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Trump administration looks to streamline oil drilling on North Dakota grasslands

A new rule proposed by the National Forest Service would expedite oil and gas development on public lands, including the oil-rich Little Missouri National Grasslands. North Dakota officials say they can streamline energy projects while being responsible to the environment, but conservation groups disagree.

Fall colors were beginning to emerge in October 2008 during a hike through the Little Missouri National Grasslands of western North Dakota. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)
The Little Missouri National Grasslands in western North Dakota. Forum News Service file photo
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BISMARCK — Oil and gas companies in North Dakota could leapfrog environmental regulations on development projects in the state's Little Missouri National Grasslands if a new Trump administration rule is enacted.

The proposed rule , announced by the National Forest Service on Tuesday, Sept. 1, would eliminate procedural hurdles on new oil and gas projects on public lands managed by the department around the country.

"We took those complications out," said U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary Jim Hubbard, who oversees the National Forest Service, at a roundtable of North Dakota lawmakers and oil representatives in Bismarck on Wednesday, Sept. 2. "A lot of it was redundancies that didn't serve any purpose. So we stripped those out."

The ramifications of the new rule could be profound in western North Dakota's Little Missouri National Grasslands, which has become a frequent battleground for companies looking to capitalize on the oil and mineral-rich territory and for conservationists who see their developments as destructive to one of the state's ecological treasures.

Gov. Doug Burgum, Sen. John Hoeven and Sen. Kevin Cramer attended the Bismarck roundtable and echoed Hubbard's enthusiasm for the proposed rule, arguing that North Dakota can streamline oil and gas projects without running afoul of environmental protections.

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"Streamlining does not mean short-cutting," Cramer said, arguing that new oil and gas projects still have multiple regulators ensuring environmental responsibility. "You can streamline but also benefit the environment by a more synergistic relationship. Literally, environmental protection is enhanced while the permitting is shortened."

But conservationists in North Dakota say that the new Forest Service rule matches a pattern of Trump administration cutbacks to environmental protections. In the last year, the Trump administration has announced major rollbacks to National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) laws, the 50-year-old environmental guardrails on new infrastructure projects, as well as major changes to the Endangered Species Act, among scores of other reversals on environmental policy.

Scott Skokos, director of the Dakota Resource Council, said he has not reviewed the latest National Forest Service rule, but noted that his organization is against recent pushes by the Trump administration to cut out environmental regulations.

"We're opposed to any streamlining of drilling on federal lands," Skokos said, stressing the importance of robust public comment periods and vetting of proposed oil and gas projects through NEPA laws. "These are all our lands," he added. "These policies make it easier to ram things through without the necessary stakeholder scrutiny, and that's generally what we have been seeing from the Trump administration."

Liz Loos, director of the Badlands Conservation Alliance, said she is reviewing the National Forest Service's new rule and intends to submit public comment on the proposal, adding that North Dakota's elected officials have favored industry over the protection of the state's natural resources. "This is still North Dakota, and oil and gas is always going to be supported by the powers that be here, even the powers that be in the Forest Service," Loos said.

Hubbard said his agency's proposed rule would bring the Forest Service into line with previous changes made by the Department of the Interior under the Trump administration, expediting oil and gas development while eliminating redundant environmental safeguards.

"I love what Sonny Perdue, the secretary of ag, and the under secretary are doing here, reducing the redundancy of red tape," Burgum said after Wednesday's roundtable, stressing the importance of preserving "multiple-use" permits, the clauses that allow for oil drilling and development on federally-managed lands.

Cramer and Hubbard both noted that the Trump administration has allowed federal agencies to lay the groundwork for more industry-friendly rules on public lands, but added that a second Trump term would allow North Dakota industries to begin taking advantage of the new laws.

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"Forgive me for being political, but this administration needs four more years to perfect what we've started," Cramer said, citing recent changes to the Endangered Species Act, NEPA and environmental impact statements. "You now have the implementation stage of that, and losing that momentum, I think, would be a serious setback."

Following Tuesday's announcement, the Forest Service's proposed rule has entered a period of public comment until Nov. 2.

Readers can reach reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.

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