There is news this week on several fronts involving threats to the North Dakota Bad Lands. There are some long documents to read. Here’s a summary. More when I get done reading them.
THAT DAMN REFINERY
First, Meridian Energy’s proposed oil refinery near Theodore Roosevelt National Park. You probably read that the Dakota Resource Council and its legal ally, the Environmental Law and Policy Center, filed a complaint with the North Dakota Public Service Commission asking the PSC to assume jurisdiction over the siting of the refinery before construction can begin.
On Monday, the PSC accepted the two groups’ complaint and agreed to serve the complaint on Meridian. What that means is that Meridian will now have to respond to the request for a full site evaluation. I’m pretty sure it also means that it cannot start construction of the refinery (Meridian has its Permit to Construct for a month but have not started any work at the site yet) until the PSC hears both sides of the story. The PSC has heard the environmental group’s side in the 17-page complaint, and now it will l get to hear Meridian’s case, arguing that it is not subject to PSC review.
And then, the PSC will decide whether to accept jurisdiction over the plant and require Meridian to undergo a full site review to decide if this is a good place to put a refinery. If it does that (and I won’t be surprised if it does), expect Meridian to go to court and challenge the PSC’s ability to do that. If Meridian doesn’t, expect ELPC to go to court to try to get a judge to order it done.
ELPC’s complaint asks for a cease and desist order, keeping Meridian from going ahead. I’m not sure if Monday’s motion grants that order. I’m waiting for a call back from an attorney to answer that question, but I’m guessing it does. I’ll keep you posted.
THAT DAMN LITTLE MISSOURI BRIDGE
The second long document I have to read is the long-awaited 80-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement on Billings County’s proposed Little Missouri River Crossing north of Medora, which was released a couple of weeks ago.
I say long-awaited because public hearings on this project were held in the summer of 2012, and we’ve been waiting more than six years now to see this document. No one seems to know what the holdup was, but no one was complaining, except the Billings County Commission, which has shelled out millions of dollars to the engineering firm KLJ for it.
The EIS identifies the proposed location of the new bridge — about 12 miles north of Medora — and explains why this is the best location for a new Little Missouri River crossing. The location is on private land — the historic Short Ranch — in spite of the fact that Commission Chairman Jim Arthaud said unequivocally at the public hearings on the project in June 2012 that the bridge would be built on public land.
Apparently KLJ couldn’t find a place to put it on public land. It will be interesting to hear Arthaud try to explain what happened. It will also be interesting to hear him explain why no one has bothered to even contact the Short family to let them know what is going on. The bridge is proposed to cross the river just downstream from the Short’s home place, within eyesight of the ranch headquarters, and no one from the county or the engineering firm has even bothered to talk to them.
The release of the EIS also triggers a new round of public hearings, scheduled in Bismarck and Medora. The DOT ran some huge, 25-column-inch ads in the Bismarck and Medora papers a couple of weeks ago advertising the public meetings, scheduled for next week, in Bismarck and Medora. But then, with no public fanfare, DOT changed the dates to the following week with just a short notice buried deep on the Billings County website.
So here’s the deal. The Medora hearing is now scheduled for 5 p.m. (MDT) July 23, in the Medora Community Center. The Bismarck hearing is at the Courtyard by Marriot Hotel in North Bismarck at 5 p.m. July 26.
These hearings are to gather public input on the bridge project. If you don’t like the idea of another bridge across the Little Missouri, in the middle of no goddam place, you should go to one or both of these hearings and make your feelings known. You should probably read the EIS before you go. You can find links to it here.
THAT OTHER DAMN BRIDGE
The third thing in the news this week is a notice from Bureau of Land Management that it is “seeking public comments regarding an application to authorize an existing single-lane ranch bridge over the Little Missouri River, with an associated access road, in Dunn County.”
You read that right. An application to authorize an existing bridge.
This is the bridge I’ve written about before, built by rancher Wiley Bice, west of Killdeer, on BLM land without BLM permission. The BLM knew nothing about this bridge on its land until I told them about it last year, even though it had been there for a few years. Bice also planted alfalfa on BLM land without permission.
In February, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see the application Bice submitted for this bridge, but even though the government is compelled by law to give me that application, it refuses to do so. Now I’ve received a letter asking me to comment on an application I have not seen.
I’ve pretty much lost patience with the BLM. Noted author Ed Abbey called it the Bureau of Livestock and Mines. A friend of mine in Montana called it the Bureau of Leasing and Mining. Both were pretty accurate. I know the BLM has been busy with an oil boom in North Dakota, although it hasn’t been booming so much the last couple of years, but it is apparent to me that it doesn’t even go out and look at its land to see what is going on.
