You Can’t Mitigate Greed

Mitigation. There’s a word that draws mixed reaction.

Most dictionaries generally define mitigation as “the act of making a condition or consequence less severe, the process of becoming milder or gentler.”

It’s a word we didn’t much find in common usage in North Dakota until the 1970s, when the Garrison Diversion project surfaced. That project would have destroyed tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of acres of wildlife habitat, and the state of North Dakota and the federal government agreed to a mitigation plan to replace that habitat. The project was never completed. Even mitigation could not justify a really bad idea.

Today, it’s a pretty familiar word here. Our on-the-ground definition of mitigation is “if you screw something up over here, you better do something nice over there to replace it.” Most recently it has come into play as a requirement of a new North Dakota Industrial Commission policy designed to offer some measure of protection to critical wildlife habitat, or scenic, recreational or historic areas near proposed oil development sites. Note I said “designed.” Not “implemented.”

The policy, affectionately known as “Wayne Stenehjem’s Special Places,” was scheduled to take effect on May 1. Essentially it said that after that date, any state-issued permit to drill an oil and gas well in North Dakota on publicly-owned land that is on, or in, or near, any site designated as one of 18 “areas of interest,” might be subject to special conditions designed to “mitigate potential impact to the sites.”

There is no visible indication that the state’s Oil and Gas Division is paying any attention to it, although as of last week, a North Dakota Industrial Commission spokesperson said “There have been no applications for drilling permits on public lands within an area of interest since the policy was implemented on May 1.” We’ll see if Stenehjem, the state’s Attorney General and a member of that three-person Industrial Commission which regulates oil and gas drilling in the state, decides to follow through on his initiative to try to offer some protection, or “mitigate” the damage, to places like national parks and wildlife refuges. Parks, both state and national, as well as all federal refuges and state wildlife management areas in western North Dakota, are on the “Special Places” list.

Including Little Missouri State Park in the North Dakota Bad Lands, about which I want to share a few thoughts. I’ll be as blunt as possible at the outset, and then try to “mitigate” my remarks: The oil industry is on a path to totally trash one of the most spectacularly scenic areas of North Dakota. All in the name of oil company profits. Specifically, ConocoPhillips and Burlington Resources profits. There. I’ve said it. I am not exaggerating. That is what is about to happen. And then they are going to try to mitigate the damage.

Some background. Forty-some years ago the North Dakota State Parks Department decided the people of North Dakota deserved to have a state park in North Dakota’s Bad Lands. They chose one of the most scenic areas of the Bad Lands, a rugged area where the waters of the Little Missouri River stop flowing and become the Little Missouri Arm of Lake Sakakawea. Here there are hundreds of square miles on either side of the river that are virtually roadless, inaccessible except on foot or horseback. There are likely still places here where no white man has ever stepped. A few ranchers use parts of it to graze cattle and cut hay. Back in 1970, North Dakota converted part of a school section there to a state park, and a couple of those ranch families agreed to lease some of their adjoining rugged ranch land to the State Parks Department so the Parks folks could put some riding and walking trails through the area for the enjoyment of hikers and horse people.

Trail riders in Little Missouri State Park

Ever since, thanks to those ranchers, it has been a place of pure escape into North Dakota’s most rugged wilderness for those who choose to take advantage of what the state has provided them in its most spectacular, largely undeveloped park.

Besides the park entrance road off Highway 22, about 20 miles north of Killdeer, there are just a couple of roads into the area on the south side of the river, used by the families who ranch there. Otherwise, except for some two-track trails the ranchers use to get to their cows, the 5,000-acre park is pretty much God’s country. The north side of the river is the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, and there are virtually no roads to the river for 20 or 30 miles. On the south side, only because of park access, you can hike or ride through the breaks down to the river. But that’s the only river access. No roads.

