JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — The Worst Threat To The Little Missouri State Scenic River EVER!

An interesting little item buried on Page 4 of a long April 30 North Dakota Industrial Commission meeting agenda read: “Overview of Oil and Gas Development in western North Dakota along the Little Missouri River.” (approx. 3:30 pm)

Piqued my curiosity, so I went. What I learned is that I should have been paying more attention to some things my friend and recently retired Badlands Conservation Alliance executive director Jan Swenson has been saying.

Back in February, Jan and two other state conservation leaders, Mike McEnroe of the North Dakota Wildlife Federation and Al Sapa of the North Dakota Wildlife Society, tried to warn us — they actually did warn the Industrial Commission in a letter — of what looks to me to be the biggest threat to the Little Missouri State Scenic River Valley EVER.

The three of them wrote to Gov. Doug Burgum, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, the three Industrial Commission members, expressing concern for the activities of an oil and gas company called NP Resources. They wrote, in part:

“A single company has targeted the Little Missouri River corridor and surrounding badlands from just north of the McKenzie/Billings County line to the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and while actual drilling proceeds slowly, the NDIC has authorized over 150 new wells.”

You read that right. NP Resources, a Denver-based oil and gas company, plans to drill more than 150 wells (actually, the Industrial Commission had authorized 180 wells by the end of 2018 — I haven’t checked 2019 yet)  in a 20-mile corridor between the South Unit and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of TR National Park, just north of Medora. Almost all of them will be within a couple of miles of the Little Missouri, turning this into one of the busiest industrial corridors in North Dakota. Right smack in the middle of the Bad Lands.

Jan warned me about this a couple years ago, after NP Resources bought out a ton of leases from Whiting Petroleum, one of the major players in the Bakken. But I couldn’t comprehend the scope of what they were planning. Now I can.

Here’s a look at the Elkhorn Project and one of NP Resources’ wells, pretty darn close to the Little Missouri State Scenic River, well inside the Industrial Commission’s attempt to keep wells two miles from the river. Looks like a spill could run right down that road into the river. Thanks to NP Resources for the use of their graphic.
Here’s a look at the Elkhorn Project and one of NP Resources’ wells, pretty darn close to the Little Missouri State Scenic River, well inside the Industrial Commission’s attempt to keep wells two miles from the river. Looks like a spill could run right down that road into the river. Thanks to NP Resources for the use of their graphic.

To add insult to injury, NP Resources is calling this their “Elkhorn Project.”

I’ve written here in the past about other threats to the Elkhorn Ranch, Theodore Roosevelt’s home ranch in the Bad Lands during his time here in the 1880s, but those little gravel pits and single wells, and even the proposed bridge across the river, pale in comparison to what is planned by NP Resources.

Oh, yeah, the bridge. After Billings County Commission Chairman Jim Arthaud bragged that there would be a thousand oil trucks a day crossing the Little Missouri on that bridge beside Roosevelt’s ranch, a public uproar forced him to move it a dozen miles or so south, to a new location at the historic Short Ranch. The project to build that new bridge across our only State Scenic River is now in its final, final planning stages, with government agencies likely just weeks away from signing off on the Environmental Impact Statement, clearing the way for construction to begin.

And guess what? That Short Ranch location is SMACK DAB IN THE MIDDLE of NP Resources’ Elkhorn Project, making it really, really easy for oil and water tanker trucks to get back and forth between the company’s sites on either side of the river. Arthaud’s dream of a thousand trucks a day through the Little Missouri State Scenic River Valley is about to come true. Take a look at that Forest Service map I’ve made a copy of. All those red “X’s” are 1,280-acre spacing units approved by the North Dakota Industrial Commission, and each of them can have up to four well sites.

That’s what Jan and Mike and Al were worried about when they wrote that letter back in February. In it, they asked to meet with Industrial Commission staff to share concerns and begin developing a long-term strategic plan for the Bad Lands. Well, their request wasn’t granted, but that’s what the agenda item was about at that April 30 Industrial Commission meeting.

Instead, the three Industrial Commission members sat quietly while Oil and Gas Division director Lynn Helms blew so much smoke up their asses I thought they might float away. I was actually quite concerned for Gov. Burgum because he was sitting on a big beach ball at the end of the table instead of a chair, and I was afraid it night explode under him.

I’m a little hard of hearing, and Helms had his back to me, but I got the gist of it: Don’t worry, it’s only 150 (he used 150, not 180) wells, and we’ll keep them as far away from the “areas of interest” along the Little Missouri as we possibly can.

