Posted 2/09/16 (Tue)
By Kevin Killough
The Bakken could see a lot more cooperation between landowners and the oil industry.
Fostering greater communication between them, as well as providing information to landowners, was the theme of the Northwest Landowners Association (NWLA) Expo last week in Stanley. The event featured informational booths from companies and government agencies, as well as speakers from those agencies.
Tom Wheeler, vice-president of the NWLA board, said he is quite pleased with the turnout by a couple of hundred landowners.
Wheeler said they ended up turning away some companies wanting to have a booth at the event.
“We’ve got tremendous support from the industry,” he said, including participation from Enbridge Oil, Hess, and Continental Resources, to name a few.
Landowner Jerry Engel said he is happy to see so much interest from the industry.
“I think they are here because they have to be more interested in what we’re doing, what we’re thinking,” he said.
District 2 Rep. Bert Anderson (R-Crosby) said by bringing industry and landowners together, the association will open communication.
“We’re finding that working together is good,” Anderson said.
With the boom came a lot of pipelines, and proper reclamation of the land became a point of contention.
Complaints from farmers with uneven land, destroyed topsoil, and noxious weeds, among other issues, poured into the Department of Agriculture after many couldn’t get a response from the pipeline owners. An ombudsman program was set up following to help landowners address some of these issues.
Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring told expo-goers how they can use the program if they have reclamation issues on their own land.
Goehring said the existence of the program alone has created incentives for companies to be better neighbors.
“I hear a lot of people say they use my name in vain more often than not,” he said.
As a result, the numbers of landowners using the program has been low, which has led to some criticism the program isn’t really being utilized.
Wheeler said the program impact is underreported because a lot of landowners get a response from companies when they threaten to report their problem to the state.
“You can’t get numbers on that,” Wheeler said.
But because the program is helping to resolve these issues, “Hopefully landowners are more accepting of pipelines in the future,” Wheeler said.
Goehring warned the program can’t help people who decide to take their issues to court.
“If you get an attorney involved, it’s too late to call us,” Goehring said.
The program also doesn’t address issues with pipelines under the jurisdiction of the Public Service Commission.
The definitions are complicated but generally speaking, the program deals with gathering pipelines. Transmission lines that move product out of state fall under the PSC’s jurisdiction.
Julie Fedorchak, PSC chairman, was among the speakers at the event.
She talked about her “fond memories” as a teenager working on a farm south of Stanley, where she fixed fences and removed rocks from the field.
“We don’t seem to have a shortage of that crop in the state,” she joked.
She said those experiences brought her an understanding of why being good stewards of the land is important to landowners.
“This stuff is personal to you, and it’s personal to me,” she said.
In the PSC approval process, she said they’ve been doing a lot to ensure good remediation practices in construction of pipelines.
All approvals come with a compliance order, which can stipulate best practices for remediation.
And since it’s written into the permit, it provides legal leverage after the construction of the pipeline is complete.
A lot of these stipulations, Fedorchak said, have come out of the testimonies they receive from the landowners and farmers at the public hearings they hold as part of every approval process.
“We do listen,” she said.
She also praised landowners who are implementing these requirements into easement agreements.
One of the more important issues touched upon by Goehring and Fedorchak is the segregation of topsoil and subsoil.
This is especially important in winter construction, they said, and to do it properly requires site preparation the previous summer.
Another issue on the horizon that falls under PSC jurisdiction is wind farms. This past December the agency approved a 75-turbine wind farm in Lindahl Township north of Tioga following a public hearing in October that drew a large group of opponents and supporters of the program.
While Wheeler said the association is not getting a lot of questions related to the wind industry, Fedorchak said it’s likely to come up more often in the future.
She said federal policies are pushing renewable energy, and North Dakota is a prime state for wind development.
“We have a strong wind resource in North Dakota,” she said.
She said feedback from the public, through feedback at the hearings, is contributing more to their understanding of what to look for in the permitting process for wind farms.
The PSC is looking at reclamation practices for the wind farms. Developers are required to post a bond after 10 years for the towers, which have a lifespan of about 20 to 25 years.
At the Tioga hearing, the developer of that wind farm was asked multiple questions about responsibility for the cost of taking the towers down.
They’re also looking at the best way to define the project boundaries, which often include thousands of acres, Fedorchak said.
They are interested, too, in how to permit expansions of the wind farms.
While wind turbines don’t spill saltwater or oil, they have their own impacts for the agency to consider.
“Wind towers are very visible,” she said.
Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem also spoke at the event.
Speakers also included representatives from the Department of Health, Department of Mineral Resources, and State Water Commission.