The U.S. Forest Service is working to update its oil and gas leasing direction for the Little Missouri National Grassland, a document that hasn’t been updated since the Bakken oil boom was in its infancy.

The agency is taking public comment on a draft supplemental environmental impact statement, with two public hearings scheduled this week.

The Little Missouri National Grassland in western North Dakota consists of about 1 million acres that are managed by the Forest Service. Of that, 893,200 acres are available for oil and gas leasing.

Changes proposed in the draft supplemental environmental impact statement would only affect 216,300 acres that are available for leasing but currently not leased. Lands that are already leased by oil and gas companies would not be affected unless those leases expire.

The agency is considering three options:

• Continue leasing with the current stipulations.

• No new oil and gas leasing.

• Continue with leasing but with revised stipulations.

The third option, to add revised stipulations, is the agency’s preferred alternative.

Casey Johnson, project manager, said the last time the leasing stipulations were reviewed was 2008.

The revisions proposed aim to reflect changes in oil and gas development and provide additional protections for resources of concern, Johnson said.

For example, revised stipulations would affect sage-grouse habitat, roadless areas, recreation areas and paleontological resources.

Grasslands Supervisor Bill O’Donnell said the Forest Service works to balance the multiple uses for the Dakota Prairie Grasslands, such as recreation and grazing as well as oil and gas development.

A lack of available resources prevented the Forest Service from updating the oil and gas stipulations earlier, O’Donnell said.

“Things have changed dramatically,” he said. “We have to look at these stipulations to make sure we’re catching up to where we need to be.”

The revised stipulations would increase the number of acres that are designated as no surface occupancy. That means companies can access the oil and gas minerals using horizontal drilling, but can’t have wells or other facilities on the surface.

The preferred alternative would designate 107,800 acres as no surface occupancy. Under current stipulations, about 75,100 acres have that designation. However, under current practice, roadless areas can be assigned as no surface occupancy under a process known as a lease notice.

Lynn Helms, director of the Department of Mineral Resources, has raised the increase in no surface occupancy acres as a potential concern. Helms told the North Dakota Industrial Commission in November that some oil and gas resources within the grasslands, such as the Madison and Red River formations, could be uneconomic to develop under the revised stipulations.

At Helms’ suggestion, the North Dakota Industrial Commission wrote a letter asking the Forest Service to add another six months to the comment period.

“We need to give this some detailed study,” Helms said.

The Forest Service recently extended the comment period through Jan. 16, adding another month for feedback.

Jan Swenson, executive director for the Badlands Conservation Alliance, said the organization has been pushing for the Forest Service to update its leasing stipulations. Swenson said the Forest Service analysis, which is 149 pages long, misses an opportunity to look at the big picture for oil and gas development on public lands.

“There’s nothing that looks at some kind of comprehensive planning for the Badlands prior to leasing,” Swenson said.

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(Reach Amy Dalrymple at 701-250-8267 or Amy.Dalrymple@bismarcktribune.com)

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