Until now. Until the oil boom. Soon, this formerly forever-undeveloped area, sculpted by God and wind and water over the ages, unmarred by man, will become North Dakota’s newest oil field. Thank you, ConocoPhillips, Burlington Resources and the North Dakota Industrial Commission. Burlington Resources, the latest incarnation of the minerals division of the once powerful Northern Pacific Railroad, owns nearly half the minerals in a giant oil field created by the Industrial Commission a couple years ago. Enough to dictate how the oil field is developed. The NP acquired the mineral ownership from the federal government when it planned a railroad through the area a hundred and fifty or so years ago, and through independent purchases in later years. It has partnered with ConocoPhillips to develop them (there’s a connection: Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway company owns the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad and is a major shareholder in ConocoPhillips). They got the go-ahead from the Industrial Commission in a somewhat controversial unitization plan back in 2011. Initially the Commission required Conoco to drill their 80 planned wells in four years and then get the hell out of there and let the oil flow. But now it looks like there could be many more than 80. Plus a couple of huge salt water disposal sites (one is built, one is pending nearly-certain approval of a building permit by the—you guessed it—the North Dakota Industrial Commission) at the entrance to the park, a new landmark for travelers looking to find Little Missouri State Park: “Turn east off Highway 22 at the new Dunn County Industrial Park.”

There’s a pretty good gravel road leading two miles into the state park, but there’s another road just across the fence paralleling the park entrance road. That dirt road leads past the park’s campground, past a private campground and down into a drainage where a brand-spankin’ new scoria-covered oil pad sits waiting for the drilling rig to arrive.

A new oil pad in Little Missouri State Park awaits the drilling rig. Up to 5 wells will be placed on this pad just down the road from the nearby campground, inside the park.

It will come in November and drill up to five wells less than a mile from the campground. Up to 5,000 truckloads of fracking water will pass by the campground next winter if all goes as planned. The good news is, the campground is closed in the winter. ConocoPhillips has agreed to do the drilling over the winter so the park will see less disturbance than if it happened in the summer. Still, there’ll be plenty of traffic in and out just from normal well service once the oil is flowing. It’ll be a much less desirable place to camp.

But I started to write about mitigation, and I want to get back to that. The campground is just one small area of the park. The major activity in the park is use of the trails on the private land leased to the Parks Department down into the breaks. And the trails are going to be heavily impacted. In fact, some of them will be destroyed by the new roads down to numerous well sites scattered throughout the park. Park officials tell me that there is now a map of where all the wells will be. And where the access roads to those wells will be. I don’t want to see it. As someone who has hiked those trails, I am afraid it will break my heart. But rather than abandoning the park’s major use, those backcountry trails, the State Parks Department is going to sit down with the ranchers from whom they lease the land and seek permission to build new trails. Remember, those ranchers still run cows here, and that is their livelihood, so they’re going to be pretty careful about where any new trails go.

Conoco will pick up the bill for any new trail construction. Where roads and well pads are visible from the trails, the parks people will try to move the trails to areas where, hopefully, the development is less intrusive.  If it all works out, beginning next summer, park users will find new views and experiences awaiting them. The oil development won’t be invisible in the park, one parks department official told me, “but we’re going to do the best we can.”

That’s mitigation, and Conoco is being pretty magnanimous about it, including opening their checkbook. But the mitigation will only satisfy the humans. You can’t mitigate the damage to the land that is going to be disturbed for the first time ever by roads designed to carry thousands of trucks, or the destruction of wildlife habitat and temporary wetlands and game trails and raptor nests. The damage to them is going to be permanent, not just from the new roads and the well pads, but also from the new trails being built to accommodate humans. You can’t mitigate the noise and dust those thousands of trucks will bring, disrupting the critters’ lives.

Because mitigation doesn’t make things whole. It just makes the best of a bad situation. Little Missouri State Park is one of those “special places” that isn’t going to be so special any more.

You can’t mitigate greed.

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

A Million Barrels A Day

Caught a rerun of the Beverly Hillbillies the other day. Then I turned on the news and learned that we’ve reached a milestone in North Dakota–we’re producing a million barrels of oil a day–way more than old Jed Clampett could have imagined. And there’s the North Dakota Petroleum Council feeding crawdads and Cajun shrimp to 3,000 North Dakotans to celebrate the occasion. Old Jed would have loved that. Dang it, I wish I been there to see it myself. But Jed’s theme song stuck in my head as I went out to work in the garden, and by the time I had finished weeding the peas, I thought I might have the makings of a song for a new North Dakota reality TV show: “A Million Barrels A Day.” Fire up the band, boys.

