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ND utility regulators dismiss complaint against proposed oil refinery near national park

The site of the Davis Refinery, pictured on July 31, 2018, southwest of Belfield, N.D.. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK — North Dakota utility regulators agreed Wednesday, Oct. 10, that plans for an oil refinery near Theodore Roosevelt National Park are out of their hands.

The Public Service Commission dismissed a complaint filed by environmental groups challenging Meridian Energy Group's plans for a Billings County refinery in western North Dakota. In a unanimous decision, the commissioners sided with an administrative law judge's recommendation issued last month.

Commissioners said their siting authority is subject to thresholds set in state law, which is 50,000 barrels per day for refineries. Meridian CEO Bill Prentice said in an affidavit that the company has "no current plans" to expand the Davis Refinery beyond 49,500 barrels per day.

"This is a close call. It's a tough call," said Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak. "All indications suggest that the company is developing plans to avoid the additional regulatory scrutiny required of a siting permit."

"But the fact remains that the PSC is a regulatory body and we must have subject matter jurisdiction to preside over any matter," she added.

Randy Christmann, who chairs the three-member, all-Republican PSC, said their decision doesn't reflect whether the refinery will be built in an "appropriate location."

The Dakota Resource Council and the Environmental Law and Policy Center, which filed the complaint, said the PSC chose to "trust the company at its word."

"The PSC's decision ignores its duty as an independent utility regulator and the rights of North Dakotans to seek formal determinations from the PSC," the groups said in a statement. "This is a pivotal decision that could broadly affect the PSC's ability to regulate everything from electric rates, to coal mines, to wind siting, and oil refinery siting, and it should concern all North Dakotans."

The groups said they are reviewing next steps with legal counsel and raised the possibility of appealing the commission's decision in district court.

The refinery still faces obstacles, including an administrative appeal filed against Meridian and the state Department of Health, which granted an air permit for the project earlier this year. The air permit describes the project as having a capacity of up to 55,000 barrels per day, above the threshold that would trigger a PSC siting review.

The entire facility would be subject to review and approval once plans to increase the facility to at least 50,000 barrels per day are implemented, according to the commission's order. The order was not included on the commission's publicly available agenda ahead of the meeting.

In an emailed statement, Meridian thanked the PSC for its "careful consideration" and lauded state and local officials involved in permitting the refinery to ensure it will be "designed, constructed and operated properly."

Fedorchak predicted the siting thresholds will be discussed during next year's legislative session.

"I've already heard talk of people bringing forward bills," she said. "This is a good time to have this discussion."

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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