Let’s Not Move the Regulatory Goal Posts on the Davis Refinery

Members of the public gave testimony during the public hearing for the proposed Davis Refinery on Wednesday, Jan. 17 at Dickinson State University. (Sydney Mook / The Dickinson Press)

Building major energy infrastructure projects like pipelines or refineries is really, really hard. There are reams of federal, state, and local red tape which must be dealt with before ground can even be broken.

And, in more recent years, there is also the (sometimes violent) political activism complete with seemingly endless legal challenges.

The point of the red tape it to ensure the safe and responsible development of these projects.

The point of the activism is to pervert the regulatory process into something which can be used to block this development entirely.

That’s important to keep in mind as we see the opponents of the Meridian Energy Group’s David Refinery demanding that the regulatory goal posts for the project be moved.

It’s a not uncommon tactic for them. Early on in this debate they were up in arms about the possibility that the refinery could be seen from Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the boundary of which is several miles to the northwest from refinery’s future site, but when it became clear that the visibility issue was (at best) grossly exaggerated they began griping that could be seen from the interstate on the way to the park.

Similarly, as Meridian Energy Group satisfies the various regulatory requirements so they can begin construction of their refinery, the activists want to add more regulations to comply with. That’s something they called for at a Department of Health hearing about the Davis Refinery this week:

Jan Swenson, executive director for the Badlands Conservation Alliance, was one of several at Wednesday’s hearing who called for an overall review of the refinery, rather than separate reviews that look narrowly at air quality, water and waste.

“We need to do a much better job as a state,” Swenson said. “This is huge. This is not an oil well, it is not an ecopad, it’s an oil refinery.”

There are two points to make here:

First, it’s not fair to start carpet bombing a company already working to comply with regulations on a project like this with more regulations. That sort of ex post facto nonsense is going to make companies wonder why they should bother to invest money in this sort of infrastructure when the rules of the game can be changed in the middle of the game.

Bringing me to my second point. That sort of deterrence is exactly what the environmental activists want. They don’t want a thorough and rigorous process which results in a safe and responsibly-built refinery. They want no refinery at all, and they’re willing to game to the process to achieve that outcome.

Everyone wants things like oil refineries to be safe. Far fewer people in North Dakota, I think, want the process intended to ensure that safety used as obstruction.

If there are problems with the current process let’s identify them, debate remedies, and pass the appropriate laws. But in the mean time, let’s not let political activists turn this process into a farce.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from noon-2pm weekdays.

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