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.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — The Sellout Of Van Hook Park

WARNING: In this article, I’m going to rip some North Dakota politicians a new one. This isn’t personal, and it isn’t partisan. They’ve got it coming because of malfeasance in office. I’m not going to pull any punches. They deserve it. I know I’ve been pretty critical of some of our state’s leaders lately. Sorry. But we’ve got some really bad shit going on in our state, and someone has to talk about it. Our leaders are failing us.

This article appears in the current issue of Dakota Country magazine. The big boys who read that magazine possess about 90 percent of the guns and three-quarters of all the testosterone in North Dakota, so if they can stand my rants, so can you.

Now, first a little background.

There’s a little resort community called Van Hook Park on the north end of Lake Sakakawea, named for the town that formerly existed nearby until it was flooded by the waters backed up behind the Garrison Dam. It’s nothing fancy. Two hundred or so trailers and cabins, a bait shop and convenience store, gravel streets and a campground with 100 RV sites.

The Van Hook recreational community sits on land partly owned by the Corps of Engineers and partly by the Mountrail County Park Board. There’s a park manager and a cabin owners association to manage the facilities there. At times, when the walleye bite is on, the boat ramp next to the campground and cabin sites is the busiest boat ramp on Lake Sakakawea.

Fishing has been good over the years in what is known as the Van Hook Arm of Lake Sakakawea. Cabin owners have been happy, and users of the park and boat ramp, who come from all over western and central North Dakota, spend happy weekends there. Other than the hum of outboards during the day, and the singing of shorebirds and warblers at daybreak and dusk, it’s been a pretty quiet place. Until now.

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 an 11-well oil pad. The site is just a few hundred yards from the park and the homes in the community. Drilling could start there any day now.

Mountrail County officials, cabin and trailer owners and members of the Friends of Lake Sakakawea learned of the development last summer, long after it been permitted by the North Dakota Industrial Commission. And they’re pretty concerned.

Concerned because in December 2012, the same company had a huge blowout on a well a little ways east of the resort, which resulted in more than 50,000 gallons of saltwater and oil mist spewing almost a mile onto the ice of Lake Sakakawea.

“Our greatest fear,” says Terry Fleck, president of the Friends of Lake Sakakawea and a cabin owner at Van Hook, “is what happens if they have a blowout at the boat ramp when there are 200 boats on the water waiting to return to the resort?”

The thing is, this didn’t have to happen. You might recall a few years ago, North Dakota’s Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem wrote an administrative rule that he brought to the North Dakota Industrial Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry in North Dakota, to restrict drilling within a mile of what he called “extraordinary places,” — places that should be protected from industrial development. The list included state and national parks, wildlife refuges, the Little Missouri River and Lake Sakakawea.

In early 2014, he took the rule, with great fanfare, to a meeting of the Industrial Commission, being chaired at that time by the governor, oil industry sycophant Jack Dalrymple. It didn’t fly — Dalrymple and the oil industry objected. And Stenehjem quickly backed away. Instead he proposed, and the commission adopted, a “policy” of trying to keep the oil wells a mile away from the “extraordinary places,” except that the policy only applied to proposed wells on public land. And it did not have the force of law, so it had no teeth.

And so, proposals to put wells right up against national park borders or Lake Sakakawea’s shore were just fine with Stenehjem, Dalrymple and Agriculture Commissioner Douglas Goehring, the third member of the Industrial Commission, as long as they were on private land. Even those on public land only get a little scrutiny today — and can still be approved. Basically, it’s a policy with no teeth. Which is just what the oil industry likes.

And in the era of horizontal drilling, where wells can be placed anywhere and pipes run as far as three miles underground to get that oil, it didn’t take long for the oil industry to ferret out private landowners willing to take tens of thousands, often hundreds of thousands, of dollars for little pieces of land for the placement of oil wells beside lakes, rivers, wildlife refuges and parks.