A Million Barrels a Day: The Ballad of Jack Dalrymple

(With apologies to Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, and REAL hillbillies everywhere)

 

Come and listen to a story about a man named Jack,

A rich Valley farmer and political hack.

He’s in Bismarck governing, the state ain’t doing so good,

When up from the ground came a bubblin’ crude.

 

Oil, that is. Black Gold. Bakken Style. Lots of it.

 

Well, next thing you know Jack’s friends got millions.

The frackin’ and the flarin’ means the state’s got billions.

No rules or regulations, just like the Wild West,

Jack says “Don’t worry folks, I know what’s best.”

 

Train wrecks. Oil spills. Broken Pipelines. Lots of ‘em.

 

The rich guys’ helpers are livin’ in their cars,

And cashing in their paychecks in McKenzie County bars.

Hookers on the corner, rapes and robberies on the rise,

A couple thousand gas flares lighting up the prairie skies.

 

Dust Clouds. Filter socks. Out-of-state plates. Everywhere.

 

A million barrels a day is a whole lot of oil,

When the wells start leaking, it’s soaked up by our soil.

The critters and the crops will just have to move aside,

‘Cuz the oil boys are taking us on a good long ride.

 

Harold Hamm. Lynn Helms. Special Places: Not so much.

 

Well, now it’s time to say good-bye to Jack and all he’s done.

The Bad Lands ain’t the same no more, the oil boys had their fun.

Yep, Jack sure made them happy, as they drove us in the ditch

He sold us out, his friends got rich, and he’s a happy son of a . . . gun.

(Hey, rhymes with done and fun.)

 

Prairie Hillbillies. That’s what they call us now. “We skinned ‘em good.”

We might be back, Jack. Hear?

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

The Saga of the Elkhorn Continues: What’s a FONSI?

About ten years ago, Ken and Norma Eberts decided to sell their Bad Lands ranch and retire. The ranch is directly across the river from the Elkhorn Ranch Site, home to our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt. It is where he developed his famous conservation ethic, before becoming America’s greatest Conservation President.

Ken and Norma knew the area’s history. The Elkhorn Ranch Site is part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and they wanted to make sure that their own ranch, which sits on the bank of the Little Missouri River, was not bought by a developer and broken up into 40-acre parcels as summer getaways for rich folks with four-wheelers and jet boats. That kind of development would have ruined the solemnity of this quiet, peaceful place.

They offered it to the National Park Service and the North Dakota Park Service, but neither had the wherewithal to make a deal. Then, in 2007, a group of more than 30 national conservation organizations, representing more than 40 million members, headed up by the Boone and Crockett Club, which was founded by Theodore Roosevelt in 1887, pooled their resources, bought the ranch, and donated it to the U.S. Forest Service, which manages more than a million acres in North Dakota’s Little Missouri National Grasslands. The Forest Service named it the Elkhorn Ranchlands, and it became a National Historic District, a fitting partner to the National Park Service site across the river.

The deal was put together in a hurry, because the Eberts had already postponed their retirement by several years waiting for something like this. Resources were finite. As a result of those two things, the Forest Service did not become the owner of what are called “surface minerals” on the property. Surface minerals in North Dakota’s Bad Lands are generally coal, scoria and gravel. The surface mineral ownership was divided over the generations into the hands of more than 40 people. To try to track them all down and do a deal would have taken years (the process is underway now, and still not complete, seven years later).  We know the Eberts family owned 50 per cent. Another family, which previously owned the land, owned about 25 per cent. The remainder was divided among many owners, some with less than one per cent interest. No one really believed it would be a problem if the mineral ownership remained that way, instead of being transferred to the Forest Service.

