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PSC candidates want to consolidate oil spill oversight

BISMARCK -- Tyler Axness and Todd Reisenauer, Democratic candidates for the North Dakota Public Service Commission, say too many state agencies investigate oil and gas pipeline spills, causing a “bureaucratic disaster.”

They would like to consolidate state oversight over oil spills to the PSC to eliminate confusion.

“The current system defies common sense,” said Axness, D-Fargo.

The PSC currently has general jurisdiction over pipeline utilities engaged in the transportation of gas, oil, coal and water, according to the North Dakota Century Code.

The federal government and five state agencies, however, investigate spills as they occur now, Axness and Reisenauer said.

PSC Chairman Brian Kalk said he had also expressed confusion on where responsibility lies in the investigation process.

During a presentation Thursday morning in Bismarck, Axness and Reisenauer displayed a sign with an undated quote from a previous North Dakota Farmers Union meeting that Kalk attended.

“There is such a quagmire of jurisdictional responsibility for pipelines, it’s a challenge when an incident occurs and who is responsible to do the investigation to see what happened,” Kalk said, according to the sign.

Kalk added he worked with state legislators during the last legislative session to clarify pipeline regulation laws. He said his quote was correct, but he was quoted before meeting with the legislative assembly.

Now the state’s Industrial Commission investigates spills on gathering lines, which transport gas and oil to processing facilities, Kalk said. The PSC oversees investigations within the state’s borders, and the federal government guides interstate investigations on major pipelines.

Kalk also said he worked to increase maximum violation fines in the cases of pipeline spills and added a pipeline safety investigator to the PSC’s staff during the last legislative session.

If either is elected in November, Axness and Reisenauer said they would implement what they have dubbed the “VIP” plan, an acronym standing for the Verification of the Integrity of of Pipelines.

First, an audit would occur for all pipeline infrastructure statewide.

“If we can map out this infrastructure and make it an open database for people to search, we feel like we can drastically reduce the number of accidents that happen,” Reisenauer said.

Second, the Democratic candidates said they would ask the next Legislature to consolidate jurisdiction of all state pipeline infrastructure to the commission.

Kalk said he doubts the Democrats’ plan would pass through the Legislature.

“The service commission is not a dictatorship. There are legislative rules you have to follow,” Kalk said.

Third, Axness and Reisenauer said they would “improve partnerships with the federal government, private industry, landowners, and municipalities,” according to the plan.

Finally, the PSC would “exercise its existing jurisdiction and authority” under the plan.

Axness, who represents District 16 in the state Senate, is running against incumbent Republican Julie Fedorchak for a special two-year term on the commission. Reisenauer, a Fargo-based independent business consultant, is campaigning against Kalk, also a Republican.