I was at the meeting when the “policy” was adopted, and I can assure you that no one there was surprised by Stenehjem’s retreat at Dalrymple’s insistence. We all knew that the oil and gas industry had contributed more than $600,000 to Dalrymple’s election campaign two years earlier, and their shill in the governor’s office was not going to let them down.

Stenehjem and Goehring were richly rewarded by the industry in their subsequent election campaigns later in 2014. In early 2015, after they had been re-elected, Slawson Exploration submitted a request for a drilling permit for their Van Hook project, and it was approved by the same three men who had adopted the toothless policy a year earlier — Dalrymple, Stenehjem and Goehring.  Because Slawson had found, and rewarded handsomely, a landowner who had land right up to the lake, they were going to drill on private land and the “policy” didn’t apply to them.

Slaswon kept it pretty quiet, until the federal government issued a call for comments on the project last year, a necessary step because the government owns some of the oil under the lake. Slawson leased the drilling rights under the lake, and once Slawson had the minerals and a piece of private land on which to place the wells, there was no stopping them.

When the news got out last summer, the Friends of Lake Sakakawea and Mountrail County sent a letter to Dalrymple, Stenehjem and Goehring asking them to order that the pad be moved back away from the lake. They never received a response.

Slawson did agree to a meeting with the Friends of Lake Sakakawea last summer. The group’s president, Terry Fleck, said the company agreed to move the well pad back “a considerable distance” from the lake. They left the meeting feeling they didn’t need to protest further.

Turns out that was a mistake. Slawson had a different definition of “considerable” than the Friends group had. Locals learned that only when the stakes for the pad went in this spring — less than a fifth of a mile from the boat ramp and just a few hundred yards from the trailers and lake homes in the resort.

Fleck, Mountrail County State’s Attorney Wade Enget and a Mountrail County commissioner all told me this spring that they had done everything legally possible to move the project away from the lake. But their hands were tied by the Industrial Commission.

When Slawson asked the county to upgrade the road to the site, the county basically told them to go jump in the lake. Slawson then built its own road to the site. And there are signs on both ends of the resort community telling Slawson to keep out of town. The sites are so close to the town, though, that the noise from dirt work, drilling and well service operations will pretty much ruin the ambiance of the previously sleepy little community. And the lights from the 24-hour operation will eliminate the precious dark night skies that lake residents and campers have come to value.

And there’s more. When Slawson finished the dirt work on its pad at the boat ramp on the west side of the village this spring, it moved over to the other side and began building another one. That caught everyone by surprise. It seems that when they applied for the one at the boat ramp, they also applied for, and were granted, one on the east side of town, again just a few hundred yards from the shoreline and residences.

Through all the public furor and meetings with the Friends organization last year, the oil company never mentioned they were going to drill on both sides of the town.

It’s really hard to imagine what the Industrial Commission was thinking when it allowed the company to bookend the little resort community with oil wells. There’ll be at least 14 wells, possibly 17, and maybe a saltwater injection well, within shouting distance of the resort’s residents. The cacophony from the dirt work, then the drilling, with thousands of trucks hauling fracking water (I’ve read it takes a thousand truckloads of water to frack a well), and then the trucks to service the wells, is almost beyond comprehension. Not to mention the disaster if (when?) another blowout occurs.

According to a story in the Bismarck Tribune this spring, Slawson operates 300 wells in the Bakken and has reported 142 oil fluid spills. It has been fined by the state of North Dakota in only five of those cases, by — you guessed it — the Industrial Commission, although the little fines the state issues are more of a bother than a financial burden to the company.

But the federal government didn’t let them off so easy. The EPA had to be called in to investigate numerous Clean Air Act violations, and it found Slawson had inadequate vapor control systems on its storage tanks at oil and natural gas well pads, resulting in an estimated 15,000 tons of methane and other poisonous gases per year being released into the clean North Dakota air.

Just last December, the EPA fined Slawson $2.1 million and is requiring the company to install $5.6 million worth of vapor control systems and gauges on its well sites here. That’s still small potatoes to the company, though, just another cost of doing business. After all, Slawson will spend more than $100 million to develop the two Van Hook well sites.