And then this asshole named Roger Lothspeich came along. He had lived in the area at one time, and knew the family that owned a quarter of the mineral rights, and bought them for some undisclosed amount, probably a pittance. He owns a four-wheeler dealership in Montana, and someone jokingly (or maybe not) said he probably traded a couple of four-wheelers for them. And then he announced that he was going to mine the gravel on the land directly across the Little Missouri River from the Elkhorn Ranch Site, in full view of the National Park Service site. Unless the government was willing to buy him out for a couple million dollars. Blackmail. Extortion.

The government told him to go jump in the lake (or river), so he put together his mining plan and presented it to the Forest Service. He had the right to develop his minerals—mineral ownership trumps surface ownership—but because the land is in a National Historic District, he had to present an operating plan, which triggered an Environmental Assessment (EA) process. The EA was completed in 2012. Then it was open for public comments. Many people (including me) questioned the findings of the EA. The Forest Service then considered those comments, and in April of this year, the District Ranger, Ron Jablonski, the man charged with overseeing the process, released a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI). Which, after a public comment period, will give Lothspeich permission to start mining the gravel.

Jablonski, in his decision memo, admitted that this is going to cause quite a disruption for a few years. It’s going to be ugly and noisy and busy and will affect tourism, but it will go away after a while. But, he said, I am powerless to stop it.

Well, somebody who knows a whole lot about this process, and the National Grasslands, and the Elkhorn Ranchlands, disagrees. His name is Dave Pieper, and he was the Dakota Prairie Grasslands Supervisor—Jablonski’s boss—for ten years, now retired, and he was the man who put the deal together to get the land into public ownership and protected from development in the first place. And Dave is pissed.

As the end of the 45-day comment period on the FONSI approached this week, Dave sent his letter objecting to Jablonski’s findings to Dennis Nietze, the man who succeeded him as Supervisor. With copies to Nietze’s bosses, Faye Kreuger, Regional Forester and Nietze’s immediate supervisor, and Tom Tidwell, the big boss, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Pieper knows them both well, and he minced no words.

He begins his letter by saying “I am writing this letter because I am deeply concerned over the impending decision.  Reserved and outstanding minerals notwithstanding, there are other reasonable alternatives that the Medora District Ranger, Ron Jablonski, has failed to carry forward or exhaust. Rather, he summarily dismisses both the purchase and exchange alternatives. The main purpose of this letter is to request that the Forest Service rescind the decision until the Elkhorn Plan amendment and other important work is completed.”

Note the words “until the Elkhorn Plan amendment . . . is completed.” What he’s referring to there, is that once the Eberts Ranch was acquired—it is several thousand acres with a full set of ranch buildings, corrals, fences, wells, watering tanks and feed lots—it is the responsibility of the Forest Service’s District Ranger—Jablonski—to write a plan for its use, like any good rancher would for a ranch he acquired. Seven years after its purchase, the plan is not yet written. The buildings sit empty. I think someone is running cows on it, but I am not sure. It is the height of irresponsibility to ignore this important mandate.

Last fall, Tweed Roosevelt, TR’s great-grandson, and I met with Nietze and we asked him why there was no management plan written yet. He said with this oil boom going on, his staff was too busy to get it done. Well, maybe, but they weren’t too busy to rush this gravel pit proposal through. The FONSI is a lengthy, complicated government document which took someone hundreds of hours to develop and write. When they could have been, instead, writing a plan for management of the entire ranch, not just the 30 or 40 acre gravel pit. That alone seems like a good reason to send Jablonski into early retirement and put someone in charge out there who understands what’s important and what’s not. (Incidentally, I’m not the first person to ever call for Jablonski to be fired. A lot of folks who know more about what he does than me have been saying it for years.)

I am going to attach the entire text of Pieper’s letter to the bottom of this post, so those of you who want to read that far can do so.  Pieper is as articulate as he is demanding. He says this: “To be given the opportunity to work with an inspired coalition of partners to successfully acquire of a piece of history – the place where many believe Theodore Roosevelt developed his conservation philosophy – was the capstone accomplishment of my career. The conservation community coalesced with energy, resolve and resources and would not be denied in its effort to protect and preserve this nationally significant historic site.”

