Wayne Stenehjem Column: Extraordinary Places Proposal Shouldn't Be Controversial


There’s a lot of talk about the value of our oil reserves in Western ND.  We are the envy of the nation.  Wherever we go, everyone is talking about what is happening here:  New wealth, new opportunities.  We all know the stories about low unemployment, good wages, and the wealth that is being generated.

Things are going amazingly well for us in North Dakota.

But we didn’t wind up where we are by accident, and we didn’t wind up here without a lot of turmoil.

Our state was founded by farmers, and up until lately 90% of our economy has derived from agriculture.

We North Dakotans learned through bitter experience that if we were to thrive, we needed to diversify our agricultural base.  And so we have.  We no longer rely solely on wheat, the one crop that brought so many to our plains.

And so today, North Dakota is the nation’s leader in production of several crops: flax, canola, durum, all dry edible beans and peas, spring wheat, honey, lentils, sunflowers, barley and oats.

But we’ve done much more.  We’ve learned that we have enormous energy reserves in our state.

Lignite, oil, natural gas, biomass, wind.

We produce vast quantities of energy.

North Dakota’s energy resources are more diverse than any other state in the nation.

North Dakota:

• Is home to the largest deposit of lignite coal in the world.

• Is the 2nd largest oil-producing state.  In fact, if North Dakota were a member of OPEC, we would not be the smallest member.

• Has been dubbed the “Saudi Arabia of Wind” due to our wind energy potential.

We in North Dakota have a good thing going for us.  We have been well blessed with resources and with people who can boast an historic record of making the best of our sometimes difficult situation, and time and again coming out on top.

We’ve demonstrated it in the responsible way we’ve developed our enormous coal reserves, and now provide abundant energy for a nation that needs it.  In the 1970’s, when we first started to use our vast lignite resources we were constantly exhorted that we could never mine our coal reserves and then restore our land to the way it was – or better. With strong but effective reclamation laws, and also with a willingness to partner with industry we have proven the doubters wrong.  Our land is safe, our air is pure, our people are healthy.

And we’ve done it all because we knew it was right.

Now we are in the midst of development of our oil and gas resources.

It brings challenges, to be sure.  But we’ve been there before.

The North Dakota Industrial Commission has enormous responsibilities.  The Legislature has entrusted management of our oil and gas resources to us and the policy dictated by law is equally clear. The Century Code says,  “It is hereby declared to be in the public interest to foster, to encourage, and to promote the development, production, and utilization of natural resources of oil and gas in the state in such a manner as will prevent waste; to authorize and to provide for the operation and development of oil and gas properties in such a manner that a greater ultimate recovery of oil and gas be had and that the correlative rights of all owners be fully protected… in order that the greatest possible economic recovery of oil and gas be obtained within the state to the end that the landowners, the royalty owners, the producers, and the general public realize and enjoy the greatest possible good from these vital natural resources.”

In fulfilling these important directives, it falls to the industrial commission to seek to enforce the laws, and frequently to find a sensible balance among all of the competing interests.

Perhaps no thornier issue exists in striking that balance than in the area of determining the exact placement of oil rigs and pads.

There are often disagreements.  Mineral owners might disagree with surface owners.  Local governments may have their own concerns, as may neighboring landowners.

The Extraordinary places proposal is really quite simple, and shouldn’t be that controversial.  When an oil company seeks to place a drilling rig on a site, it should be prepared to discuss its plans to mitigate any adverse impact.  With modern technology, there can be many options for the actual location of a rig.  Slightly moving a rig might make sense.  Painting a pump jack to blend with the surroundings is one of many options.  Planning a multi-pad site can reduce the number of roads that need to be built and even justify the costs of installing pipelines to take away oil and gas sooner rather than later to decrease traffic and reduce flaring of natural gas.  Oil companies consider these kinds of things every day.

The problem is that these decisions are not made pursuant to a well understood, written policy.

That’s what this proposal will do.

It would say that when a company seeks a permit for a site to drill an oil well, let’s discuss your plans to mitigate the impact.  And then, as nearly every other government entity does, let people who have comments to offer, submit them.

The process will be written, transparent, and known to everyone.

I have stressed from the beginning that we are well aware that private citizens own much of these mineral interests.  They have a legal right to develop them.  So we do not seek to provide any prohibitions on that right, just an opportunity to provide public comment in the process.

This is not an unprecedented proposal.  The Public Service Commission has far greater authority, for example, for the construction of wind mills and related facilities which includes time for public comment and hearings.

The PSC does what nearly every governmental body does in important decisions, which is invite the public to offer its comments and suggestions, to respectfully consider those comments, and then make a decision. Public bodies across the state do that kind of thing every day, from township boards, county and city governments, to the state legislature.

This is a reasonable and appropriate process in a representative government.  Everyone should have a say, even though not everyone will get his or her way.

There are no challenges North Dakotans cannot, together, overcome.  For years our farmers have shown us how, in the way they overcame enormous hurdles — from drought, prairie fires, floods, locusts, blizzards; and low prices. With pure drive and determination and sacrifice, they overcame it all.  And now, our producers are feeding a hungry world in ways our pioneer grandparents could never have imagined.  We know that as North Dakotans, if we can overcome the natural disasters of drought, flood, locusts, prairie fires—if we can prevail in the light of all that and come out ahead, we know we can handle the challenges of prosperity.

We have done it well.  But we can be more open and transparent, and assure our citizens that we know protection of our land is important, while likewise protecting the rights of mineral and surface owners.