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Action delayed on ‘extraordinary places’ policy as Industrial Commission wants more input on revised draft

BISMARCK – Industrial Commission members delayed action Wednesday on a policy that would create a more formal process for public comment on proposed oil and gas drilling near “extraordinary places” in western North Dakota, saying they want to allow for additional public input.

“I don’t think it’s finished,” Gov. Jack Dalrymple, the commission’s chairman, said. “I’m not totally happy with everything that I see.”

Dalrymple said he has received 300 to 400 comments on the policy being pushed by Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who sits on the commission with Dalrymple and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring.

Stenehjem said he’s received at least as many comments, many pertaining to earlier drafts of the policy, which he reiterated would not prohibit oil and gas drilling.

The commission agreed to publicize the latest draft on its website and create a list of frequently asked questions, and distribute both to interested groups and elected officials in western North Dakota.

The material will show how the policy compares to the existing process for commenting on permits, which Stenehjem said is “not as transparent as it can be.”

“I think we do need to take a deep breath and look at this proposal in writing,” he said.

Comments on the policy will be accepted until just before the commission’s next regular meeting, tentatively set for March 3.

The latest draft would create a formal 10-day period for the public and government agencies to comment on applications to drill within “areas of interest” extending up to two miles around the 18 places on Stenehjem’s list, including Elkhorn Ranch, White Butte and Little Missouri State Park.

Department of Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms would consider the comments for the purposes of attaching conditions to the permits, but the policy says he isn’t bound to act on any comments.  

The commission is still weighing the idea of giving private landowners in “areas of interest” the option of allowing public comments on drilling applications on their land. Goehring – calling the policy “greatly improved” from the original proposal – said the issue of whether the public has the right to weigh in and influence how privately owned will be used is “probably that last sticking point.”

Wayde Schafer, conservation organizer for the Dacotah Chapter of the Sierra Club, said there are already laws that restrict private actions for the public good.

“Obviously drilling in these places can impact the public’s interest, so I think there could be some restrictions allowed on (private) lands that would be reasonable and still protect the public interest,” he said.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.