His passion for this place, and for the National Grasslands, clearly shows through. His former bosses will quickly affirm that this is the man who probably knows more about both the process involved and value of protecting this particular piece of the Grasslands (his civilian retirement e-mail address is “grasslands4ever@ . . .”) than anyone in America.

What is surprising about the letter is his bluntness about the failings of his former employee. You see, Jablonski’s decision caught everyone off guard. Because a process was underway to prevent this from happening. Last year, the Forest Service and Lothspeich signed an informal agreement to try to work out a swap of Lothspeich’s minerals for some land or minerals somewhere else. The Forest Service owns a million acres. That should be doable.

At the same time, a parallel process began to identify the 40-some other mineral owners, an effort funded by the same conservation partners who bought the land and gave it to the Forest Service. Bismarck attorney Robert Harms has spent probably hundreds of hours finding those people—grandsons and great-granddaughters of former ranch owners as well as oil company executives who have purchased the other mineral rights under the ranch. Robert told me this week that he was making substantial progress in working with those owners to sell or gift the surface minerals—the gravel—to the Forest Service. He believed that, given enough time, he could find a way to get all the minerals conveyed to the Forest Service, and make this problem go away.

Then, Bam! Jablonski’s decision was released. It seemed to make no sense. Both Jablonski and Nietze knew about Harms’ work. But something caused them to pull the trigger on Lothspeich’s application to mine. That’s what has Pieper so angry.  Angry enough to say, on paper, things like this:

  • Mr. Jablonski has . . . failed to adequately assess and evaluate the importance of the viewshed within the context of the National Historic District designation.
  • From a leadership perspective, Mr. Jablonski also fails to understand the strategic importance of the partnership to the Forest Service or the willingness of partners to engage in the protection and preservation of the site.
  • Mr. Jablonski’s . . . statement is misleading, capricious and calculated to lead the reader to believe that minerals acquisition is an all or nothing proposition.
  • (Jablonski’s) statement is disingenuous . . . The focus should be on alternatives to accomplish acquisition rather than arbitrary requirements to limit options.

Pieper closes his letter with this: “Finally, some may believe that the proponent will never mine the gravel for lack of resource and associated costs. That may be true. The next owner, however, may not share that sentiment. Through its partnership with the conservation community, the Forest Service goal should be to exhaust all opportunities to acquire these minerals before permitting mining operations. That will take leadership, initiative and partnership development skills; something that is clearly lacking in this proposed decision.  The Forest Service can and must do better.”

What Pieper doesn’t want to come out and say, but I will, is that the Forest Service is playing a high-stakes game of Chicken. It’s a dangerous game. Lothspeich may not have the resources to actually go ahead and develop the minerals. He may have been gambling all along that he could just extort a bunch of money from the government. He’s that kind of character.

But—and there’s a big BUT—he might just be able to find a buyer with deeper pockets for the minerals he owns, recover his money, and the buyer, having determined that there really is a bunch of money in the ground in that gravel pit, could start a mining operation that could go on for years and years and years. By the time it is done, the disruption could cause permanent damage to a site so important to America that it has been called “The Cradle of Conservation.”

Well, good for you, Dave Pieper. I know it is not easy to write a letter which, by implication, is critical of the man (Dennis Nietze) who succeeded you in your position as Dakota Prairie Grasslands Supervisor. It goes against the grain. But if anyone can catch the attention of the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, it is you. Thank you for doing that. Now, the next step is for the Roosevelt family and the conservation partners who bought the land to go even higher, to the President of the United States. I hope they will do that. This is a place worth saving. Forest Service Chiefs and Presidents have that power. Let’s hope they use it.

Here’s Pieper’s letter in its entirety. Following that are links to previous articles I have written about this issue. This is Article Number 9. Sheesh. I hope Number 10 is the one that says “Roger Lothspeich has gone away. The Elkhorn is safe.”