I’m pretty sure no one had looked at the parcel that Wiley Bice built his bridge on — and planted alfalfa on — and built a road on, for more than five years. They’re the Bureau of Land MANAGEMENT. How can it MANAGE our public lands if it never goes look at it to see who’s abusing it?
Anyway, according to this letter, if you go to this website you will find all you need to know — not really, just all they want you to know — about this project, and how to comment. You have until Aug. 13 to respond. I have no idea what will happen after that.
Well, actually, I kind of do. The BLM will conduct an Environmental Assessment (a little bit cheaper version of the document Billings County did for their bridge) on the project, and then tell Bice to go ahead and build his bridge. Oh, wait, it’s already built. Never mind.
In a separate letter I found a copy of Tuesday, North Dakota BLM manager Loren Wikstrom writes that the alternatives being considered in the EA are:
Take no action (leave the bridge, road, pond, and alfalfa fields on the land as-is). This would not achieve the project purpose, but the BLM will analyze the effects to serve as a baseline;
Remove the bridge, road, pond, and alfalfa fields and rehabilitate the public land to a condition similar to that of the surrounding public land.
Sell or exchange the affected public land to the adjacent landowner;
Authorize the bridge, road and pond through rights-of-way, and the alfalfa fields through a lease; and
Authorize only the bridge and access road through a right-of-way, remove the pond and alfalfa fields and rehabilitate the public land. In the event a right-of-way for the bridge and road are granted by the BLM, the site would still remain inaccessible to the public, via road, due to the lack of public roads to the site.
Loren has already told me that No. 5 is their preferred alternative, and that they’re not looking to make Bice tear down a bridge that cost a couple of million dollars. He’s also told me they are making Bice pay for the cost of the EA and the reclamation. No big deal to Bice. As I wrote here earlier, he sold his oilfield trucking company for about $100 million. This is small change for him.
So I wouldn’t waste time writing letters to the BLM about this. It’s a done deal. A rich guy builds a bridge on public land, gets his hands slapped and lives happily ever after. That’s how the Bureau of Land Management manages your land.
Anyway, those three things are a pretty good indicator that there are still plenty of threats to North Dakota’s Bad Lands. So many it’s hard to keep track. I’ll try to write about each of them as things progress. Somebody has to keep an eye on these bastards.
The last major threat to the visual integrity of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, at least that I can recall — though there have been many skirmishes with the oil industry — was in 1989, when the Western Area Power Administration came really close to putting a huge transmission line along the east boundary of the South Unit of the Park.
I’m reminded of that in the context of the Meridian Energy Group’s horrible idea to put their proposed Davis Oil Refinery in about the same place, along the east edge of the park.
In the 1960s, WAPA, one of four federal power marketing administrations that serves our part of the United States, determined there was going to be a need for more electricity in part of its region in the future, and Basin Electric, headquartered in Bismarck, had surplus power to sell. All that was needed was a way for Basin to get its power into the WAPA system.
They determined that the best way was to build a transmission line — one with those big metal towers — from Basin’s Charlie Creek substation in McKenzie County, near the junction of state Highway 200 and U.S. Highway 85, to tie into an east-west WAPA power line near Belfield, N.D., about 40 miles south. WAPA commenced a federal Environmental Impact Statement process to find the best location for the line and its towers (unlike Meridian, which refuses to even submit to a state site review process) in 1969, and issued a draft EIS.
Some 20 years later, when demand reached the point that WAPA decided it needed the extra power, it commenced a review process with a public comment period and public hearings on the project. The review process focused on two identified corridors for the power line: a western line, called W1-1, which was four miles shorter and a million dollars cheaper than one farther east, called E-4-1R. WAPA recommended using the shortest, cheapest route, W-1-1.
Unfortunately, that route ran beside the eastern boundary of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and would have been visible from most high places in the park. The eastern route ran alongside Highway 85, five miles or so east of the park, and out of sight from the park.
So in the spring of 1988, WAPA published a notice of its intent to build the line next to the park and opened a public comment period. Tracy Potter and I were running the State Tourism Office at the time, and if WAPA could have picked any two people on the planet it did not want in THAT office at THAT time, it would have been the two of us. Our boss, Gov. George Sinner, turned us loose to organize against building the line next to the park.
In advance of the public hearings, which were to be held in Belfield and Grassy Butte, N.D., on July 26-27, 1988, we got on the phone and began rounding up supporters to send letters to WAPA, asking it to move the line east, to the highway, out of sight of the park. We did a pretty good job.
