Of Refineries And The Public Trust Doctrine

Mandan’s Tesoro Refinery. They all pretty much look alike. That white stuff is what you’ll see from Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The official comment period has passed on that sleazy company Meridian Energy’s request for an Air Pollution Permit for an oil refinery beside Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I’m guessing the State Health Department got an earful.

Yesterday, on the last day of comments, my friend Sarah Vogel, our former State Agriculture Commissioner and one of the state’s best attorneys, sent me a copy of what she sent to the Health Department. It’s so good, I just have to share it. If the Health Department can issue a permit after reading this, everyone there should be sent packing. And if the Governor doesn’t step in after reading this, he should be sent back to Cass County. Here’s what Sarah wrote.

“The Health Department is well aware of the views of the three statewide-elected officials who serve on the Public Service Commission. They have been clear that they believe that this project should not go forward without a ‘big picture’ overview that would come with a site review by the PSC. See, Bismarck Tribune, ‘Commission urges refinery developers to apply for siting permit,’ December 19, 2017. The majority of the persons testifying at the Health Department’s hearing in mid-January 2018 were opposed to the issuance of the air quality permit by the Health Department, and many urged that the Health Department not grant the permit until such time as a site review by the PSC was completed.

“It appears that the Health Department is evaluating comments on some type of a ‘bright line’ separation between its own concerns, and the concerns by other state agencies such as the PSC, and that it believes it lacks authority to look at any factors other than those strictly dealing with the air quality permit requirements set forth in Health Department regulations.

“Yet, the Department of Health is the lead environmental agency of the State of North Dakota! See N.D.C.C. Section 23-01-01.2 (‘The state department of health is the primary state environmental agency.’) Because of its additional role as the primary environmental agency, the Health Department should take a broader view consistent with the Public Trust Doctrine that underlies the duties and operations of all state agencies, including the Department of Health.

“As explained by the North Dakota Supreme Court, the Public Trust Doctrine is part of the common law of this state and overlays and informs the actions of the state as those actions affect the citizens of North Dakota’s critical reliance on clean water and other resources such as clean air. See, e.g., United Plainsmen Association v. North Dakota Water Conservation Commission, 247 N.W.2d 457, at 460-464 (ND 1976). See, also, State ex rel. Sprynczynatyk v. Mills, 523 NW 2d 537, at 540 ND 1974) (‘North Dakota could not totally abdicate its interest to private parties because it held that interest, by virtue of its sovereignty, in trust for the public.’)

“The Public Trust Doctrine is part of the overarching principles that should govern North Dakota governmental officials and especially those at the Department of Health See N.D.C.C. Section 23-01-01.2, supra.

“I recommend that the Health Department consider the Public Trust Doctrine in determining whether it, as the primary environmental agency, has a duty on behalf of the citizens of North Dakota to coordinate with the PSC to insure that all environmental factors are appropriately considered at the appropriate time and in the appropriate sequence.

“The Legislature’s use of the word ‘primary’ necessarily implies a leadership role with other secondary agencies for environmental issues. Here the PSC is pleading for the opportunity to do its job, and review the site of a project that will have a huge effect on western North Dakota in advance of issuance of a permit. The stakes are even higher since North Dakota’s premier attraction, the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, is extremely close to the site for the proposed refinery. Surely, the Health Department has the discretion to defer its decision on an air quality permit for Meridian’s proposed refinery until the PSC has the opportunity to do a thorough and thoughtful determination of the suitability of the site in keeping with state government’s duty to protect the public’s interest.

“The idea that a Meridian claim of a 500 barrel disparity in anticipated production could prevent this critical and essential review is a weak rationale to avoid PSC review. To illustrate, why should the Department of Health take at face value Meridian’s current assertion that it will produce 500 barrels of oil less than the cutoff for mandatory PSC review? As the Department of Health is well aware, Meridian has a history of changing its numbers based upon the audience it is addressing. One set of numbers is provided on Wall Street for potential investors and stockholders; another set of numbers is provided to officials of the State of North Dakota. The latest illustration of the unreliability of Meridian’s public statements is its recent press release on the Health Department’s January hearing which asserted that most of the people testifying were in favor of the project. In contrast, the Bismarck Tribune’s story by Amy Dalrymple said exactly the opposite.

“In conclusion, the permit should be denied or the application should be held in suspense until a proper site review is conducted by the PSC.”

Well. Thank you Sarah.

I have no doubt the Public Service Commissioners will read this and agree with Sarah. But as long as the Faustian refinery developers hold to their estimate of 49,500 barrels per day (99 per cent of the 50,000 bpd that triggers a site review), the PSC is helpless.

But are you reading this, Doug Burgum? Because, ultimately, you’re the man responsible for upholding the Public Trust Doctrine, on behalf of the citizens of your state. The Health Department works for you. You’re the Governor. You asked for the job. Now do your job. The Supreme Court has already upheld the Public Trust Doctrine. Do you really want to be on the same side–the wrong side–of a lawsuit with Meridian Energy, Governor, and on the opposite side of your own Public Service Commission, when someone files suit to force you to uphold the Public Trust Doctrine?

2 Responses

  1. patrick getz

    the refinery should be moved closer to Fryberg where there is rail access and a few more miles from trp

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