NORTH DAKOTA LEGISLATURE: Oil land mediation ... Unconstitutional bills? ... Souped-up vehicle crackdown? ... moreNorth Dakota landowner and oil industry groups sparred Thursday about a proposed independent mediation board that would referee disputes between oil producers and landowners.
By: Associated Press, Grand Forks Herald
BISMARCK — North Dakota landowner and oil industry groups sparred Thursday about a proposed independent mediation board that would referee disputes between oil producers and landowners.
Those arguments will become more frequent as western North Dakota’s oil industry continues its development, Sen. John Warner, D-Ryder, said Thursday during a Senate Natural Resources Committee hearing.
For a property owner to profit from oil production, he or she must own the land’s mineral rights, which can be sold or leased to an energy developer. It’s common in western North Dakota for ownership of surface and mineral rights to a piece of land to be in different hands.
A mineral rights owner also has the right to go onto the land’s surface to drill for oil or dig for coal. North Dakota law already requires that landowners be compensated for farm production losses and damage to their property, but supporters of Warner’s bill said surface owners are still at a disadvantage in negotiations over damage payments,.
He proposed a mediation board, which would be appointed by the governor and have at least three members, would be a quicker and less expensive alternative than taking disputes to court, he said. His legislation is fashioned after a board that handles landowner-oil company arguments in Manitoba, he said.
“It would provide an avenue for surface owners to engage in a fair and equitable dialogue with oil and gas companies, and with mineral interests,” Warner said.
Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said the board would “create an entirely new level of bureaucracy” that would cost about $1 million annually.
The industry backs other bills aimed at remedying landowner unease, Ness said.
The alternative proposals include tax credits for property owners who have one or more oil wells on their land; giving property owners more say about where oil wells are located; and broadening the jurisdiction of a state Agriculture Department mediation board to handle disputes between landowners and oil companies, Ness said.
The Agriculture Department board now concentrates on arguments between farmers and ranchers and their lenders. North Dakota’s agriculture commissioner, Doug Goehring, is also a member of the state Industrial Commission, which oversees oil and gas regulation.
Ness said oil companies already have plenty of incentive to get along with surface rights owners. “The last thing the oil company wants, over a few thousand dollars, is a longstanding, 20-plus-year dispute, potentially, with that surface owner,” he said.
The Natural Resources Committee did not take immediate action on the bill, SB2274, on Thursday.
Greg Tank, a rancher from Keene, a McKenzie County community in west-central North Dakota, said he sees “problems of every sort” from oil development. “There just isn’t enough time to take on, if it’s under $10,000, to really spend the time or the money to try to solve a case, or litigate it,” he said. “Each year, a lot of damages ... are just overlooked because we just don’t want to waste the time to try to collect . We need a board that’s impartial, something like a jury system.”
Ashley Lauth, an oil and gas organizer for the Dakota Resource Council, a landowner and environmental group based in Dickinson, said North Dakota’s oil boom has the potential to touch almost every surface landowner in the state’s western oil-producing counties.
“In order to be prepared to address the grievances, a board that exclusively handles surface-related disagreements is necessary,” Lauth said.
AG says some bills unconstitutional
North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said he’s concerned some bills in the state Legislature may violate the U.S. Constitution.
One bill makes it a crime for federal and state officials to apply federal law in deciding whether someone is eligible for health insurance coverage. There’s an exception if the federal law has been approved by the North Dakota Legislature.
Another would ban the federal government from “establishing a federal designation” over North Dakota land and water resources without legislative approval.
A third bill in the Legislature says federal Environmental Protection Agency rules don’t have any effect in North Dakota, unless they’re endorsed by a state agency.
New curbs for souped-up rides
A bill that would put new restrictions on souped-up cars and trucks faces strong opposition from hobbyists.
About 70 people showed up Thursday at a House Transportation Committee hearing to oppose the measure.
It would require vehicles to pass a Highway Patrol inspection after every modification to a vehicle’s suspension, steering or brakes.
The bill bans raising or lowering a car’s height while it’s moving. The provision is aimed at hydraulic systems that hobbyists install in cars.
Supporters of the bill said amateur modifications can be dangerous and said regulations affecting them should apply to heavy trucks. Opponents said the required inspections would be costly and time-consuming.
Bill would require poll sites in towns
North Dakota state Rep. Jim Kasper said it should be easier for North Dakotans to vote in person, instead of relying on voting by mail.
The Fargo Republican is proposing a bill to require every North Dakota city of more than 200 people to keep a polling place open on Election Day.
Secretary of State Al Jaeger and county election officials testified against the bill Thursday in the North Dakota House’s Political Subdivisions Committee.
Opponents said Kasper’s bill would cost more than $300,000 per election. They said it’s hard to find election workers in small towns.
Now, if a county uses voting by mail, it needs to have only one walk-up voting location on Election Day.
Bill would require proving eligibility
A pair of bills in the North Dakota House would require some people to prove they’re eligible to vote before their ballots are counted.
The legislation would set aside voter ballots that are challenged. The voter would have three days to prove his or her eligibility to the county auditor. If the voter didn’t offer proof, the ballot wouldn’t be counted.
State law now gives a challenged voter the option of signing a sworn statement saying they’re eligible to vote.
West Fargo Rep. Kim Koppelman told the House Political Subdivisions Committee the changes would prevent ineligible voters from deciding close elections.
Cass County Auditor Mike Montplaisir said the bill would disenfranchise thousands of people just to catch a handful of ineligible voters.