is the draft permit the Engineer’s Office has been working toward. The document appears very thorough and complete …”

In other words, Thanks, Mr. Erbele. That’ll be just fine.

Really, Erbele’s little stunt is beneath the dignity of a state government agency. That’s playing Meridian’s game. You want to send Meridian a REAL message, Mr. Erbele? Grant them a permit for enough water to process the 27,500 barrels per day.

Meridian says it “might” come back later and decide to expand its refinery capacity to 55,000 bpd, but right now, it’s at 27,500. So give them that much. And tell them if they decide to expand, you “might” give them more water.

There’s precedent for that. Way back in 1974, one of Erbele’s predecessors, Vern Fahy, who worked for Gov. Art Link and Agriculture Commissioner Myron Just (the two elected officials on the State Water Commission), got an application from Michigan Wisconsin Pipeline Co. for water to build a whole bunch of coal gasification plants in western North Dakota. The company requested 68,000 acre feet (Yeah, kind of makes that refinery look like small change, doesn’t it?) and the Water Commission granted them just 17,000 acre feet — a fourth of what they wanted. Wise men, Link and Just. In the end, they didn’t even need that much for the one plant they built — which, by the way, is still in operation today.

Further, they attached a whole list of conditions to the permit. At the time, North Dakota didn’t have much in the way of mined-land reclamation or air pollution laws, so they wrote some, and attached them as conditions to a water permit. Most of those conditions were eventually enacted by the Legislature and became law.

An aside — that water permit and its conditions became the entry point for then Tax Commissioner Byron Dorgan’s involvement in North Dakota environmental matters. Just and Link had Dorgan ask Attorney General Allen Olson if those conditions could stand the test of law. Olson opined that he thought they could, and so they were valid. Credit those four men for leading the way to protecting North Dakota’s environment. We could use four more of them today. Link’s gone, but the other three are still around. Wonder if they’re busy — today’s government leaders could use some advice about what to do with a rogue company like Meridian.

Meanwhile, today’s leaders need to do what those four great leaders did in the 1970s — circle the wagons and sit down and figure out what to do about this sleazy company. Gov. Doug Burgum and Public Service Commission president Julie Fedorchak need to display some leadership here. They need to get all the players in the room — the PSC, the Water Commission, the Health Department, and maybe even the State Securities commissioner (don’t be surprised if THAT office needs to engage at some point) — and figure out how to get this company in line. Surely, Dorgan, Link, Just and Olson would not allow a company such as this to build a refinery three miles from the national park named for our country’s greatest conservation president.

An oil refinery and a national park are not compatible. And we can’t move the national park.  we can move the proposed refinery. That’s why we have Section 49-22.1 of the North Dakota Century Code. Let’s enforce it.

Pretty much everybody would agree that building a refinery in North Dakota is a good idea. Pretty much everybody would agree that three miles from a national park  is the wrong place to build it (except for three people — the Billings County commissioners, who get to collect massive property taxes from it).

There’s going to be lots more to this story. I’ll try to keep you posted.

Meanwhile, there is now a 30-day comment period for people who commented on the application last year to submit more comments. Seems like a goofy law — anybody should be able to comment on action of a governmental body, any time. But then I was one of those who commented last year, so I get to comment again. Here’s my letter.

Garland Erbele, State Engineer

900 East Boulevard

Bismarck, ND 58505-0850

July 13, 2017

Dear Mr. Erbele,

As a follow-up to my earlier 2016 comments on the application of Meridian Energy for a water permit for 645.2 acre feet of water per year (enough to process 550,000 barrels of oil per day) for its proposed Davis Refinery, I want to tell you what I think of your decision to only grant them a permit for 90 percent of the water they requested.

It is pure pap. That’s what I think of your decision. It’s a cute little gambit that’s just as transparent as their request. Government shouldn’t be cute. Government should just stick to the numbers. Here are the numbers:

Meridian says it is going to build a 27,500 barrel per day refinery. In a letter to the PSC, the firm’s attorney states unequivocally, “Please be advised that at this time, Meridian is designing its refinery to be capable of refining twenty seven thousand five hundred (27,500) barrels per day. Further, at this time, there is no design in existence nor plans to propose a design for more than 27,500 barrels.”

So, Mr. Erbele, if that’s their plan “at the present time,” I suggest you give them enough water “at the present time” to operate a refinery capable of processing 27,500 barrels per day. If, as they also say in their letter, they may “sometime in the future” propose an addition to the refinery to process more than the 50,000 barrels per day which would trigger a site review, then they can come back to you “sometime in the future” and ask for more water.

Do you really believe that cutting their request by 10 percent will keep them from achieving the full potential of their proposed 55,000 barrels per day facility? No responsible engineer on their end would cut an estimate that close on a refinery not even completely designed yet. Surely they have built in a “fudge factor” in case their original water use estimates are too low. Just take a look at the press release they sent out to their investors — 90 percent will be just fine, thank you.

