The Refinery Needs A Site Review

A pair of former Democratic-NPL State Senators challenged the North Dakota Health Department to demand a site review by the State’s Public Service Commission before issuing an air pollution permit allowing Meridian Energy Group to build a refinery three miles from Theodore Roosevelt National Park at a marathon public hearing by the Department Wednesday night.

Former Senator Connie Triplett of Grand Forks told Health Department administrators near the end of a four-hour public meeting in Dickinson that they should attach a condition to the permit if they issued it, stating that the permit to build the Davis refinery would only be valid if the company submitted to a full site review by the PSC. And former Senator Tracy Potter of Bismarck went a step further, saying the Health Department should just put the permit application on hold, and not consider it, until the PSC reviews the site.

Damn, I wish I could get rid of the word “former” in front of those two senators’ names. Out of the 40 or so people testifying on issuing an air pollution permit to the company at Wednesday’s public hearing, their Legislative experience showed their understanding of the government processes that could be brought into play before a refinery is built on the national park’s border.

To review: North Dakota has a law that says any energy conversion facility, such as a refinery, that is going to process more than 50,000 barrels of oil per day (bpd) needs to undergo a site review by the Public Service Commission to “ensure the location, construction, and operation of energy conversion facilities . . . will produce minimal adverse effects on the environment and the welfare of the citizens of this state . . .”

Further, it says “The policy of this state is to site energy conversion facilities . . . in an orderly manner compatible with environmental preservation and the efficient use of resources. Sites and routes must be selected to minimize adverse human and environmental impact . . .” (emphasis added)

To get around that requirement, Meridian now says it is going to process only 49,500 barrels per day, a sleazy, transparent move to avoid having the PSC tell them that this is a lousy place for a refinery and that they should put it somewhere else where it won’t detract from our national park.

Meridian’s number of 49,500 bpd is 99 per cent of the PSC’s jurisdiction limit of 50,000 bpd. 50,000 barrels is 2,100,000 gallons. 49,500 barrels is 2,079,000, just 21,000 gallons less than the threshold for regulation. So Meridian’s tactic is to stay just 1 per cent under the threshold for regulation. It would be a laughable move by the refinery people if it weren’t for the fact that by staying just barely under the threshold, THERE IS NOTHING STOPPING MERIDIAN FROM PUTTING AN OIL REFINERY BESIDE THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK.

I can’t shout that loud enough. Nothing stopping them except, of course, issuance of an air pollution permit, which was the matter at hand at Wednesday night’s public hearing. And that’s why Triplett’s and Potter’s requests are so important. Because in its initial review, the Health Department says it thinks that the refinery could come in under the pollution limits allowed by the federal Clean Air Act to protect the Class I Air Quality Status of a nearby national park.

Now whether we believe that or not—the Meridian people haven’t said much that is believable so far in this process—Triplett and Potter pointed out that this is just one very narrow—albeit very important—look at whether the refinery should be built there.  North Dakota State Government needs to take a holistic approach to siting something as big as this—and there’s no doubt this is big, the biggest industrial plant to be built in our state since the Great Plains Coal Gasification Plant near Beulah 35 years ago, which, at the time, was labeled the largest construction project in North America.

That’s what the PSC siting process brings. A look at the big picture.  And then once the PSC has completed its site review, the Health Department, the Water Commission, the Game and Fish Department, the State Parks Department, the Agriculture Commissioner, the Tourism Director, the Transportation Director, maybe some other Directors, and, most importantly, the Governor, need to sit down around a table and decide what’s really good for the state, and  if this is really the best place to put an oil refinery. That’s how state government should work, whether we trust all those people or not. I guess we have to trust them, since because they’re in charge here right now.

I don’t think anybody’s questioning whether or not we should have an oil refinery in North Dakota. Of course we should. As Senator Triplett has pointed out, it is certainly more environmentally (and economically, I’ll add) desirable to refine oil here and ship a finished product out in a pipeline than it is to ship out raw crude in a pipeline and then ship refined gasoline and diesel fuel back here in trucks or another pipeline.

So the only real question is, where should the refinery be? Public Service Commissioners Julie Fedorchak and Brian Kroshus pushed hard at Meridian officials at a meeting last month to get them to consider other locations away from the park, to no avail. Barring that, they asked politely to be allowed to conduct a formal site review to “ensure the location, construction, and operation” of the refinery ” . . .  will produce minimal adverse effects on the environment and the welfare of the citizens of this state . . .”

Meridian told them to stuff it. The 49,500 bpd refinery is under the threshold for a site review, they said, and they are complying with the law. Well, yeah one per cent under the threshold, and in terms of impact on the environment and the welfare of our citizens, that’s a pretty slim—and sleazy—standard they set for themselves.

In fact, it prompted PSC Chairman Randy Christmann to tell me and a few others after the meeting that he won’t be surprised if some Legislator introduces a bill in the next Legislative Session to get rid of the threshold altogether, and make all energy conversion facilities of any size subject to a site review. Good for him. Christmann is not a big government regulation guy, but I think he’d like that. In the case of Meridian, that would be closing the barn door after the cows are out, but it certainly would keep this from happening again in the future.