U.S. Sen. Quentin Burdick wrote:
“In recent days, I have received a number of letters from concerned citizens who believe that the route recommended for the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) will have long term negative effects on the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. As well, the North Dakota Tourism Office and the State Highway Department have also expressed opposition to the recommended route.
“It seems clear from the concerns raised by the opponents that WAPA should reconsider the options and seek a more acceptable routing for the line. Granted, the additional $1 million in construction costs must be an item of consideration. However, when viewed in the context, it seems the additional $1 million is not too large a price to pay to protect such a national treasure as Theodore Roosevelt Park.”
How about that! Why don’t we have U. S. senators like that anymore?
And Congressman Byron Dorgan wrote:
“The visual impact (on Theodore Roosevelt National Park) is unacceptable. I hope you will hear the concerns of myself and of many others who are committed to protecting the natural, scenic beauty of the Badlands.”
I know that our newest senator at the time, Kent Conrad, weighed in on this as well, but I can’t find his letter.
Even our boss, Gov. Sinner, and his lieutenant governor, Lloyd Omdahl, sent a jointly signed letter (although I think Tracy probably wrote it for them):
“North Dakotans have jealously guarded the Badlands scenic areas from avoidable intrusions. Consequently the Park today still provides awesome views of natural beauty unmarred by artificial structures. Whether or not future generations will be able to share this beauty will be determined by this generation and the decisions it makes about development in the area. We must proceed cautiously in the consideration of proposals to change the landscape.”
Other letters came from concerned citizens, and the usual suspects — the National Parks Conservation Association, the Sierra Club, the Theodore Roosevelt Nature and History Association and others, many of whom are now involved, 30 years later, in the current fight to move the Davis refinery away from the park.
Tracy led the testimony at the public hearing in Belfield, followed by TRNP’s Chief Ranger Bob Powell, Gary Redmann from the State Highway Department representing then-Commissioner Walt Hjelle, Wally Owen from Medora, who ran the horse concession in the park, and finally, batting cleanup, Medora Mayor and President of the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation Rod Tjaden, who I think was also state chairman of the Greater North Dakota Association, the state’s chamber of commerce, at the time. (Humorous aside: Tjaden, not known for hanging out with the environmental crowd, sent me a note a few months later that said “Dammit, Fuglie, I’m getting mail from the Sierra Club, and it’s YOUR FAULT!”)
After the public hearings, WAPA went into hibernation for about six months, and in early 1989 released its final EIS, with its final recommendation on a route for their transmission line, which concluded with this statement:
“Through public comment, it was determined that visibility of the line from residences, local urban areas and TRNP was of significant importance. In particular, a large number of comments expressed concern for the visibility of the proposed line from TRNP. It was determined that the agency-preferred route would be changed from W1-1, as specified in the DEIS, to E4-1R (the environmentally preferred route).”
A loud cheer could be heard throughout western North Dakota. The system worked. The park was protected.
Well, that’s our history lesson for today. Sadly, history doesn’t often repeat itself. A month or so ago, I sent letters to our current governor, Doug Burgum, and to our congressional delegation, asking them to meet with the Meridian people and ask them to move the proposed refinery away from the park. I got a couple of responses.
This in an e-mail from Jodee Hanson in the governor/s office:
“The Governor respects the public comment period, which is still ongoing, and is staying apprised of the Department of Health’s permitting process being conducted within the boundaries of the law.”
To which I responded:
“Thanks for the note Jodee. Relay to everyone there that the ‘boundaries of the law’ are the minimum standard for action by public officials. There is much more that can, and should, be done. Like a one-on-one between Burgum and Prentice, heart to heart, CEO to CEO. I am inspired by Julie Fedorchak and Connie Triplett seeking a PSC review. The governor could make that happen by putting the hammer down on Prentice: “Y’know, Bill, we’re in this together for the long haul. We’re going to be looking at each other and talking to each other for a long time. Let’s be responsible and see what a PSC site review tells us.”
I also got an e-mail from a staffer for Congressman Kevn Cramer:
“Congressman Cramer has been in contact with both the N.D. Department of Health and EPA ensuring the project meets human health and environmental requirements.”
To which I responded:
“Relay to everyone there that meeting the “human health and environmental requirements” is not enough in this case. There is much more that can, and should, be done. As a former State Tourism director, Kevin understands the impact on our National Park. I’d suggest a one-on-one between the congressman and Meridian CEO Bill Prentice, heart to heart. I am inspired by Julie Fedorchak and Connie Triplett seeking a PSC review. The Congressman could help make that happen by meeting with Prentice:”
I’ve not heard anything from our two senators. I’m going to send them, along with Cramer and Burgum, a copy of this blog post to remind them of what can be done if everyone pulls their own weight.
