North Dakota's top oil regulator writes email discussing value of public comment
BISMARCK – North Dakota’s top oil regulator, who would be in charge of considering public comments under a proposed “extraordinary places” policy, wrote in an email last month, “I just don’t see much value in public comment.”
Lynn Helms, director of the Department of Mineral Resources, made the comment in an email sent to Assistant Attorney General Matthew Sagsveen on Dec. 1. Forum News Service obtained it this week through a public records request.
In the email, Helms discussed his suggested edits to Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s proposed policy that would require Helms to consider public comment for the purposes of attaching conditions to drilling permits to minimize potential impacts to the 18 sites listed in the policy.
Stenehjem introduced his proposal Dec. 19, and a revised version will be considered for possible adoption by the state Industrial Commission on Wednesday.
In an interview Tuesday, Helms said his statement must be taken in context. The full sentence read: “I just don’t see much value in public comment, however 10 days of public comment followed by 10 days of professional guidance could be done.”
Helms, acknowledging that the first half of the sentence “sounds terrible,” said permitting oil and gas wells and mitigating the impacts is a highly technical process.
“And typically the vast majority of public comments that we’ve gotten are very general and they raise issues, but they don’t offer any technical solutions,” he said. “So what I was promoting was the idea of providing for notice to professionals so that some of those technical ideas could be incorporated into the process. And I’m very happy that that part of the whole process has stayed in the policy all through all these many changes.”
The policy would give the public and several state and federal agencies 10 days to submit comments on applications to drill for oil and gas within “areas of interest” extending a half-mile to two miles around the 18 sites on the list, including Elkhorn Ranch, White Butte and Little Missouri State Park.
However, Helms “is not bound to act upon any comments,” the policy states.
Helms’ dual role as both regulator and promoter of the state’s oil and gas industry – roles mandated by state law – has been scrutinized in recent months, most recently after the derailment and explosions of train cars carrying Bakken crude near Casselton on Dec. 30.
State Democratic-NPL Party leaders sent a letter earlier this month calling on the Industrial Commission to separate the director’s regulation and promotion duties and saying they will introduce legislation in 2015 to split the responsibilities.
The commission will take up the special places policy as its first agenda item when it meets at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday in the Capitol’s Brynhild Haugland Room.
It’s unknown whether the three commission members – Stenehjem, Gov. Jack Dalrymple and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring – will vote on the policy, or if it will even be ready for a vote. Their attorneys and staffers continued to propose changes to the policy late Tuesday afternoon, including one that aims to placate widespread concerns about private property rights.
“We’re still getting a lot of input. We may well not be ready for a vote tomorrow,” said Jerod Tufte, Dalrymple’s legal counsel.
Records show commission members have been bombarded with emails and letters about the policy.
Those opposing it include billionaire oilman Harold Hamm, CEO of Continental Resources, the largest mineral rights leaseholder in the Bakken shale oil play. A Jan. 22 letter signed by Hamm to the commission calls the proposal “a regrettable example of regulatory overreach and an invitation to federal government and private interest group intervention.”
The North Dakota Petroleum Council, North Dakota Association of Oil and Gas Producing Counties and North Dakota Stockmen’s Association also submitted letters of opposition, as did oil companies, mineral rights owners and property owners, dozens of whom used the same form letter to voice their concerns.
Among those backing the proposal in letters and emails were the North Dakota Chapter of the Wildlife Society, the Dakota Resource Council, the Sierra Club and the Badlands Conservation Alliance, as well as residents from the western half of the state.
“Attacks from outside interests are destroying western North Dakota, robbing current and future generations of North Dakotans of their heritage, landscape, and environment,” Patricia Ashley of Dickinson wrote in a Jan. 22 email of support for Stenehjem’s proposal.