Wayne Stenehjem: ‘Extraordinary places’ proposal strikes right balance

BISMARCK -- The North Dakota Industrial Commission has enormous responsibilities. The Legislature has entrusted management of our oil and gas resources to us, and the policy dictated by law is equally clear. The Century Code says, "It is hereby d...




BISMARCK - The North Dakota Industrial Commission has enormous responsibilities. The Legislature has entrusted management of our oil and gas resources to us, and the policy dictated by law is equally clear.

The Century Code says, “It is hereby declared to be in the public interest to foster, to encourage and to promote the development, production and utilization of natural resources of oil and gas in the state in such a manner as will prevent waste; to authorize and to provide for the operation and development of oil and gas properties in such a manner that a greater ultimate recovery of oil and gas be had and that the correlative rights of all owners be fully protected … in order that the greatest possible economic recovery of oil and gas be obtained within the state to the end that the landowners, the royalty owners, the producers and the general public realize and enjoy the greatest possible good from these vital natural resources.”


In fulfilling these important directives, it falls to the commission to enforce the laws and frequently to find a sensible balance among all of the competing interests.

Perhaps no thornier issue exists in striking that balance than in the area of determining the exact placement of oil rigs and pads.

There often are disagreements. Mineral owners might disagree with surface owners. Local governments may have their own concerns, as may neighboring landowners.

The “Extraordinary Places” proposal really is quite simple and shouldn’t be that controversial. When an oil company wants to put a drilling rig on a site, it should be prepared to discuss its plans to mitigate any adverse impact.

With modern technology, there can be many options for the actual location of a rig. Slightly moving a rig might make sense. Painting a pump jack to blend with the surroundings is another of many options.

Planning a multi-pad site can reduce the number of roads that need to be built and even justify the costs of installing pipelines to take away oil and gas sooner rather than later to decrease traffic and reduce flaring of natural gas. Oil companies consider these kinds of things every day.

The problem is that these decisions are not made pursuant to a written and well-understood policy.

That’s what this proposal will do.


It would say that when a company wants a permit for a site to drill an oil well, let’s discuss the company’s plans to mitigate the impact.

And then - in line with the practices of nearly every other government entity - let’s invite people who have comments to offer to submit them.

The process will be written, transparent and known to everyone.

I have stressed from the beginning that we are well-aware that private citizens own much of these mineral interests. They have a legal right to develop them.

So, we do not seek to provide any prohibitions on that right, just a chance to provide public comment in the process.

This is not an unprecedented proposal. The Public Service Commission has far greater authority, for example, over the construction of wind mills and related facilities. And the PSC does what nearly every governmental body does in important decisions: It invites the public to offer comments and suggestions, respectfully considers those comments and then makes a decision.

Township boards, county and city governments, the Legislature and other public bodies across the state also do that kind of thing every day.

This is a reasonable and appropriate process in a representative government. Everyone should have a say, even though not everyone will get his or her way.


There are no challenges North Dakotans cannot, together, overcome. For years our farmers have shown us how, in the way they overcame enormous hurdles, including drought, prairie fires, floods, locusts, blizzards and low prices.

With pure drive and determination and sacrifice, they overcame it all. And now, our producers are feeding a hungry world in ways our pioneer grandparents never could have imagined.

We know that as North Dakotans, if we can overcome the natural disasters of drought, flood, locusts, prairie fires - if we can prevail in the light of all that and come out ahead - then we know we can handle the challenges of prosperity.

We have done it well. But we can be more open and transparent and assure our citizens that we know protection of our land is important, while likewise protecting the rights of mineral and surface owners.


Stenehjem is attorney general of North Dakota and a member of the state’s Industrial Commission.

What To Read Next
Get Local