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N.D. leaders react to oil poll before crude-heavy legislative session

DICKINSON, N.D. -- Many weren't surprised at recent polling showing roughly half of North Dakotans think oil-producing counties don't get enough oil impact funding to meet the needs.

DICKINSON, N.D. -- Many weren't surprised at recent polling showing roughly half of North Dakotans think oil-producing counties don't get enough oil impact funding to meet the needs.

The debate over the west's needs will only heat up as the legislative session nears, when western Republicans will introduce two proposals to aid oil-impacted counties and the oil boom in general will dominate the floor.

"I think people are starting to realize that the impacts out here are great," Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said in response to the poll results. "If we want to continue this stream of funding that comes to the state and then is redistributed across the state, we need to take care ... and make sure that they have the infrastructure that they need to have it done."

Just 18.4 percent of respondents said oil counties get enough funding, with 31.9 percent not responding, according to the poll commissioned by Forum Communications Co. and conducted by the University of North Dakota's College of Business and Public Administration..

Wardner and a group of western Republicans will propose roughly $650 million for western counties in an early funding bill. They say such a bill won't be needed again if their other proposal, of giving oil counties 60 percent instead of 25 percent of oil production tax, is successful.


"I think we need to understand how the past money we've sent has been spent," House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, said.

Carlson said funding for west North Dakota will undoubtedly be a dominant topic next session. He said there will be more money going west, and that the surge funding and revamped tax formula are good proposals to start with. He wasn't surprised by the poll results.

Dunn County Commissioner Daryl Dukart said he wasn't surprised by the poll results either, as he's visited with many legislators who have traveled to see the west's needs for themselves.

"They see and understand the problem and the situation. It's probably more the situation of making their constituents understand that there is a definite need out here too," he said.

For the most part, regardless of political party or geographical region, a minority said the west gets enough funding -- 20.8 percent of Republicans and 17.4 percent of Democrats, and 17.5 percent of eastern North Dakotans compared to 19.6 percent of westerners.

Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, said in his district, constituents understand the need to "stand shoulder-to shoulder with western North Dakota" as it weathers this "very welcome" economic activity and growth.

"There's a myth out there that the east doesn't want the oil counties to take care of their infrastructure," Wardner said, "and that's not true."

Environmentally sound?


Nearly half, or 46.4 percent, of respondents said they are either very or somewhat satisfied that oil production in the state is environmentally sound.

Don Morrison, executive director of environmental group Dakota Resource Council, predicted that more respondents from severely oil-impacted areas would lead to more reporting concerns over the environmental safety of the production.

"I would expect those who live in the west are more knowledgeable about how it's being regulated because more people are being dissatisfied because they are living with the impacts of some pretty lackadaisical enforcement of North Dakota laws," he said.

North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources spokeswoman Alison Ritter pointed out 42 sections of code were changed last session, and 22 were changed the session before that.

"I think rulemaking has been pretty responsive but also I guess flexible in order to allow for industry to still operate in the state," she said.

Wardner said he wasn't surprised by the results, including a big divide between Republicans and Democrats, and said he expects regulation to be an issue in political races and the session.

Dukart said from what he sees on the ground in Dunn County, some regulations are up to par and some aren't. Minimizing the footprint oil development leaves on the surface of land is one issue that needs to be addressed more, he said.

Schneider said he isn't a fan of more regulations for the sake of having more, but did highlight what he sees as a conflict of interest within state law -- that Department of Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms is responsible for both promoting and regulating the oil industry.


"I don't think more regulations are the answer but I do think addressing that inherent conflict would be a much better assurance of the outcome for North Dakota landowners," he said.

More respondents -- roughly 59 percent -- said they had concerns with the safety of crude-by-rail.

"I think we all have a little bit of concern," Wardner said.

Some have proposed stabilizing Bakken crude before it's loaded on to trains to make derailments and collisions less dangerous when they happen.

"There are problems with the trains and the tracks and the cars, and I don't want to minimize any of the problems that are due to the railroad, but if those trains we're carrying kids' toys or furniture, those 47 people in Quebec would still be alive," Morrison said, referencing a deadly derailment of carloads of Bakken crude in Quebec in 2013.

While a majority of respondents, 62 percent, said they would support oil payments to every state resident out of tax revenues, legislators said long-term investments with oil revenues are a more sustainable use of the funds.

"We've taken that surplus money and we've turned that back into educational funding and property tax relief, and I think that is a better choice for using the money," Carlson said.

Such payments are prohibited by the state Constitution.


Schneider, too, suggested an endowment, like for higher education, in place of payments to every resident.

"I think most citizens would pick access to education for their kids over benefit checks for themselves," he said.

The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent, with 95 percent confidence, and is based on landline and cellphone interviews of 505 randomly selected North Dakotans 18 and older who said they were likely to vote. The surveys were conducted between Sept. 26 and Oct. 3.

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