Now, with the sellout of the community by the Industrial Commission a fait accompli, and with drilling under way, the county and the resort residents are putting together a list of things they’d like Slawson to do to try to mitigate some of the damage and danger to the lake and the resort community — and the chaos it is creating in this quiet little bay on Lake Sakakawea. We’ll know what those things are later this year. There are a couple of things we know now, for sure, though. You can’t mitigate evil politicians. And you can’t mitigate oil company greed.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — The Little Missouri State Scenic River Is In Trouble Again

North Dakota’s Little Missouri State Scenic River lost most of its scenic protection this week when Gov. Doug Burgum reversed course and joined the members of his State Water Commission in opening the entire river to industrial water development.

Last month, Burgum declared upstream areas of the state’s only official State Scenic River — the areas surrounding the three units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park — off-limits to industrial water use and told State Engineer Garland Erbele to “immediately review, modify and make transparent the process and requirements for any future issuance of temporary use permits for nonagricultural uses.” Read: Permits for fracking water.

That came after it was revealed that the Water Commission staff had issued more than 600 illegal industrial water permits and then had state law changed in the waning days of the 2017 Legislature to make such permits legal. The Little Missouri State Scenic River Act, passed by the 1975 Legislature, prohibited the use of Little Missouri water for industrial purposes. The bill passed this year changed that.

Friends of the river urged Burgum to veto the legislation, but he declined, instead issuing his policy of only allowing those permits downstream of the National Park.

In issuing that policy, Burgum said in a letter to me and others:

“As governor, a North Dakota resident and a property owner on the Little Missouri River, protecting our environment and being responsible stewards of our natural resources is a priority for me personally and for our administration.”

Well, so much for “being responsible stewards.” Thursday’s action by the Water Commission took care of that.

Erbele did his “review” and came up with a recommendation 180 degrees from Burgum’s policy, opening up the entire Little Missouri State Scenic River basin to industrial use.

And in a puzzling move, the governor then took that recommendation to the Water Commission this week, instead of acting on it himself, as he had done in declaring his earlier policy.

Even more puzzling, the governor did not question the policy recommendation, and voted to implement it, opening up the entire river to industrial development and leaving friends of the river shaking their heads in wonder — and anger — at his inconsistency.

Now, I suspect that the governor, if questioned, would say he wanted broader input on the policy — input from his State Water Commission members. But the Water Commission only heard one side of the story — the oil industry’s side — at Thursday’s meeting. Opponents of the policy, who wanted to keep industrial development away from our State Scenic River and from the National Park, were not given a chance to speak to the issue.

Several of those opponents sat through Thursday’s marathon session for five hours, waiting for a discussion of the Little Missouri State Scenic River Act, as promised on the Commission’s agenda. But they were caught off guard when a Water Commission staff member presented a recommendation from a list of four options — the three that were not adopted offered some protection for the river — and the Commission adopted the one opening up the river for development after a brief discussion. Only Agriculture Commissioner Douglas Goehring voted against the recommendation, citing concerns over industrial use trumping the needs of farmers and ranchers for irrigation.

I was among those who thought it unusual for a major new state policy to be adopted by an important state agency without any public discussion or any chance for making a case against the policy before a vote was taken. But then, if we can adopt a national health care policy written behind closed doors, I suppose nothing surprises any more.

There was some discussion among Commission members before the vote. Commissioner Harley Swenson of Bismarck questioned the urgency of adopting the policy, given low water levels in the Little Missouri this year and pointing out that there were another 1,000 wells awaiting fracking right now, and perhaps wells along the river could wait until there is more water available and the list of wells awaiting fracking shrinks.

But Commissioner Larry Hanson, also of Bismarck, jumped in on behalf of the oil industry, saying that if they don’t get the water out of the Little Missouri, it’s a “long haul” to have it brought in from somewhere else. Old, white –haired, mostly bald heads around the table nodded in assent, and a vote was taken quickly then to approve the policy.

