Plan to protect 'extraordinary places' unveiled

2013-12-19T16:38:00Z Plan to protect 'extraordinary places' unveiledBy NICK SMITH | Bismarck Tribune Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK, N.D. _ Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem on Thursday outlined a proposal to provide extra protection to “extraordinary places” in the oil patch.

He told the North Dakota Industrial Commission that recognition of those sites is overdue, as is the need for improving ways for people to comment.

Commission members said the proposal would need further review before they made a decision. Conservationists called it a good first step while an official with an energy industry organization questioned potential impacts on drilling and private landowners.

Stenehjem said there has been public backlash in the past couple of years over proposals to drill in such areas of significance as the Elkhorn Ranch, Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the Killdeer Mountains. He said it’s been difficult for people to comment on drilling applications because they sometimes don’t know about the public hearings.

A more formal process would help, Stenehjem said.

“We have had a considerable amount of discussion and consternation (on the issue),” Stenehjem said. “I don’t think we have a formalized process in place for advanced (public) notice.”

The rules include a list of 18 places proposed for special protection. They are defined as having “exceptional cultural, historic, scenic, recreational and other spiritual or other value.”

Among the places listed were the three Stenehjem had noted. Others are Lake Sakakawea, the Little Missouri River National Grasslands, Sentinel Butte and the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers.

The rules enact buffer zones for each of the places, from one-half mile to a maximum of two miles.

“Nothing in here says you can’t build inside the buffer zones,” Stenehjem said.

Stenehjem said it’s important that the public knows “you’re doing everything you can to mitigate the impacts.”

Requirements in any mitigation plan would need to outline reclamation of the well site. Companies also would have to address noise and traffic, a timeline of drilling and fracking operations as well as feasibility in installing pipelines or equipment for addressing natural gas flaring.

Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring asked whether the proposal would duplicate what’s already being done. He said the Department of Mineral Resources already has a checklist to use in reviewing drilling permits.

“We’ve always had a process in place,” Goehring said.

He also said a large portion of land along the Little Missouri River is privately owned.

“I have a great deal of concern about the Little Missouri,” Goehring said.

Stenehjem reiterated his belief that the Industrial Commission would be best served by strengthening the rules.

Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said questioned the idea of the “visual impacts” of oil drilling and said the proposed rules will require a thorough review.

“The visual impact concept is huge,” Ness said.

“I think there’s a big red flag there on what 'visual impact' really means,” he said.

It could extend into other areas such as windmills and grain bins, he said. And everyone has a different idea of the appropriate place to locate an oil well, he said.

Wayde Schafer, a spokesman for the Sierra Club of North Dakota, considered Thursday’s proposal a step in the right direction.

“I’m really glad the attorney general took this project on,” Schafer said.

Improved public comment could help landowners have more impact on determining the commission’s decisions on significant areas of the state’s landscape, he said.

Schafer said he was disappointed that the list of special places totaled 18, down from a list of 40 places nominated. He said more sites could be added during public hearings.

Schafer said publicity over drilling in the Killdeer Mountains and Elkhorn Ranch areas helped get to the point of at least strengthening rules.

“It’s a huge step forward,” Schafer said.

Reach Nick Smith at 250-8255 or 223-8482 or at nick.smith@bismarcktribune.com.

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