JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Getting Ready For 50,000 Oil Wells

Setting aside protests for a while, let’s look at a planning effort that’s being done right. Here’s an article I wrote for this month’s Dakota Country magazine.

Is it too much for North Dakota citizens to expect that they should be provided a reasonable forecast of the environmental effects of 20,000 to 50,000 oil wells on our western landscape?

Hmm. Good question.

North Dakota is one of 13 states with no formal environmental review requirements. That’s worrisome to people concerned about the most fragile environmental area of our state — the Bad Lands — which also happens to be ground zero for the oil industry. The states that surround us — Minnesota, South Dakota and Montana — all have them.

The lack of environmental planning is why we’ve seen the chaos in western North Dakota associated with the Bakken Boom. But there’s a five-person committee at work — extremely hard work — developing recommendations for how to best develop our mineral resources with responsible stewardship of the North Dakota Bad Lands. Their work could result in legislation to be presented to the 2017 Legislature, or regulatory changes to be presented to North Dakota’s new governor.

Their work is the end stage of something called a “Stakeholder Assessment of the North Dakota Bad Lands and Little Missouri River Valley,” a yearlong project funded by the World Wildlife Fund and supervised by Covenant Consulting Group of Bismarck. It’s an ambitious attempt to learn how North Dakotans from various sectors perceive oil development in the Bad Lands, and how they believe it should progress in the future.

The “Stakeholders,” who included North Dakotans from the ranching, oil and gas, conservation, and government sectors, gave considerable amounts of their time to fill out questionnaires and be interviewed about their perceptions of oil development in the Bad Lands.

Their assessment, compiled into a lengthy report by Covenant, revealed widespread support for protection of natural assets in the Bad Lands. The assessment was not developed as an attempt to stop or hinder oil development in North Dakota. Rather, the specific goals of the assessment were to understand their perceptions and use the results to create strategies for how best to develop mineral resources with responsible stewardship of the Bad Lands.

And that’s what the five-person, all-volunteer committee is doing now. No one except committee members — a rancher, a county commissioner, a state legislator and representatives of the conservation community and the oil industry — know what will come of their work, but it could result in a proposal for some form of state environmental review process. They hope to finish their work by the end of the year — no small task, considering the 71 participants in the assessment process, who shared detailed views of their perceptions of the oil industry and its effect on the landscape, identified more than 80 areas of concern to be considered for future planning efforts.

At the top of the list: What’s happening to the “surface” in oil country. Reclamation of the surface of western North Dakota topped the list of concerns of the 71 participants, which included 26 ranchers, four oil industry representatives, 21 people from federal, state and local government and 20 participants who identified with conservation and recreation groups. The number of oil representatives was small because that’s all the Covenant group could convince to participate.

The assessment process started with just one assumption: There will be some level of oil development in the Bad Lands. Given that, Covenant sought to use the assessment as a starting point to find best practices that allow development while retaining surface assets for ranching, wildlife, scenic value and historical sites. In short, how to develop, with responsible stewardship of the Bad Lands.

After compiling a 136-page report, the Covenant team, headed by Bismarck CPA and former North Dakota Office of Management and Budget Director Rod Backman, developed three recommended strategies to achieve the project’s goal: 1) a collaborative process that includes all parties, 2) regulatory and statutory changes, and 3) a landscape pilot project that includes all parties.

The report was released in August, and Covenant is not letting any grass grow under its feet awaiting implementation. The diverse five-member team at work now is the beginning of the collaborative process, and they may propose regulatory and statutory changes by the end of the year. A pilot project, implementing some of the best practices the assessment revealed, could come in a select area of the Bad Lands soon.

As I said earlier, the stakeholder assessment revealed widespread support for protection of surface assets, not just in the Bad Lands but statewide. Most of us remember the state’s response to surface protection during the coal boom of the 1970s, and many of the stakeholders interviewed urged movement in that direction for the oil industry. We have some of the best mined-land reclamation laws in the nation. There’s hope this assessment could result in similar attention to reclamation of oil and gas disturbance.

You may not want to wade into the entire 136-page report, but there’s a great nine-page “Report Briefing” on the project’s website. In it, Covenant summarized findings from each of the four groups. Some highlights:

• Government agency representatives stressed that responsible energy development could be accomplished only through a combination of regulatory and voluntary efforts. But they also felt that current planning is haphazard or nonexistent, development has been too rapid, and there is no discussion about the end game (even though it is their agencies responsible for planning, which can only lead us to believe they are being restrained by people at “higher pay grades”).

• Oil industry representatives felt that there is too much “federal control” (read: EPA and land management agency regulations) and that state government should be more involved in planning. Hmmm. Could that be because state government leaders, starting with the governor, have been willing to roll over when the oil industry tells them to, but that doesn’t work with federal agencies?

• Ranchers mostly agreed that oil development has more benefits than drawbacks but quickly point out problems with increased traffic, poor well siting, duplication of infrastructure, a lack of pipeline infrastructure and people who do not hold “North Dakota values.”

• Conservationists showed concern for the ever-growing footprint of the industry and hoped that better planning, a more inclusive process, more transparency and emerging technologies could help reduce that footprint. Reclamation ranked high with them as well. More than 90 percent of North Dakota land is privately owned, and there are few reclamation standards for these lands. Ranchers overwhelmingly agreed. Reclamation standards are pretty strict on public lands. Expect recommendations from the five-member committee to address that issue.

Everybody interested in the future of our Bad Lands should read the nine-page briefing paper. This may be the most important document presented to us since the beginning of the Bakken Boom. And then, we need to wave it in the face of the new governor, his new Game and Fish director, his new State Parks director, his new State Health officer, his new Oil and Gas Division director and, most importantly, our own legislators.

I will report here when the five-member committee comes out with its recommendations. I hope they call for some kind of a formal environmental review process for our state, either statutory or administrative. If they do, we need to immediately get on board and put the pressure on to make it happen. It should have happened long ago, or at least as long ago as the beginning of the Bakken Boom.

Now, while cheap oil has the boom on hiatus, and a new government is forming, is the perfect time to do it.

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