Shortly after that meeting between Meridian and the PSC, when Meridian snubbed its nose at three elected officials, I sent a letter to Governor Burgum asking him to call Meridian CEO William Prentice into his office and ask him politely—CEO to CEO—to move the refinery away from the park. I think I’ll just put my letter at the end of this post, because it’s been a month now, and I’ve not had a response from the Governor. I’m disappointed in that. It used to be, in North Dakota, when you wrote a letter to an elected official, you got a response in a pretty timely manner. I worked for a Governor for 8 years, and I don’t recall a constituent letter ever going unanswered. Especially on a matter as important as this. I’ll write a little more about that subject in a few days.

Meanwhile, subsequent to Wednesday’s Health Department hearing, a public comment period on this issue remains open until January 26. Then the Health Department will read all the public comments and respond to them, I think. Often the response is just to thank you for commenting, and telling you they are taking your comments into consideration, but at least you know your comments have been read by someone. I submitted mine a few weeks ago and shared them with you in this space. You can read them by going to my old blog. I urge you to join me in commenting. I’m putting the address for your comments at the end of this post too.

I’m adding to mine by strongly urging the Health Department to take the advice of Senators Potter and Triplett and attach conditions to any permit, requiring Meridian to undergo a site review.  Senator Triplett, an environmental attorney, knows North Dakota law, and she says they can attach conditions to a permit. There’s precedent for that, even.

Way back in the 1970s, when a company named Michigan Wisconsin Pipeline Company asked for a state water permit to construct some coal gasification plants here (one of which ended up being the Great Plains Synfuels Plant I mentioned earlier) the North Dakota Water Commission attached a series of conditions to the permit, which ended up being the beginning of North Dakota’s Mined Land Reclamation Laws, now the strictest reclamation laws in the country.

The Great Plains Synfuels Plant today. It’s here because North Dakota passed strict regulations and enforced them–which is what we need to do with the Davis Refinery today.

I think the conditions were challenged in court, and they held up. We’re all winners because of that. Strict regulations were followed, the coal gasification plant got built, and it’s still operating successfully today.

And I’m going to go a step further, and ask the Governor to strongly advise the Health Department—they work for him, after all—to attach the condition of a site review to the permit, if they issue one. Or to just tell the company they’re holding the permit until a site review is done. If Meridian is confident they’ve got the right project in the right place, they won’t have any problem undergoing a site review.

Let me repeat that.

If Meridian is confident they’ve got the right project in the right place, they won’t have any problem undergoing a site review.

One more time.

If Meridian is confident they’ve got the right project in the right place, they won’t have any problem undergoing a site review.

Here’s the address for your comments, to be submitted to the Health Department by January 26. You might want to use the line “If Meridian is confident they’ve got the right project in the right place, they won’t have any problem undergoing a site review.”

Terry O’Clair, P.E., Director

Division of Air Quality

ND Dept. of Health

918 E. Divide Ave.

Bismarck, ND 58501-1947

And here’s my letter to the Governor:

 December 21, 2017

Dear Gov. Burgum,

Late in the afternoon on this shortest day of the year, my mood is as dark as the 5 p.m. sky. I close my eyes and think back to the meeting between the PSC and William Prentice from Meridian Energy Group the other day, and I see him smirking as he says “We are going to comply with the law.”

So that’s what it’s come to for Meridian. It’s about the law. It’s not at all about anything North Dakotans might feel about having a refinery smack up against their national park. A national park named for our Greatest Conservation President.

“If these stupid North Dakota hicks are willing to put that kind of a loophole in their siting law, I’m going to use it,” the snarky Californian says.

So now, Governor, it’s up to you. You need to get that asshole in your office and tell him he needs to move that refinery. You can do that. He’ll respect you, a fellow businessman and North Dakota’s CEO.

Randy and Julie and Brian did their best, but they carried no authority. They’re not used to dealing with this kind of character. “I don’t see why you don’t just go through the siting process” won’t work with this guy. It’s kind of like the salesman who says “I don’t suppose you’d like to buy some insurance, would you?”

Please, Governor, call this guy up and get him in your office. And tell him to move the damn refinery.

Please let me know if you are willing to do this, so I can stop writing about it (and you) for a while. Even if it does no good, I need to know that at least you were willing to try.

Thanks.

Sincerely,

Jim Fuglie

6 Responses

  1. Janie Sinner

    Great letter, Jim. But I think we should ALL write to the governor. That might get more action.
    Janie Sinner

  2. Joan

    This is just ridiculous. When did the oil companies and wannabe refineries take over the government of the state of North Dakota? The Republican majority, governor, Senate and House, need to take charge of what is happening in our state. Adopt some laws that regulate the environment. Our lives and our environment depend on it.

  3. Roger Lothspeich

    Jim, give it up…you tried everything you could and slammed me and called me a every evil name you could think of and you lost. My gravel pit at the Elkhorn is active and I will continue to mine gravel there for decades to come. Now you have this wonderful refinery in the cross hairs. Jimmy, give it up. This fantastic refinery will be built. Go fishing or better yet the way I see it, go to the gym.

  4. Joan

    Mr. Lothspeich,
    I will not speak for Jim Fuglie, since he is a grown man and can speak for himself. However, I will speak for myself.

    I don’t want to work out in the gym. I want to go hiking in the North and South Units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in an environment that is not polluted by an oil refinery. Anyone with an ounce of North Dakota horse sense knows that we have many assets in North Dakota, and we must protect these assets. You do not muddy up, or pollute, a beautiful place with historical value by putting an oil refinery next to it. There is room enough in North Dakota to accomplish many things.
    Thank you.

Comments are closed.