Is half a loaf better than none? Put another way, does protecting half of Pretty Butte from oil development do any damn good at all?
That’s what happened at the North Dakota Industrial Commission meeting Monday. Passing up a chance to display real leadership in the face of overwhelming pressure from the oil industry to frack every single section of western North Dakota, the Commission caved. Despite Wayne Stenehjem’s best arguments, which fell on the deaf ears of Jack Dalrymple and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, and despite nearly a year’s worth of effort, the Attorney General was forced to accept a pretty significant change to his Extraordinary Places proposal in order to get any movement at all toward protection of some of North Dakota’s most valuable pieces of real estate Monday.
In the end, he really didn’t get much. The Commission voted to restrict itself from considering the value of any privately owned land in or near Stenehjem’s proposed list of 18 Extraordinary Places. Tossing the words “constitutional rights” around as carelessly as a hockey puck in the Ralph Engelstad Arena (you can bet if that site had been on Stenehjem’s list, it would’ve gotten protection), Dalrymple and Goehring chose their phony patriotism (the last refuge of scoundrels—thank you Samuel Johnson) over Stenehjem’s logic (“I think I understand what constitutional rights are,” the state’s top lawyer offered to his two farmer friends) in tearing the heart out of what might have been our state government’s first real display of leadership since the beginning of the Bakken Boom.
I report this because I’ve followed this issue since the beginning and you need to know what the outcome of it was. I’ll quit after this. Promise.
So the outcome of it is this: The Department of Mineral Resources will review all drilling permit applications, and if they find any in areas that are listed in this policy that aims to offer some protection to a list of 18 “special places” in western North Dakota, the applicant will have to work with state and federal experts to find the best possible location for their wells, which do the least damage to the nearby landscape and the environment and the wildlife and the cultural, historical and recreational resources.
Unless the application is to drill on private land. Like private land on the south half of Pretty Butte. Or private land adjacent to the Elkhorn Ranch. Or private land in the middle of Little Missouri State Park. Or private land inside the Killdeer Mountain Battlefield State Historic Site. Or private land a hundred yards from the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers, or the Lake Sakakawea shoreline. Or private land right smack on top of White Butte, our state’s highest point. Or private land anywhere on the bank of the river that created our Bad Lands, the Little Missouri, all 275 miles of it. Those places get no protection at all.
All Stenehjem was asking for was that the Commission’s staff take a look at applications that came in for drilling in those places, and try to work with the oil industry and the landowner and the mineral owner to find the best possible location for the well. He was not asking to stop a well from being drilled. He was offering the help of the state’s best experts to the industry and the owners, to find the best place to put a well, causing the least disruption possible—not no disruption at all—to whatever it was that made these places “extraordinary.”
The industry responded with furor, pulling out all the stops, calling in all the chits it had given Dalrymple in the last election, and undoubtedly writing a bunch of new ones for Goehring’s upcoming re-election campaign.
So because the policy only applies to publicly owned lands, it will have little impact, since most of the publicly owned land on this list of extraordinary places is already protected. You can’t drill an oil well in a national park, or on a national wildlife refuge, but as a result of this new policy, you can drill that well ten feet outside the boundary. Stenehjem’s proposal would have helped to find a place to put that well behind a hill, or around a bend in a creek, out of sight. Or wildlife experts would have helped find the best side of a woody draw, that the deer like to use for romantic activities or winter refuge, on which to place a well.
Nuh uh. Not going to happen. In fact, because they are mostly on private land, some of Stenehjem’s 18 places are going to actually come off the list completely. And that’s unfortunate, because, as the Attorney General pointed out, 8 out of 10 landowners in the oil patch don’t own the minerals under their land, and they will have no protection from greedy out of state mineral owners and oil companies who are going to put their wells any place they damn well please. It’s that “constitutional right” that the two farmers on the Industrial Commission voted to protect. Not the right of North Dakota’s farmers who want to be good neighbors and work with the Attorney general to protect these “special places.” Here’s the list Stenehjem proposed. And here’s how each will be affected by what happened today. You decide if you got your money’s worth out of the North Dakota Industrial Commission’s wages today.
- Black Butte: About half the butte is owned by the Forest Service, but the rest, including much of the surface of the top, and most of the land around it, which would have been in the two-mile buffer zone, is privately owned. That part gets no protection.
- Bullion Butte: Almost all of Bullion Butte, the state’s most majestic butte, is owned by the Forest Service and is in an area already designated as roadless, so the policy will have no effect on it.
- Camel’s Hump Butte: It is all privately owned, so it gets no protection.
- Sentinel Butte: All privately owned.
- Pretty Butte: Half privately owned, half Forest Service, same for the buffer zone.
- White Butte: Privately owned, including the buffer, except for a school section on the south face.
- West Twin Butte: Privately owned, including the buffer, except for a section of Forest Service land a mile to the east.
- The Columnar Junipers/Burning Coal Vein area, aka the Old Dakota National Forest: This is the Ponderosa Pine area of the Little Missouri River, south of Bullion Butte, and with the exception of the actual Burning Coal Vein site itself, it is mostly privately owned.
- The Missouri-Yellowstone River Confluence: This is all privately owned except for the actual shoreline.
- The Elkhorn Ranch: This is a national park so it is already protected from development. The two-mile buffer around it is about half private, but the owner does not own the minerals, so there could be additional wells alongside the site with no restrictions.
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park: Already protected because it is a national park, but there is much private ownership on its boundaries, in the proposed buffer zone around both units.
- Forest Service back country recreation areas: Already protected because of roadless designation by the Forest Service.
- Little Missouri State Park: Most of the park itself is privately owned and leased to the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department, and its minerals are already heavily leased for oil development. The only protection offered by this policy is the on shoreline of Lake Sakakawea inside the park, up to normal lake level, 1854 feet above sea level.
- The Little Missouri River: Most of the river valley is privately owned, making this the biggest loser as a result of Monday’s changes to the policy which excludes private land. Ironically, most of the ranchers do not own the minerals under their privately owned acres, so they will have no say in well placement.
- Lake Sakakawea: Because of the changes to the policy made by Dalrymple Monday, only the shoreline of the lake will be protected. Stenehjem’s proposal would have put a half-mile buffer zone around it. That buffer zone land is either privately owned or tribally owned. But most of the landowners do not own the minerals under their land, so they will have no say in well placement.
- Killdeer Mountain Battlefield State Historic Site: Privately owned.
- Tracy Mountain: About half privately owned, half Forest Service, including the buffer zone
- Wildlife Management Areas: All the state game management areas, federal waterfowl production areas and national wildlife refuges contained in this category already have some protection, although there are privately owned mineral acres under many of them, which could trump public ownership. Most of these are tiny islands of land which would have benefited greatly from the buffer zones around them, since wildlife generally don’t stop and read the boundary signs very often. In most cases, those buffer zones are privately owned.