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DAVIS REFINERY

The site of the Davis Refinery, southwest of Belfield, was posted with a sign as shown on July 31. 

North Dakota utility regulators agreed Wednesday that plans for an oil refinery near Theodore Roosevelt National Park are out of their hands.

The Public Service Commission dismissed a complaint filed by environmental groups challenging Meridian Energy Group’s plans for a Billings County refinery in western North Dakota. In a unanimous decision, the commissioners sided with an administrative law judge’s recommendation issued last month.

Commissioners said their siting authority is subject to thresholds set in state law, which is 50,000 barrels per day for refineries. Meridian CEO Bill Prentice said in an affidavit that the company has “no current plans” to expand the Davis Refinery beyond 49,500 barrels per day.

“This is a close call. It’s a tough call,” said Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak. “All indications suggest that the company is developing plans to avoid the additional regulatory scrutiny required of a siting permit.”

“But the fact remains that the PSC is a regulatory body and we must have subject matter jurisdiction to preside over any matter,” she added.

Randy Christmann, who chairs the three-member, all-Republican PSC, said their decision doesn’t reflect whether the refinery will be built in an “appropriate location.”

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The Dakota Resource Council and the Environmental Law and Policy Center, which filed the complaint, said the PSC chose to “trust the company at its word.”

“The PSC’s decision ignores its duty as an independent utility regulator and the rights of North Dakotans to seek formal determinations from the PSC,” the groups said in a statement. “This is a pivotal decision that could broadly affect the PSC’s ability to regulate everything from electric rates, to coal mines, to wind siting, and oil refinery siting, and it should concern all North Dakotans.”

The groups said they are reviewing next steps with legal counsel and raised the possibility of appealing the commission’s decision in district court.

The entire facility would be subject to review and approval once plans to increase the facility to at least 50,000 barrels per day are implemented, according to the commission’s order. The order was not included on the commission’s publicly available agenda ahead of the meeting.

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