A pair of former Democratic-NPL state senators challenged the North Dakota Health Department to demand a site review by the State’s Public Service Commission before issuing an air pollution permit allowing Meridian Energy Group to build a refinery three miles from Theodore Roosevelt National Park at a marathon public hearing by the Department Wednesday night.
Former Sen. Connie Triplett of Grand Forks told Health Department administrators near the end of a four-hour public meeting in Dickinson that they should attach a condition to the permit if they issued it, stating that the permit to build the Davis refinery would only be valid if the company submitted to a full site review by the PSC. And former Sen. Tracy Potter of Bismarck went a step further, saying the Health Department should just put the permit application on hold, and not consider it, until the PSC reviews the site.
Damn, I wish I could get rid of the word “former” in front of those two senators’ names. Out of the 40 or so people testifying on issuing an air pollution permit to the company at Wednesday’s public hearing, their Legislative experience showed their understanding of the government processes that could be brought into play before a refinery is built on the national park’s border.
To review: North Dakota has a law that says any energy conversion facility, such as a refinery, that is going to process more than 50,000 barrels of oil per day (bpd) needs to undergo a site review by the Public Service Commission to “ensure the location, construction, and operation of energy conversion facilities … will produce minimal adverse effects on the environment and the welfare of the citizens of this state …”
Further, it says “The policy of this state is to site energy conversion facilities … in an orderly manner compatible with environmental preservation and the efficient use of resources. Sites and routes must be selected to minimize adverse human and environmental impact …” (emphasis added)
To get around that requirement, Meridian now says it is going to process only 49,500 barrels per day, a sleazy, transparent move to avoid having the PSC tell them it this is a lousy place for a refinery and that Meridian should put it somewhere else where it won’t detract from our national park.
Meridian’s number of 49,500 bpd is 99 percent of the PSC’s jurisdiction limit of 50,000 bpd. Fifty thousand barrels is 2.1 million gallons. 49,500 barrels is 2.079 million, just 21,000 gallons less than the threshold for regulation. So Meridian’s tactic is to stay just 1 percent under the threshold for regulation. It would be a laughable move by the refinery people if it weren’t for the fact that by staying just barely under the threshold, THERE IS NOTHING STOPPING MERIDIAN FROM PUTTING AN OIL REFINERY BESIDE THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK.
I can’t shout that loud enough. Nothing stopping them except, of course, issuance of an air pollution permit, which was the matter at hand at Wednesday night’s public hearing. And that’s why Triplett and Potter’s requests are so important. Because in its initial review, the Health Department says it thinks that the refinery could come in under the pollution limits allowed by the federal Clean Air Act to protect the Class I Air Quality Status of a nearby national park.
Now whether we believe that — the Meridian people haven’t said much that is believable so far in this process — Triplett and Potter pointed out that this is just one very narrow — albeit very important — look at whether the refinery should be built there. North Dakota state government needs to take a holistic approach to siting something as big as this — and there’s no doubt this is big, the biggest industrial plant to be built in our state since the Great Plains Coal Gasification Plant near Beulah 35 years ago, which at the time, was labeled the largest construction project in North America.
That’s what the PSC siting process brings. A look at the big picture. And then once the PSC has completed its site review, the Health Department, the Water Commission, the Game and Fish Department, the State Parks Department, the Agriculture commissioner, the Tourism director, the Transportation director, maybe some other directors and, most importantly, the governor need to sit down around a table and decide what’s really good for the state, and if this is really the best place to put an oil refinery. That’s how state government should work, whether we trust all those people or not. I guess we have to trust them, since they’re in charge here right now.
I don’t think anybody’s questioning whether we should have an oil refinery in North Dakota. Of course we should. As Triplett has pointed out, it is certainly more environmentally — and economically, I’ll add — desirable to refine oil here and ship a finished product out in a pipeline than it is to ship out raw crude in a pipeline and then ship refined gasoline and diesel fuel back here in trucks or another pipeline.
So the only real question is, where should the refinery be? Public Service Commissioners Julie Fedorchak and Brian Kroshus pushed hard at Meridian officials at a meeting last month to get them to consider other locations away from the park but to no avail. Barring that, they asked politely to be allowed to conduct a formal site review to “ensure the location, construction and operation of the refinery… will produce minimal adverse effects on the environment and the welfare of the citizens of this state …”
Meridian officials told them to stuff it. The 49,500 bpd refinery is under the threshold for a site review, they said, and they are complying with the law. Well, yeah 1 percent under the threshold, and in terms of impact on the environment and the welfare of our citizens, that’s a pretty slim — and sleazy — standard they set for themselves.
