Flaring has been an issue in the oil patch since the early boom years. The oil industry and state took action, establishing a timeline for reducing flaring.
However, concerns remain in the Bakken over the amount of flaring still allowed, especially on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. Federal regulators on Wednesday heard the complaints from Fort Berthold residents at a United Tribes Technical College meeting. The Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management representatives heard from oil operators, state officials and Fort Berthold leaders. Among the issues are the amount of time it takes the BIA to approve pipeline right of way and that federal agencies don’t follow tribal policies when approving oil and gas projects.
In some cases it has taken more than a year to approve right of way.
Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation Chairman Mark Fox pointed out that MHA requires oil development to be at least 1,000 feet away from Lake Sakakawea, but the BLM has permitted wells within that setback. The tribe also requires that royalties should be paid on gas that is flared after one year.
Industry representatives said it’s important to have certainty with the regulations and the timeframe it takes to develop a project, The agency representatives responded with an offer for additional workshops to educate the industry about the processes in place. Fox was told the BLM is reviewing flaring prior to 2017 to see if the delay in royalty payments was avoidable or not.
It was apparent at the meeting that both tribal and oil industry leaders are unhappy with the time it takes federal agencies to approve projects and deal with royalty payments. While tribal and industry leaders may not agree on what action they want taken, they do agree the agencies are too slow.
While the Tribune Editorial Board believes the federal agencies need to give projects a thorough review it appears to be taking too long. Fort Berthold is counting on the oil revenue to fund development on the reservation. The flaring is a visible sign of lost revenue. The agencies also should weigh the tribal policies before signing off on projects.
The oil industry has valid concerns over how long it takes to get approval for projects. Time’s also money to them.
Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford called last week’s meeting a “historic collaboration." The Tribune believes it will take some results before that statement proves valid.
All sides are talking and that’s good. There are still areas of disagreement.
The Industrial Commission recently decided to keep current benchmarks for reducing flaring of excess natural gas, but gave the industry more flexibility in complying with the standards. Many of the changes were recommended by an industry task force. Environmental groups were critical of the changes, arguing they will likely make flaring problems worse. The Industrial Commission also was criticized for not taking public comments on the changes.
Despite the progress in reducing flaring, it remains a major issue in the oil patch. It needs the continued attention of state and federal officials. Fox was right when he said on Wednesday that "There are so many things we can do with the gas other than light up the night, impact our environment and then not get paid the royalties for resources that belong to us."
North Dakota flared about 256 million cubic feet per day of natural gas in February because of inadequate pipelines and other infrastructure to capture the gas. We need to do better. It’s difficult to balance the needs of the industry, the public and the environment, but the search for oil has been going on for a long time. We can do better.