I’m not sure how long Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem intended to keep his secret task force on “places not to put oil wells” a secret, but North Dakota is still a pretty small state, and the North Dakota Capitol is a relatively small building, and it’s pretty hard to keep anything that goes on there a secret.
Stenehjem has appointed a committee of about ten people, including three state employees and two county commissioners, to deal with the issue of “special places” in the Oil Patch, places where he and his fellow Industrial Commission members should give some special consideration as they grant drilling permits to oil companies.
I’ve written about this before. There have been applications for drilling permits beside national parks, inside wildlife management areas and national wildlife refuges, near Indian sacred sites, inside state parks, and in sensitive roadless areas. Some have been granted, some have been withdrawn, but I can’t remember the Industrial Commission ever denying one. To his credit, Wayne has been nervous about all this, and has suggested that a list of “special places” be developed for Industrial Commission members to keep their eyes on.
A couple months ago, the Industrial Commission released a list of nearly 40 places that had been submitted by people who wanted those places protected. The list has shown up in print, but hasn’t been widely discussed. And there has been nothing forthcoming from the Industrial Commission about how they want to use it. Like a lot of government lists, it’s in danger of gathering dust on a shelf and never being heard from again.
Wayne wants to take it further, I guess, so he appointed his own “private task force” to look into the matter. The group had its second meeting yesterday, in the conference room at the Attorney General’s office in the State Capitol building (not a very “private” place). You didn’t read about it in the paper or hear it on the radio or see it on TV, because no one in the media knew about it. That’s the way the Attorney General wanted it. He says the meetings of the group are not subject to the state’s open meetings law. He should know. He’s the top law enforcement officer in North Dakota, and he and his predecessors have been asked hundreds of times to interpret it. Still . . .
Article XI of the North Dakota Constitution says:
Unless otherwise provided by law, all meetings of public or governmental bodies, boards, bureaus, commissions, or agencies of the state or any political subdivision of the state, or organizations or agencies supported in whole or in part by public funds, or expending public funds, shall be open to the public.
The question of who this law applies to has been asked so many times that the Attorney General has published a “North Dakota Open Meetings Manual.” On page 2 of the manual, the Attorney General answers the question “Who is subject to the open meetings law?” The answer:
“Public or governmental bodies, boards, bureaus, commissions or agencies of the state, including any entity created or recognized by the Constitution of North Dakota, state statute, or executive order of the governor or any task force or working group created by the individual in charge of a state agency or institution, to exercise public authority or perform a governmental function . . .” (emphasis mine)
“’Task force or working group’ means a group of individuals who have been formally appointed and delegated to meet as a group to assist, advise, or act on behalf of the individual in charge of a state agency or institution when a majority of the members of the group are not employees of the agency or institution.” N.D.C.C. § 44-04-17.1(16).” (emphasis mine)
Okay, let’s see now, Wayne has appointed a task force whose members are mostly private citizens, not state employees, to advise him. Does that fit anywhere in that definition, from that manual, do you think?
Well, never mind that. That’s for the real North Dakota media to figure out. They and their lawyer, Jack McDonald can go there if they want to. That’s THEIR job. I’m more concerned about the substance of what Wayne is doing.
No one has told me yet exactly what this group is supposed to do, beyond identifying a list of places where Wayne and his fellow Industrial Commission members should exercise caution. Apparently the list provided earlier isn’t good enough. Perhaps it is too big. Aha, now we might be getting to the heart of things.
First, let’s look at who’s on this task force. I mentioned three state employees earlier, remember? I suppose we might expect the North Dakota Game and Fish Commissioner, the State Parks Director, and the Director of the State Historical Society of North Dakota would be a good place to start then, eh? Well, we’d be expecting wrong. Because none of them are on it, nor is any one from their agencies. The three agencies in charge of the most important public lands and cultural and natural resources in the state aren’t represented.
Instead, it has an engineer whose firm is one of the biggest players in the Oil Patch, a couple of county commissioners from the Oil Patch, a newspaper columnist and scholar who writes frequently about the energy industry, one natural resources professional, the President of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, and three lawyers, two of whom work for Stenehjem and one who’s retired but spent much of his career as an assistant attorney general. Oh, and the head of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, recognizing that much of the oil industry development is going on in what used to be, or still is, Indian Country. These are the people who are going to compile a list of places chosen for special consideration when drilling permits are requested.
Task force members I talked to today told me that Wayne has assured all of them that they are not in violation of the Open Meetings Law, and they were satisfied with that, including the county commissioners, who are generally very, very careful about that law. They weren’t very clear about what the outcome of all this is going to be though.
What’s most disappointing, I learned, is that they have already been presented a list that is much shorter than the one the Industrial Commission released earlier, and pretty much been told to stick to that list. In my opinion, the earlier list was still too short.
I’m going to give the Attorney General some credit here for taking the lead on this whole issue of “special places.” But his suggestion is starting to ring hollow. It was made way back in May, and now, five months later, it appears a new effort is just getting started, and a shallow effort at that. And this new list is being developed by a group which does not include anyone from the state agencies most concerned with what is going on. I wonder how those agency heads feel about that. Or if they even knew about it before they read this (actually, they didn’t—I called to find out—but they’re scrambling right now to see what is going on).
There is already a list. The State Historical Society, for example, submitted sites to be included. That list has been reviewed by, but not adopted by, the Commission which issues all the drilling permits. In the absence of any formal structure to carefully check on where all these new wells are going to be, the Commission is issuing hundreds of drilling permits every month. It would be so easy to take the list compiled earlier, update it to include all the state and federal wildlife areas, have the three state agency heads review it, adopt it, and then develop a database of legal descriptions of all those places and run the drilling permit requests, all of which have legal descriptions, against that list and give special consideration—at least discuss—those which make a computer match. And, as I suggested last month, STOP ISSUING DRILLING PERMITS UNTIL THAT IS DONE. At least then we would know when places we are all concerned about are going to get an oil well. But you know what? I’m really convinced these people just don’t give a shit about what is going on. It’s all about money.
Anyway, it would be good for the Attorney General to do his work in the light of day. I’m going to find out when the next meeting is. I’m going to go. I hope some news media folks will join me. And also people who might be concerned about what’s going to be on this list, and what’s going to happen when it is completed. I’ll let you know when I find out the date.