In fact, it prompted PSC Chairman Randy Christmann to tell me and a few others after the meeting that he won’t be surprised if some legislator introduces a bill in the next legislative session to get rid of the threshold altogether and make all energy conversion facilities of any size subject to a site review. Good for him. Christmann is not a big government regulation guy, but I think he’d like that. In the case of Meridian, that would be closing the barn door after the cows are out, but it certainly would keep this from happening again in the future.
Shortly after that meeting between Meridian and the PSC, when Meridian snubbed its nose at three elected officials, I sent a letter to Gov. Doug Burgum asking him to call Meridian CEO William Prentice into his office and ask him politely — CEO to CEO — to move the refinery away from the park. I think I’ll just put my letter at the end of this post because it’s been a month now, and I’ve not had a response from the governor.
I’m disappointed in that. It used to be in North Dakota, when you wrote a letter to an elected official, you got a response in a pretty timely manner. I worked for a governor for eight years, and I don’t recall a constituent letter ever going unanswered. Especially on a matter as important as this. I’ll write a little more about that subject in a few days.
Meanwhile, subsequent to Wednesday’s Health Department hearing, a public comment period on this issue remains open until Jan. 26. Then the Health Department will read all the public comments and respond to them, I think. Often the response is just to thank you for commenting and telling you they are taking your comments into consideration, but at least you know your comments have been read by someone. I submitted mine a few weeks ago and shared them with you in this space. You can read them by going to my old blog. I urge you to join me in commenting. I’m putting the address for your comments at the end of this post, too.
I’m adding to mine by strongly urging the Health Department to take the advice of Sens. Potter and Triplett and attach conditions to any permit, requiring Meridian to undergo a site review. Triplett, an environmental attorney, knows North Dakota law, and she says they can attach conditions to a permit. There’s precedent for that, even.
Way back in the 1970s, when a company named Michigan Wisconsin Pipeline Co. asked for a state water permit to construct some coal gasification plants here (one of which ended up being the Great Plains Synfuels Plant I mentioned earlier), the North Dakota Water Commission attached a series of conditions to the permit, which ended up being the beginning of North Dakota’s Mined Land Reclamation Laws, now the strictest reclamation laws in the country.
The Great Plains synfuels plant today. It’s here because North Dakota passed strict regulations and enforced them–which is what we need to do with the Davis refinery today
I think the conditions were challenged in court, and they held up. We’re all winners because of that. Strict regulations were followed, the coal gasification plant got built, and it’s still operating successfully today.
And I’m going to go a step further and ask the governor to strongly advise the Health Department — they work for him, after all — to attach the condition of a site review to the permit, if they issue one. Or to just tell the company they’re holding the permit until a site review is done. If Meridian is confident they’ve got the right project in the right place, they won’t have any problem undergoing a site review.
Let me repeat that.
If Meridian is confident it has got the right project in the right place, it won’t have any problem undergoing a site review.
One more time.
If Meridian is confident it has got the right project in the right place, it won’t have any problem undergoing a site review.
Here’s the address for your comments, to be submitted to the Health Department by Jan. 26. You might want to use the line “If Meridian is confident they’ve got the right project in the right place, they won’t have any problem undergoing a site review.”
Terry O’Clair, P.E., Director
Division of Air Quality
ND Dept. of Health
918 E. Divide Ave.
And here’s my letter to the governor:
December 21, 2017
Dear Gov. Burgum,
Late in the afternoon on this shortest day of the year, my mood is as dark as the 5 p.m. sky. I close my eyes and think back to the meeting between the PSC and William Prentice from Meridian Energy Group the other day, and I see him smirking as he says “We are going to comply with the law.”
So that’s what it’s come to for Meridian. It’s about the law. It’s not at all about anything North Dakotans might feel about having a refinery smack up against their national park. A national park named for our Greatest Conservation President.
“If these stupid North Dakota hicks are willing to put that kind of a loophole in their siting law, I’m going to use it,” the snarky Californian says.
So now, Governor, it’s up to you. You need to get that asshole in your office and tell him he needs to move that refinery. You can do that. He’ll respect you, a fellow businessman and North Dakota’s CEO.
Randy and Julie and Brian did their best, but they carried no authority. They’re not used to dealing with this kind of character. “I don’t see why you don’t just go through the siting process” won’t work with this guy. It’s kind of like the salesman who says “I don’t suppose you’d like to buy some insurance, would you?”
Please, Governor, call this guy up and get him in your office. And tell him to move the damn refinery.
Please let me know if you are willing to do this, so I can stop writing about it (and you) for a while. Even if it does no good, I need to know that at least you were willing to try.
