How the Legislature’s Action in 2015 Session May Impact the ND Badlands Environment

The recently-concluded legislative session represents both the optimism of legislators that oil prices will recover sooner rather than later and the traditional conservatism of the majority of legislators.

Optimism was expressed by the $1.1 billion “surge” bill passed early in the session to continue the build-out of roads in the oil patch as well as providing continued support for cities, counties, school districts, emergency responders, and others, all of whom have been playing catch-up to the oil industry as it ramped up over the past eight years.

The idea is that continued state spending during the downturn in drilling activity will allow our communities to maintain high levels of employment and will allow needed long-term investments in our communities to be constructed in a less chaotic manner than has occurred in the recent past.

Legislators’ conservative streak shows up in their collective failure to authorize an adequate number of state employees to monitor and regulate the industrial activity of oil and gas production, storage, and transportation. Three examples:

1. The Public Service Commission requested funding for a modest program (three full-time permanent employees) to supplement federal rail inspectors in an attempt to reduce the possibility of catastrophic fires while transporting crude by rail. The legislature granted only one FTE and one temporary employee.

2. The Department of Health requested funding for 17 additional employees in its Environmental Health Section in order to keep up better with a five-fold increase in oil and saltwater spills in recent years. The legislature approved only 10 new employees and it was a struggle to get that many.

3. New rules for gathering pipelines were established in law, but were considerably weakened during the legislative session. The end result (HB 1358) will have pipeline operators hiring independent inspectors to certify to the ND Industrial Commission that testing of new gathering pipelines has been completed.

A modest amount of money was appropriated to develop information and standards for monitoring pipelines for leaks and for determining best practices for remediating salt spills. My best guess is that spills and other industrial accidents will continue relatively unabated, but the cleanup processes may be better monitored and directed in the future.

Funding for the Outdoor Heritage Fund was a modest improvement. Prior to the election last November, the Governor proposed an actual appropriation of $50 million for the next biennium as a means of diluting support for Measure 5. However, the legislative majority left in place the current structure of a stated cap (increased from $30 million to $40 million) with the OHF “bucket” being filled month-by-month in accordance with a formula which will likely produce less than $25 million over the next biennium − somewhat more if oil prices recover better or more quickly than is currently projected.

Whatever one’s opinion may be of the recent actions of the NDIC, its current members are more progressive than many in the North Dakota legislature. Three actions of NDIC over the past two years (approval of a very weak “special places” policy, a general order providing consequences for flaring in excess of industry-generated limits, and a general order requiring gentle “conditioning” of oil prior to transportation by rail) caused enough consternation among several legislators that they filed several bills trying to change the make-up of the Industrial Commission and trying to void the three orders listed above.

While none of those bills passed, the fact that they were filed demonstrates that the Industrial Commission receives pressure from both sides of every issue. Those of us who care about protecting the environment need to make sure that our voices are heard as loudly as the voices suggesting that industry is over-regulated.

The ND legislature socked away several millions of dollars in several separate funds to engage the federal government in lawsuits. How much better if we could use those dollars to find ways of working together cooperatively − to do mineral exchanges in sensitive places, for example, or to agree on the best means of preserving the quality of our air and our water.

The best legal protection for our beloved Badlands will come from the federal agencies which manage the National Grasslands. But the employees who work for those agencies will only be able to hold out against pressure from ND politicians if we, as members of BCA and related organizations, put pressure on the agencies to follow existing federal laws and if we put pressure on North Dakota’s leaders to recognize that many citizens of this state value clear air, clean water, quality wildlife habitat, and the solitude and beauty of natural places.

Connie Triplett
BCA member
Past president of BCA board of directors
North Dakota state senator