North Dakota’s Department of Trust Lands has left the door open just a crack to an oil and gas company that wants to drill in the middle of a national wildlife refuge, but state and federal wildlife officials may be able to slam it shut before that happens.
A few weeks ago I wrote here that a company named Empire Oil had nominated a tract of land on Stewart Lake National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern North Dakota’s Bad Lands as a place they’d like to buy the right to drill for oil and gas. Minerals owned by the Department of Trust Lands underlie the refuge, and they’re scheduled to go up for lease at auction next week.
Under a new state policy adopted in response to citizen pressure to be more careful about where the Trust Lands Department allows oil wells, such nominations must be reviewed by state agencies concerned about the historical, archeological, paleontological and wildlife resources on tracts of land under which the Department owns the minerals. That policy is playing out in next week’s auction, set for August 6 in Medora.
Oil companies have nominated nearly 55,000 acres of land under which the Trust Lands Department owns minerals for next week’s auction. Nominations came in over the past couple of months. About 3 weeks ago, the Department sent the list to the state’s archeologists, paleontologists, historians and wildlife experts for review. Recommendations from the state agencies for restrictions on some tracts that contain valuable resources came in last week, and the Department released the list, with their proposed restrictions, called “stipulations,” today.
One of those stipulations affects Stewart Lake. If Empire Oil or some other oil company has the winning bid at next Tuesday’s auction, the lease on those minerals will come with the stipulation that says “Notwithstanding any other provisions of this lease to the contrary, it is agreed that surface occupancy or use is subject to State and Federal prior approval as it is located within a National Wildlife Refuge.”
That’s a new stipulation that just showed up for the upcoming auction, as far as I can tell, and kind of a disappointing one. In the past, when minerals under a national wildlife refuge have been offered, the Department has put a “No Surface Occupancy” stipulation on the lease. That was the case, I believe, when minerals under the Zahl National Wildlife Refuge in northwestern North Dakota were put out for lease a few years ago.
Steve Dyke with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department told me last week that his department had recommended a “No Surface Occupancy” stipulation for Stewart Lake and another wildlife refuge in McLean County that was also nominated, by another oil company. The Land Department apparently ignored the Game and Fish Department’s recommendation and decided not to go that far, by instead placing the stipulation that the lessee had to get approval from Game and Fish before drilling. Barring any interference from above, what is likely to happen, if someone chooses to pay to lease the minerals under those refuges, is that Game and Fish, likely joined by FWS, is going to say “Sorry, you can’t put a well on the refuge. You’ll have to drill outside the refuge and go in after the oil and gas horizontally.” It’s a nifty little way for the Trust Lands Department to pass the buck, and also to make a buck if someone is actually willing to pay for the right to go get those minerals.
So did the Trust Lands Department put any of the nominated tracts in next week’s auction off-limits? Yes, about 70 small parcels, most of them in Dunn and Mercer Counties. And, from what I can learn, all of them under Lake Sakakawea. See, the Department still owns some of the minerals under the Big Lake, and the oil companies today are able to go in horizontally and get that oil. So of course the Department finds it easy to say “No Surface Occupancy” on those tracts. The stipulation says “leases will contain an addendum stipulating that no surface occupancy will be allowed.” Well, duh.
I’m not sure, but I’m guessing the Department is going to be pretty careful about tracts on the shoreline of the Big Lake as well. There have been a couple of blowouts, at least one of which has sent oil spewing out into Lake Sakakawea (although it was winter, so much of the damage was able to be contained before the ice melted), making the Department pretty careful with leases near the Missouri and Lake Sakakawea, both of which are managed by the U.S. Army’s Corps of Engineers–the Feds.
Not so with the Little Missouri River. In spite of some urging by the Badlands Conservation Alliance (BCA), a Bad Lands watchdog group, the Department is going ahead with a lease auction on two tracts which are in the Little Missouri State Scenic River bottoms in the Bad Lands. One of those tracts has been tagged as having potential paleontological resources and the other possible archeological resources, so whoever gets those leases is going to have to work with the State Historical Society and the Geological Survey as to where they will place the wells on those tracts. Still, there’s nothing in those stipulations that specifically protects the river itself. That’s too bad, because in the Bad Lands, the Little Missouri River valley is where the wildlife lives, and if there was ever any habitat that needed protection in North Dakota, it’s the Little Missouri River bottoms.
Here’s another significant thing about this auction: The BCA’s Jan Swenson has identified some pretty nice spots on this list, land on or near four of our great Bad Lands buttes, White, Black, Bullion and Pretty Buttes, all in Slope or extreme southern Billings Counties. While there has been a little activity in that area in the past, the last time I was on Bullion Butte, the largest in terms of land area, I walked the entire perimeter of the top of the butte and as far as I could see, which is quite a ways from up there, I did not see an oil well anywhere below me. I’m guessing that might be true of the other three as well, although I haven’t been to them lately. I know, not a lot of people do that, but it is just so nice to have a few spots in the Bad Lands that have held on to that unspoiled look. For instance, if you climb to the top of Buck Hill in the south unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, just 25 miles north of Bullion Butte, at sundown you can see somewhere between three dozen and four dozen oil well sites—flares in every direction, tucked right up against the park boundary. The prairie is like a giant birthday cake with all the candles lit. That’s a shame.
More than 17,000 acres have been nominated for this sale in Slope County, a county which, because it is out of the heart of the Bakken, has seen little oil development so far. This new interest in Slope County is the next step in the oil industry’s inexorable march through the Bad Lands. Soon, all we’ll have left is a couple little islands—the two units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park—in a vast sea of development, changing the Bad Lands forever. Future generation of hunters, hikers, canoers, bicyclists, birders and photographers will never know the Bad Lands as we have known them.
Already the sage grouse and antelope seasons are gone, and the mule deer season is severely restricted. Hunting is a pretty sacred tradition in western North Dakota. Count me among those who like to walk into a Bad Lands roadless area in the fall, knowing that the only sounds I’m going to hear in the next few hours are the kuk-kuk-kuk of a sharptailed grouse. There are fewer and fewer of those areas each year, and Slope County has been a place you could go for a walk across vast stretches of silent prairie. That’s all going to change now. I think maybe it is about time for the hunters in North Dakota to make themselves heard.
The results of Tuesday’s auction will tell us what’s ahead for the southernmost reaches of the Bad Lands. I’m going to be there to see who the new players are. I’ll report back.