We all know the game Meridian is playing with North Dakota state agencies to avoid having to undergo an environmental assessment and plant siting review by the PSC. For a state agency, the North Dakota Water Commission, to join them in their game is beneath the dignity of government regulators.

Respectfully,

Jim Fuglie

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — A Victory For The Good Guys — And The Bad Lands

In a major victory for conservationists, and for the North Dakota Bad Lands they work hard to protect, U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland of Bismarck ruled this week that the state of North Dakota and four western North Dakota counties have no right to go in and build roads in areas of the Little Missouri National Grasslands that have been inventoried as “roadless areas” and identified as “suitable for wilderness designation.”

Hovland dismissed the lawsuit filed nearly five years ago by North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Billings, Golden Valley, McKenzie and Slope counties because a 12-year statute of limitations for the state and counties to open section lines for development had expired. The state and the counties can appeal the decision, and this may end up in the U.S. Supreme Court, but that’s a lengthy and expensive venture at a time when budgets are lean because of the oil bust. We’ll see if the attorney general is willing to gamble away more of the state’s tax dollars pursuing this.

Here’s a little background. Over a long period of time (40 years), going back to a management plan for the Grasslands written in 1976 and 1977, and followed by numerous updates in public notices issued by the Forest Service in the years since, the Forest Service has let it be known that they consider several areas of the Grasslands off limits to motorized travel.

But when the oil boom came, county commissioners out west decided to challenge those restrictions in court, hoping to get access to section lines in those areas to build roads so oil companies could get in there and drill. When Stenehjem heard about it, he jumped right in and joined the lawsuit, and in a heroic gesture, said, “We’ll handle it from here in Bismarck.”

Bullion Butte — the mothership of the Bad Lands. Still roadless.
Bullion Butte — the mothership of the Bad Lands. Still roadless.

So in September 2012 Stenehjem, as he loves to do, sued the United States government, claiming that the state should be allowed to build roads on every section line in the state (although, in a magnanimous gesture, he said he was OK with not building roads in Theodore Roosevelt National Park).

I went to his office to ask him about that, and he claimed he was just defending “state sovereignty.” Well, I didn’t believe him then, and I don’t believe him now. In reality, he was just putting on a good show for those western counties, beefing up his political support out west in case he ever decided to run for governor.

The agenda for the county commissioners from the oil patch was different. They wanted to stop a movement by conservationists to get official wilderness designation for about 50,000 of those roadless areas, a proposal called Prairie Legacy Wilderness. If the lawsuit was successful, they’d send their graders and scrapers in there and build some roads, and take care of those pesky conservationists and their wild ideas.

The Forest Service and its U.S. Department of Justice attorneys were having none of that. They set out to prove that the court had no jurisdiction in the case because North Dakota and the counties had missed the deadline for filing their suit by more than 25 years, something Stenehjem might have thought about before he wasted all that state money on the case.

I went to the federal courthouse this week to look at the judge’s opinion and what I found in the case file was 190 separate court filings, with hundreds and hundreds of pages of arguments by the state and the federal government. It looked to me like the counties that originated the lawsuit really didn’t have to spend much time or money on this, which is a good thing because they’re overwhelmed with the crime wave to hit their part of the state as a result of the oil boom. But you and I taxpayers footed the bill for lawyers for both sides.

The Forest Service is operating the Little Missouri National Grasslands under a management plan written in 2001, and that plan sets aside about 5 percent of the million acres it manages as roadless. Ninety-five percent of their land is open for oil development. The remaining 50,000 acres or so — places like majestic Bullion Butte, isolated Kendley Plateau, the historic Long-X Divide and Twin Buttes, looking down into Theodore Roosevelt National Park — are walk-in areas for hikers, deer hunters, birders, photographers, cross-country skiers and campers. And for now at least, they’ll remain that way, in spite of state government’s desire to put an oil well on every section of land in western North Dakota.

Hooray!

Before I quit and go have a toast to justice served and a breath of fresh air blowing into the beleaguered Bad Lands, I want to point out two pieces of irony resulting from Hovland’s decision.

  • The law says that the 12-year statute of limitations only applies to lands on which the government or its lessees have made some investments or improvements, such as range improvement, tree planting, mineral activities, farming and wildlife habitat improvement. Well, thanks to some oil and gas activity on the lands back before they were included in a roadless area, and to shelterbelts, stock tanks and dams, fencing, and other range improvements by ranchers leasing the lands for grazing, the statute of limitations, which decided this case, applies. So thanks to the North Dakota Oil and Gas Division and the North Dakota Grazing Associations for your help with this decision.
  • Back in 2014, Attorney General Stenehjem proposed we protect a number of “extraordinary places” from oil development, and a bunch of those were in or near the roadless areas that Judge Hovland’s opinion protects. Now that Stenehjem has lost this lawsuit, those “extraordinary places” of his will be better protected from development.

God, it’s good to win one once in a while. Now let’s get going on that Prairie Legacy Wilderness designation.