In February 2013, Scott Skokos was sitting in the North Dakota state capitol at a meeting of the Industrial Commission, the three-member body that approves every oil and gas permit in the state. Normally, says Skokos, a field organizer for the Dakota Resource Council, the commission green lights all the requests before them -- public comment or protests are limited. But this meeting was different.
Archaeologists, historians, residents of the Fort Berthold Reservation and land owners got up to protest a request to drill in the Killdeer Mountains, near a historic battlefield. Skokos, who has been following oil and gas issues in North Dakota since 2010, says it was the first time he witnessed significant public opposition to drilling. Before then, the attitude was, “if you’re against oil, you’re against North Dakota. Any dissent was marginalized.”
As the commission mulled the request, one of the members, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, casually suggested it give greater scrutiny to oil and gas leases in certain areas. And though the commisison ultimately approved the Killdeer permit, Stenehjem’s comment was the state’s first official acknowledgement that oil and gas development could impact the character of some of North Dakota’s most scenic, remote places.
Ten months later, Stenehjem would defy the Republican Party and the industry transforming his state by unveiling his list of 18 extraordinary places he thought deserved in-depth study before being developed.
In crafting the list, Stenehjem (who didn’t return requests for an interview) consulted with oil and gas industry types, lawyers and conservationists about which places to include on the list. Some of the sites – the three units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, for example – were obvious picks. Many of the others, Skokos says, were obscure but scenic buttes on private land that held special significance to Stenehjem, who grew up in western North Dakota. “The places he was saving are the places he liked to go when he was a kid,” Skokos says. “In a lot of ways he made the list all by himself, with input from others.”
Last December, Stenehjem revealed his list. He proposed creating a buffer zone around each site where drilling proposals would trigger additional review by the Industrial Commission, comments from various state agencies and the public, and possibly require companies to mitigate noise, traffic and visual impacts. “It’s important that the public knows ‘you’re doing everything you can to mitigate the impacts,’” he told the crowd, according to The Bismarck Tribune.
Almost immediately, private property rights groups and the oil and gas industry opposed the plan. “Extraordinary Places Rule endangers North Dakotans’ royalty checks!” reads an action alert distributed by the Royalty Owners & Producers Educational Coalition. “If you think your property and the decisions about how and when to use it belong to you, then you should think again.”
Soon Stenehjem and the Industrial Commission would remove the extra protection for sites on private property, effectively nullifying many of the places on the list. “I believe the decision to take public comment on activity on private property is a very serious policy question, and our regulatory role may not include a policy decision that significant,” Governor Jack Dalrymple, who also sits on the Industrial Commission, told The Tribune.
When the rule took effect earlier this month, all that remained was a suggestion that the Industrial Commission consider the comments of the public and other agencies for drilling near extraordinary places located on public lands.
Still, it’s a big change from the way things were done before, when land management agencies and the public were not explicitly invited to comment on drilling applications, Lynn Helms, the director of the Department of Mineral Resources, told The Tribune. And it’s a sign that the enthusiasm for unchecked oil and gas development in western North Dakota may be waning.
Clay Jenkinson, the director of the Dakota Institute and a respected oil and gas critic, is hopeful that the mere existence of a list of extraordinary places may discourage oil and gas companies from trying to develop there, for fear of provoking a public reaction. Indeed, there haven’t been any drilling applications near any of the 18 places, public or private, since May 1.
But on the whole, Jenkinson was disappointed in the outcome. “This was a test of the soul of the people of North Dakota, and I’m afraid to say I believe we failed the test,” he says. “We decided we will accept wholesale fracking because we’re afraid to look cross-eyed at the industry. We’re afraid to jinx this miracle that’s occurring here.”
Emily Guerin is a correspondent at High Country News. She tweets @guerinemily.