At the end of the meeting between Meridian Energy Group executives and the North Dakota Public Service Commission a couple of weeks ago, Commission President Randy Christmann pretty much told William Prentice, Meridian CEO and the man who wants to build an oil refinery next to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, that the next time they meet will probably be in a courtroom.
“I expect when you break ground, somebody’s going to bring a complaint,” Christmann said. “You could be in court a long time.”
And commission member Julie Fedorchak added, “There are a lot of compelling reasons why you should go through our siting process. In the long run, it would be much better for you to have completed that process.”
Prentice’s reply: “We’re going to comply with the law.”
And later he told a reporter: “In the private sector, we very seldom look for excuses to have another regulatory layer on what we’re trying to do,”
What an asshole.
As you probably know from reading about that refinery, which Meridian plans to put alongside I-94 just east of the Park, the company is doing everything it can to just slide past legal impediments to its plans.
By claiming to be a “minor” source of pollution, Meridian takes a short route past the State Health Department’s Air Quality Permit process. As a result, the Health Department is just one public meeting away from issuing a “Permit to Construct.”
By telling the PSC it is only going to be processing 49,500 barrels of oil per day (bpd), Meridian skirts the Public Service Commission’s 50,000 bpd threshold for undergoing a site review to determine if this is a good place for a refinery. So the PSC has no legal authority to keep the refinery from being built near the national park.
That makes Fedorchak and fellow commissioners Christmann and Brian Kroshus very unhappy.
“It’s really a mixed message from the company,” Fedorchak says. “They’re telling us one thing directly and telling a whole bunch of other audiences something very different.”
To wit, this statement from Prentice on Meridian’s website early last year: “We fully expect that the finalized refinery will be well above 55,000 barrels per day in capacity.”
That’s what Prentice and Meridian are telling potential lenders and investors. Maybe it’s time to get the North Dakota Securities commissioner’s office involved.
So that’s where we are today, as we begin 2018, the year in which Meridian says it will build a refinery just three miles from the national park named for our country’s greatest conservation president.
Meridian came to North Dakota in 2016 and told us it is going to build an oil refinery in Billings County that will process 55,000 barrels of oil a day. It’s going to build it in two phases, it said, of 27,500 barrels each, in rapid succession. Then it found out it has to go through a site review by the PSC if it’s going to process more than 50,000 bpd. Meridian changed its story, saying it is only going to process 49,500 barrels per day. How blatant is that? I’m surprised it’s not saying 49,999 bpd. Hey, they’d be one barrel within the limits of the law!
The State Water Commission (actually, the State Engineer’s office) received Meridian’s request for a water permit to take enough water out of the ground for the refinery to process 55,000 bpd. After reading Meridian’s website and press releases, the commission decided to grant a permit for just 90 percent of Merdian’s request, which might keep it from processing more than the 50,000 barrels per day threshold set by the laws governing the PSC’s siting process. So what’s 90 percent of 55,000? 49,500. The Water Commission’s math gives them, in theory, just enough water to process 49,500 barrels of oil per day. Now isn’t that convenient?
According to a Bismarck Tribune story from last summer, “Meridian requested enough water for use in a refinery that can process 55,000 barrels of oil per day. However, the company has told the Public Service Commission it plans to build a facility to process 27,500 barrels of oil per day and has not applied for a siting permit from the agency. A capacity of 50,000 barrels per day triggers a requirement for PSC approval.”
That lit up a light bulb at Meridian. Hey, if we change our story one more time, and tell the PSC we’re going to use 49,500 barrels a day, we’re under their threshold, and we don’t ever have to go through their siting process.
So, thanks, Water Commission staff, for planting that seed.
To be fair, Water Commission staffer Kimberly Fischer expressed some regrets about the permit, telling the Tribune “While there may be an impact to visitors’ experiences due to the construction of a refinery, it is outside of the authority of the state engineer to deny a water permit application due to the visual impact of having an industrial development near a national park.”
Hmmm. I’m trying to decide the difference between granting only part of a request for a water permit and not granting it at all. Both seem pretty arbitrary to me. State law says the state engineer needs to consider the effect of granting a water permit on “public recreational opportunities” (like a nearby national park?) or “harm to other persons resulting from the proposed appropriation” (like ruining the visitor experience at the national park?). I might be able to make a pretty good case that those two things are not “outside the authority” for denying the permit based on those two parts of NDCC 61-04-06.
