North Dakota agriculture commissioner candidates clash over energy and ag balance
FARGO - The two candidates in the North Dakota agriculture commissioner's race have clashed in their different approaches to balancing the conflicts between energy and agriculture. Because of the tensions between the state's two top industries - ...
FARGO – The two candidates in the North Dakota agriculture commissioner’s race have clashed in their different approaches to balancing the conflicts between energy and agriculture.
Because of the tensions between the state’s two top industries – and the agriculture commissioner’s seat on the powerful Industrial Commission, a key regulator of energy development – the race has drawn heightened interest in the Nov. 4 election.
Ryan Taylor, the Democratic challenger, staked out positions early in the campaign when he proposed a “Landowner’s Bill of Rights,” while Doug Goehring, the Republican incumbent, has said regulators strive to “shrink the footprint” of wells and other oil and gas infrastructure on the landscape.
Taylor’s “Landowner’s Bill of Rights” would lengthen the minimum setback requirement between wells and homes from the current 500 feet to a quarter mile.
To prevent pipeline spills, Taylor would require flow meters and cutoff switches on gas and liquid transmission pipelines – steps Goehring opposes, contending the technology isn’t yet ready and instead advocating annual pressure testing of pipelines.
Besides his initiatives, Taylor has criticized Goehring, seeking a second full term, of “continued failure to advocate on behalf of North Dakota’s farmers and ranchers” in regulating the coexistence of agriculture and energy.
By contrast, Goehring has said requiring pipeline flow meters and cutoff switches sound like better solutions than they are, and noted lawmakers rejected requiring such measures after debating the issue.
Instead, Goehring advocates annual pressure checks and finding better monitoring techniques for pipelines, including consideration of acoustic techniques and ground-penetrating radar.
Any solution would require a majority on the three-member Industrial Commission – which also includes the governor and attorney general, both fellow Republicans – and possibly the Legislature, Goehring said.
“I’m one of three,” he said.
As for extending the setback from wells to occupied dwellings to a quarter mile, Goehring said landowners already have “the right to be heard” and obtain mitigation for wells within 1,000 feet of a dwelling.
In proposing his “Landowners Bill of Rights,” Taylor said four of the five components had roots in bills that failed to win legislative approval or were only half steps.
Goehring, Taylor said in a June debate, was “absent and silent in the debate when our farmers and ranchers needed him.”
Similarly, in campaign debate appearances, Taylor has accused Goehring of not taking a proactive approach in balancing agriculture and energy, and said farmers and ranchers need someone who will not be a “rubber stamp.”
“We elect an ag commissioner that needs to lead every year,” Taylor said, adding that Goehring has reacted to his proposals, “not just in elections.”
Goehring has bristled at such criticisms, and has said he has been active in advocating for farmers on the Industrial Commission and in conversations with lawmakers, landowners and the energy industry when advocating for farmers and ranchers.
Saying that North Dakota is the “envy of the nation” because of its rapid economic growth and low unemployment rate, Goehring has said his approach has been evenhanded.
“I’m committed to being balanced,” he said of his approach. Goehring has proposed a pipeline reclamation inspection program with two inspectors to check to ensure that landowners’ property has been properly restored after a line is installed.
Pipeline inspections by the Agriculture Department are nothing new, Goehring said. “For the last five years I have been doing this pipeline reclamation program myself,” he said, adding the work justifies hiring two inspectors.
During the campaign, Goehring has stressed that he will work to curb regulatory excesses at the federal level. “Protecting farmers and ranchers from federal overreach will always be a priority,” he said.
A favorite target of Goehring is the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed “Waters of the U.S” regulations, which he staunchly opposes and which Taylor also has said should be reined in.
The candidates have sparred over who would be the most aggressive in curbing onerous regulations. Taylor proposed a “policy division” in the North Dakota Department of Agriculture to keep an eye on the federal register for trouble, and Goehring later formed a “regulatory review committee.”
But Goehring said two agriculture policy analysts have been part of his department for years, so policy review is nothing new. Goehring also meets yearly with diverse farm groups about regulatory issues, usually in November or December.
When the Industrial Commission debated a proposal to protect “special places” from disruptive energy development, Goehring was an outspoken opponent, arguing that all land should be treated the same.
Someday, he said, “cows and combines” could be the target for restrictions if they were in someone’s “view shed,” adding, “We shouldn’t open that door.”
Taylor supported designating “special places,” and said oil development still can occur there.
More recently, in the debate over Measure 5, the proposed Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment on the Nov. 4ballot, Goehring has been a vocal opponent, as have the vast majority of agricultural groups, including both the North Dakota Farmers Union and North Dakota Farm Bureau.
At first, Taylor refrained from expressing a position but later said he himself would vote “no” because the measure would amend the constitution.
Taylor has asserted that he would better be able to bring together farm and conservation groups, now at odds over the conservation proposal, and has cited what he said was a high turnover rate in Goehring’s office as a sign he is divisive.
Goehring has shot back that Taylor’s figures include retirements and an employee who died, and has said he is a consensus builder. As an example, Goehring has touted his department’s bee pollinator program, which he said has become a model.
Oil interests have run campaign advertisements painting Taylor as a “tree hugger” who is antagonistic to oil, which has propelled North Dakota’s economy – accusations the Democrat is quick to reject.
“We’re also very, very, very pro-development and want to see that resource extracted,” Taylor said, saying a balance can be struck so both agriculture and energy can prosper.
In the quest for political contributions, Goehring’s campaign reported a total of $400,554, including updated totals of individual contributions of more than $500 as of Friday afternoon. The comparable total for Taylor’s campaign was $300,414.
Both candidates have deep roots in agriculture. Goehring is a third-generation farmer. He farms with a son on a 2,000-acre, no-till farm near Menoken and raises corn, soybeans, wheat, sunflowers and canola.
Taylor is a fourth-generation rancher near Towner, where he raises cattle on 2,900 acres, marketing through Country Natural Beef.