I point out the white-haired, mostly bald heads because the Water Commission is — or should be — an embarrassment to North Dakota government. All seven appointees to the board are old white males, many well into their 70s, at least one 80. To be fair, all were appointed by governors other than Burgum, and Burgum let four of them go after Thursday’s meeting, opening up their spots to new members he will appoint later this summer. Maybe some women? Maybe some under 70?

In another disappointing moment in the meeting, Burgum made a lame argument about the sequence of events leading up to the change in the law and Thursday’s adoption of a new policy. The illegal permits issued for industrial use had been going on “for decades,” Burgum said, and when a staff member discovered it, they quickly stopped doing it.

“There was no cover-up,” Burgum said. They admitted what they did was wrong, he went on, and brought it to the attention of the Legislature, which fixed the law to make those permits legal now.

Yeah, well, the governor was blowing smoke. Here’s what really happened. More than a year ago, I wrote an article for my blog and for Dakota Country magazine about the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission. During this year’s Legislative Session, a friend of mine, who had read the blog, told me he had heard a mention of the Scenic River Commission on the floor of the Legislature. I went looking, and sure enough, there was an amendment to the State Water Commission budget bill changing the law to allow industrial use of water from the Little Missouri State Scenic River, which had been prohibited since 1975.

I called the Water Commission, got a couple of the staff responsible for issuing water permits on the phone and asked what they were up to. They told me that they never knew about the law, in spite of working there for decades, and that one of their staff had read my story and brought the law to their attention, so they were getting it changed. I asked if they had issued any industrial permits to take water for the oil industry from the river, and one of them blurted out, “Yeah, more than 600.”  I’m guessing those two wished they had been a little more circumspect — I doubt they had told the Legislature that, when they asked to change the law — but it was too late. The cat was out of the bag.

So I wrote a story about it, and, when the bill passed the Legislature, a whole lot of people put heat on the governor to veto it. He didn’t, but he wrote the policy I mentioned earlier about keeping the industrial permits away from the section of the river near the National Park, the policy which was overturned Thursday with the governor’s blessing.

So what’s next?

Right now, the Water Commission staff said Thursday, there are four industrial water permit applications pending, asking for water for oil well fracking from the Little Missouri. I looked them up on the Water Commission’s website. All are between the North and South Units of the National Park, one just a couple of miles from the Elkhorn Ranch. One has asked to start pumping water immediately, one Sept. 1, and two Nov. 1. The permits, once approved, are good for only 12 months, so I’d guess they will be pretty eager to get going.

The oil companies have negotiated what I suspect is a pretty sizeable fee with the ranchers for access to the river on their land and building some kind of water depot into which they’ll pump the water. And then the water trucks — as many as a thousand trucks for each well — will thunder down the hill to the depot and load up and take their water to the well that needs fracking. At least I think that is how it works. I asked the Water Commission today what their intentions are for those four permit applications. Here’s the response:

“They all are in pending status. Based on the decision of the State Water Commission yesterday, they are eligible to be reviewed for approval. If approved conditions will be applied similar to the temporary industrial permits that have been issued downstream of the Long-X bridge. A threshold and maximum pumping rate will be developed for this reach of the river based on the Medora gage.” 

Well, I don’t suppose they’ll be pumping much water from the river right now if they are approved — which they could be. Right now, about noon on June 23, 2017, the river gauge at Medora shows there are just over 3 cubic feet per second (cfs) flowing through Medora. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, which maintains the gauges and keeps the records, that’s the lowest flow for this date in the 60 year history of keeping records on the river. The previous low was just under 8 feet in 2004, and the mean flow is 1150 cfs. In other words, the river is just about dead in its tracks. A severe drought, like the one we’re in right now, will do that. But if it rains …

I’m going to send this article to the governor to let him know how unhappy I am with him. He’s the only one who can protect the Little Missouri State Scenic River valley right now. It wouldn’t hurt if he heard from a few more people, too. It’s pretty easy. Just click here.