But right now, the jurisdiction of the other two agencies — the State Department of Health and the Public Service Commission — are foremost in everyone’s minds. PSC Chairman Christmann had some harsh words for Meridian’s CEO, Prentice, and his bevy of lawyers. Not only did he pretty much say “We’ll see you in court,” at the end of the December meeting, but he started the meeting by telling the Meridian team “You’re not under oath today, but we are recording this meeting so it can be used as evidence if we have a case, so tell the truth.”
And Fedorchak actually drew a chuckle from the audience with a comment that was a little bit snarky: “I don’t see what’s special about this that makes it look any different than any refinery I’ve driven by, which I want to get by as soon as possible.”
The Health Department, meanwhile, is in the midst of a public comment period on its decision to issue an Air Quality “Permit to Construct” the refinery. The agency’s scientists and engineers have reviewed the numbers Meridian used in its application for the permit, and they apparently believe that they can run the refinery in that location and not affect Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s Class I Air Status.
If that’s the case, I told the Health Department’s Terry O’Clair, the director of the Department’s Air Quality Division, in a letter this week, he’s probably about the only one on the face of the earth who believes them. Because their record is so riddled with changing numbers and cover-up stories that very few people believe anything they say anymore.
“Listen, Director O’Clair,” I said in my letter (you can read the whole thing below if you want to), “if their record of using any number that is convenient in any given situation to justify their project is not enough to convince you that the numbers they provided you in their application cannot be trusted, then Heaven help North Dakota. Because we certainly can’t count on the North Dakota Department of Health.”
Before the Health Department can issue the final “Permit to Construct,” it is accepting public comments and will have a public meeting to discuss the project. I hope that everyone who reads this will write a letter and attend the meeting. The meeting is in Dickinson State University’s largest auditorium, in May Hall, on Wednesday, Jan. 17, at 5:30 pm MST. The deadline for submitting letters is Jan. 26. The address is at the top of my letter, below. You have until Jan. 26 to send your letter, so you can write it now, or you can wait and attend the public meeting and then react to that in your letter. In any case, send a letter!
All of the documents associated with the permit are on the Health Department’s website. There are hundreds of pages of documents. No one can be expected to read them all before the public meeting. I scanned through them. They are dated Nov. 30, 2017. Just about exactly five weeks ago. This paragraph jumped out at me:
“The facility is planned to be constructed in two phases; however, for air quality permitting purposes the impact of the entire planned project was taken into consideration. Upon completion of Phase 1, the Davis Refinery will have the capacity to process an annual average of approximately 27,500 barrels (bbl) per day of crude oil. Upon completion of Phase 2, the capacity will increase to 55,000 bbl per day of crude oil. The crude oil feedstock is expected to be generated from the North Dakota Bakken formation.”
That paragraph is part of the “Air Quality Effects Analysis for Permit to Construct” written by David Stroh, an environmental engineer with the Health Department’s Division of Air Quality. So what that means is the Health Department’s analysis of the refinery’s impact on our state’s air quality is indeed based on a refinery processing 55,000 barrels of oil per day, not the 49,500 Meridian now claims. A minor point perhaps, but maybe not. Because Meridian can reassure potential investors and lenders they have been approved by the North Dakota Department of Health to process 55,000 barrels of oil per day. That last 10 percent might just be important to money people.
Further, the ENTIRE Permit to Construct issued by the Department of Health is based on a refinery capable of processing 55,000 barrels of crude oil per day. Meridian officials are now flashing the permit in front of money people, especially the front page of the massive document, which reads:
3. Source Type: Petroleum Refinery with a rated capacity of up to approximately 55,000 barrels of crude oil per day.
Just click here for a quick look at that front page.
No wonder the Public Service Commission is pissed off. They’re being duped. It would seem to me that a phone call is in order, from Randy Christmann, chairman of the PSC, to Terry O’Clair, director of the Air Quality Division of the Health Department. “Hey, Terry, you’re about to give Meridian an Air Quality Permit to construct a 55,000 bpd refinery, but they were in our office three weeks ago and said it was only 49,500. You should probably change the permit.”
Back last summer, I wrote on this blog that Meridian is the sleaziest company to show up in North Dakota since the beginning of the Bakken Boom. Meridian is proving me right. I’ve said all along that everyone wants an oil refinery in North Dakota, just not there, beside our national park. I’m going to add one more caveat to that statement: Not that company, either. Not Meridian. They’ve proven they have no North Dakota values. They don’t belong here — anywhere — in our state.
Here’s the letter my wife Lillian and I sent to the Health Department.
Terry L. O’Clair, P.E.
Division of Air Quality
North Dakota Department of Health
918 East Divide Ave,
Bismarck, ND 58501-1947
January 2, 2018
Dear Director O’Clair,
We have looked through the Permit To Construct issued by your agency to Meridian Energy Group to build the Davis Oil Refinery three miles from Theodore Roosevelt National Park (or as you describe it, approximately 2 miles west of Belfield) in Billings County, North Dakota.
