Striking a balance between energy development and protecting the environment continues to be difficult in North Dakota.
Those in the energy industry argue they have been good stewards of the land, often going beyond the rules and regulations in place. Environmentalists disagree, citing the expansion of oil and wind industries into areas that had been untouched. North Dakotans, while taking great pride in our wide open spaces, wildlife and outdoor experiences, tend to believe landowners should be able to control what they do with their property. That includes leasing it for oil drilling and wind farms.
The North Dakota Game and Fish Department has weighed into the debate as it develops recommendations to reduce the impact of wind development on wildlife habitat. The department wants to use voluntary guidelines it’s formulating to draw wind companies away from erecting turbines and building roads in wildlife habitat areas. Game and Fish also wants to encourage companies to develop projects to restore or reconstruct habitat elsewhere.
Unhappiness with the recommendations came to the fore recently during a meeting of the Interim Natural Resources Committee. Company officials and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring expressed their concerns over the Game and Fish recommendations. Goehring went so far as to call a $557,000 payment from wind developer NextEra to Ducks Unlimited to resolve wildlife officials' concerns about a wind farm “extortion.” That may be a little strong, but we see his point. If a company writes a big enough check, does a project go from being wrong to OK?
Wind farms aren’t the only issue in the state. The controversy over the Davis oil refinery near Belfield continues. The state issued an air quality permit for the refinery last week, but more appeals or legal challenges are expected. Opponents believe the refinery will be too close to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park and will adversely impact it. There’s been ongoing debate over siting of oil wells near Lake Sakakawea.
The Tribune has been a supporter of landowners’ rights. We also believe it’s appropriate to regulate development. The efforts by Game and Fish to develop recommendations to protect habitat make sense. The department needs to work with state agriculture officials to reach agreement on the recommendations. State agencies need to work together to make energy development as compatible to the environment as possible. The Public Service Commission, which has siting authority for wind projects, says it strives for a balance of permitting energy development with minimal impact on the environment.
“Minimal impact” means the project will change the environment in some way, The Tribune realizes the landscape won’t be the same after energy-related projects are completed.
Officials and the public must decide what we want the state to look like during and after projects. The Tribune believes Game and Fish is on the right track in developing recommendations. The North Dakota Industrial Commission also took a positive step when it approved $4.6 million in Outdoor Heritage Funds for 13 conservation projects, including a program to offset oil industry impacts in the Badlands. The commission OK’d $2.17 million for the Bakken Development and Working Lands Program, which strives to enhance areas near oil development, create nature and interpretive sites and coordinate the reclamation of energy sites.
Despite the growing pains associated with the oil boom the state was hungry for the revenue that came with it. When oil prices tumbled and the revenue stream became a trickle, the state was forced into drastic cuts. Most residents are happy to see a rebound in the oil patch. The Tribune’s also convinced residents want the state to do everything possible to maintain its environment. It’s a balancing act that’s going to require a constant effort by everyone involved.