Well, go take another look at that Forest Service map. Each section of land is color coded to point out ownership. The “areas of interest” policy keeping wells a mile from the river only applies to public lands. Private lands are exempt, and the Industrial Commission can grant drilling permits on any area of that map that is white — that’s the private land.

Bad Lands ranchers aren’t dumb, and neither were their grandparents. When the Roosevelt administration stepped in to help keep them on the land back in the 1930s, by buying their land and leasing it back to them for pennies on the dollar, those ranchers kept the home section along the river for water and good grass for their cattle, so much of the river valley land is privately owned. The shaded sections are government land. The Industrial Commission can, and likely will, issue drilling permits on that private land.

So two things are happening simultaneously: Billings County is going to get 180 new oil wells, and in return, it is going to build a bridge across the river to accommodate the company drilling those wells.

I asked the engineers at the North Dakota Department of Transportation in an e-mail what the timetable is for the bridge. A spokesman wrote back:

“The lead agencies are addressing the comments received on the draft EIS from various agencies, organizations and/or the public as well as providing responses to those comments. The lead agencies are updating the Final EIS based on those comments and then the Final EIS will be submitted to the North Dakota FHWA (Federal Highway Administration) Division in the coming months. FHWA will review the Final EIS and provide a Record of Decision after their review.”

I wrote back: “In the coming months? Can you be more specific?”

The spokesman wrote back:

“The comments and responses are being worked on and reviewed to ensure the comments/concerns are addressed, so not sure when they will be completed. I believe the intent would be within 30-60 days, not sure I can be any more specific.

“After the responses to comments and any updates to the EIS are completed, the next step in the process will be to send the Final EIS along with the comments/responses to FHWA for review. If FHWA doesn’t require any changes to the Final EIS and responses to the comments, they will issue a Record of Decision (ROD). When FHWA issues the ROD, a notice will be published in the Federal Register that the Final EIS and ROD are available for review by the public. The notice of availability will be published in the paper and NDDOT will put out a press release.”

Well, we’ll sure be watching for that press release. I wonder if NP Resources will get an advance copy? They’re more eager than I am to see it.

By the end of 2018, NP Resources had already drilled nine wells and built two salt water disposal facilities to get rid of excess fracking water. Somebody told me once that it takes 2,000 truck trips to service a fracking operation. Now I’m an English major, but I own a little calculator, and it tells me that’s 360,000 truck trips into and out of the Little Missouri State Scenic River Valley to service 180 wells. On gravel roads. In the arid Bad Lands.  Imagine the dust.

Then there’s the matter of who pays for the new bridge to accommodate those trucks. I’m pretty sure NP Resources would be more than happy to flip $15 million over to Billings County to get the thing built. That’s pocket change to NP Resources, considering the scale of its “Elkhorn Project.”

As I’ve reported here before, right now there’s no state or federal money allocated for the project, even though Arthaud claims that federal funds will be used to pay for 80 percent of the cost. I asked the DOT guy about that, too. He responded:

“If the ROD allows the project to move forward and if they pursue state and/or federal funds, it really depends on where they would seek those funds. If it is through a legislative process, then the public should be able to testify or provide comments. If they would apply for a grant through an agency (federal or state), it will depend on the grant they would be applying for.”

Well, the 2019 Legislative Session is over, and I checked the DOT budget bill, and I couldn’t find any funds for the bridge in there. So now, I suppose it depends on whether Gov. Burgum wants to authorize his DOT guys to give a grant for that much from the state’s allocation of federal highway tax dollars to Billings County for its bridge. He could do that.

The thing is, even though Billings County residents might not like it, I suspect the county could come up with the money on its own. The County Commissioners keep the check register and bank statements locked up pretty tightly in a safe in their courthouse, but I think Billings is one of the richest counties in the state. A glance at the North Dakota State Treasurer’s monthly report (to the extent you can trust Kelly Schmidt’s math) shows that the county averages more than $450,000 a month in oil and gas tax payments — about $5.5f f million dollars per year, or almost $6,000 a year for each of the county’s 940 residents.

According to the website drillingedge.com, Billings County has 438 producing wells right now, generating about $5.5 million in taxes. Adding another 180 wells, which will likely provide more taxes than the current wells, many of which are vertical wells that produce far less oil than the horizontal wells to come, could generate another couple of million dollars per year, so it won’t take long for the taxes from NP Resources’ wells to pay for that new bridge.

The Elkhorn Project. Take one more look.


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