We are not scientists, so we have no scientific basis from which to challenge your decision to issue the permit. But we are avid readers, and cautious conservationists, so we have followed news reports about this project, and have carefully reviewed Meridian’s website, including all of its news releases and its stock offering documents for prospective investors in the project.
You, on the other hand, are a scientist, so you have some basis for making a decision on whether this project will adequately meet the standards set by the National Environmental Protection Act to protect North Dakota’s environment and Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s Class I Air Quality.
At the end of the draft permit you issued to Meridian, in a section called “General Conditions,” you state: “This permit is issued in reliance upon the accuracy and completeness of the information set forth in the application.”
With those words, your department says that you are relying on them to provide complete and accurate information about what they will do to North Dakota’s air, which you are charged with protecting.
If your agency believes Meridian is providing you with “complete and accurate information,” then you are probably about the only people on the face of the earth who believe them. Because their record is so riddled with changing numbers and cover-up stories that very few people believe anything they say anymore.
We’re not going to go into the long list of discrepancies — 27,500, 55,000, 49,500 bpd — and how their story changes depending on which agency of state government they are trying to bamboozle, or which lender or investor they are trying to suck in. You have seen those changing stories. You already know that the numbers in their permit application are pure speculation, untested by science. And you believe them?
Listen, Director O’Clair, if their record of using any number that is convenient, in any given situation, to justify their project, is not enough to convince you that the numbers they provided you in their application cannot be trusted, then Heaven help North Dakota. Because we certainly can’t count on the North Dakota Department of Health.
Meridian is still telling investors that they are building a 55,000 bpd refinery and it will be in operation in early 2018. But now they’re giving North Dakota government agencies different numbers and saying they hope to have the refinery operative sometime in 2019. Perhaps it’s time to be talking to the State Securities Commissioner.
Former Theodore Roosevelt National Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor told a reporter last year that one of the problems with regulation of this refinery is North Dakota state government hasn’t taken a broader look at the project. She’s right. State government agencies need to review the project as a cooperating group, not just as individual agencies charged with examining specific parts of the project, such as water, emissions, and location. Superintendent Naylor said “You have to look at the whole picture. The whole project is more than the sum of its parts.”
What’s most troubling, we think, is Meridian’s obvious consistent pattern of avoiding serious scrutiny of their project by North Dakota government. By applying for a Synthetic Minor Source Air Quality Permit they are avoiding serious scrutiny from you. And by artificially setting their new production projection at 49,500 bpd, they are avoiding serious Public Service Commission scrutiny.
Even North Dakota Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak doesn’t believe them. After being told Meridian was going to process an amount of oil which would keep them under the 50,000 bpd threshold for a full PSC site review, Commissioner Fedorchak told a newspaper reporter “They’ve been clear that they intend up to 55,000 barrels per day capacity, which would put them within our siting jurisdiction.” Fedorchak said “It’s really a mixed message from the company. They’re telling us one thing directly and telling a whole bunch of other audiences something very different.”
Julie Fedorchak’s no dummy. If she doesn’t believe them, or trust them, neither should you. And it’s a clear example of why state agencies need to be talking to each other.
Referring to Meridian’s application for a “minor” source permit, Meridian’s CEO, William Prentice, said in a press release from his own company “it is ‘unheard of’ for a refinery with Davis’ scale and scope to meet such strict emissions criteria.” But even though he admits it is “unheard of,” he’s got a big smirk on his face, because he’s convinced you to let him go ahead and build his refinery right next to a national park anyway.
And then, admitting that he is doing all he can to avoid serious environmental scrutiny, he told a reporter in December “In the private sector, we very seldom look for excuses to have another regulatory layer on what we’re trying to do,”
Good grief! Pure arrogance. And yet you are willing to gamble North Dakota’s future air quality by allowing industrial development by a company run by a man like this, within eyesight and earshot of Theodore Roosevelt National Park?
As we said at the beginning of this letter, you’re the scientist, Mr. O’Clair, not us. But sadly, we have to reject the science in this case. We don’t trust anything William Prentice and Meridian say. Neither should you.
We urge you to, at minimum, require Meridian to submit to examination as a Synthetic Major Source, and at most, we urge you to completely reject the Meridian application for an Air Quality Permit at this proposed location, because we just should not be taking chances with unproven science near Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
We believe you have the authority to tell Meridian to move the refinery away from the park if they want a permit to pollute North Dakota’s air. Your job is to protect our air, and our national park. Please do your job.
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.
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.