June 9, 2014

Dennis Neitzke

Supervisor, Dakota Prairie Grasslands

1200 Missouri Ave.

Bismarck, ND 58504

Dear Dennis;

 As the Dakota Prairie Grasslands supervisor (2001 – 2011) I had the unique opportunity to manage and guide the day-to-day operations and activities of some of the Nation’s premier national grasslands.  Without a doubt it was the most interesting and challenging assignment of my career.  It was often a contentious environment. Grassland users and elected officials often disagreed with Forest Service policies and decisions. And still do today. Through it all, however, some very important and lasting partnerships evolved; the most significant of which was the coalition that successfully acquired the Elkhorn Ranch. 

 To be given the opportunity to work with an inspired coalition of partners to successfully acquire of a piece of history – the place where many believe Theodore Roosevelt developed his conservation philosophy – was the capstone accomplishment of my career.  The conservation community coalesced with energy, resolve and resources and would not be denied in its effort to protect and preserve this nationally significant historic site.

 Over 50 national wildlife and natural resource conservation organizations worked together with the Forest Service to secure the purchase of the Elkhorn Ranchlands in 2007. The effort was lead by the Boone and Crockett Club, which Roosevelt founded in 1887, in cooperation with the American Wildlife Conservation Partners (AWCP), an umbrella organization of 41 separate national conservation groups. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation also played a key role in the acquisition, facilitating the final legal transaction and closing.

 Roosevelt’s Pulitzer Prize winning biographer, Edmund Morris wrote, “To my mind, there is no memorial or bronze anywhere in the country that evokes the conscience of Theodore Roosevelt as powerfully as the Elkhorn bottom and its surrounding hills.” The surrounding hills, of course, comprise the “viewshed” as seen from Roosevelt’s ranch headquarters, the crown jewel of the acquisition.

 The whole effort was centered on acquiring and protecting a piece of ground that many considered to be the Cradle of Conservation. Without this diverse partnership the Forest Service could not have completed the acquisition. The agency has had responsibility for these lands for nearly seven years and has yet to complete the plan amendment to guide the management of the historic ranchlands.  Now the agency is poised to approve a gravel pit operation (with unknown reserves) that is located within the viewshed of the proclaimed National Historic District, before fully exhausting all available options.

I am writing this letter because I am deeply concerned over the impending decision.  Reserved and outstanding minerals notwithstanding, there are other reasonable alternatives that the Medora District Ranger, Ron Jablonski, has failed to carry forward or exhaust. Rather, he summarily dismisses both the purchase and exchange alternatives. The main purpose of this letter is to request that the Forest Service rescind the decision until the Elkhorn Plan amendment and other important work is completed. 

Mr. Jablonski has also failed to adequately assess and evaluate the importance of the viewshed within the context of the National Historic District designation. With respect to the Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), the viewshed is clearly nationally significant and the proposed mitigation insufficient in light of the opportunity to avoid any impacts at all.

 From a leadership perspective, Mr. Jablonski also fails to understand the strategic importance of the partnership to the Forest Service or the willingness of partners to engage in the protection and preservation of the site. The agency has an obligation to its partners and public to proactively protect and preserve the outstanding ecological and historic resources of the Elkhorn Ranch. Avoidance and offset will provide maximum resource protection measures, especially with respect to the protection of important cultural and historic sites.

 The decision notice (DN) rationale to not carry forward the purchase of mineral rights or exchange of mineral rights is inconsistent, arbitrary and capricious. There is no agency policy or law that prohibits the agency from acquiring partial mineral estates. The broad-brush mandate that the federal government is required to own all minerals is an arbitrary decision to justify the elimination of the exchange or purchase alternatives from further study. While acquisition of partial interest mineral estates may be rare, it may occur to accomplish management objectives (FSH 5409.13). However, without a plan amendment in place there are no site-specific management objectives on which to base decisions.

 The proponent has indicated his willingness to exchange or sell the rights, the ranch sellers were willing to donate all or part of their rights, and Mr. Lowell Baier (Boone and Crockett) is currently coordinating with the other gravel owners to determine their willingness to divest their ownership. By taking the initiative, the Forest Service could incrementally acquire these surface rights through purchase, exchange and/or donation. And although the agency has determined the number of acres to be disturbed by the proposed mining, it has not provided an estimate of the volume of gravel to be mined. An inventory must be completed as a basis to inform the process.

 It’s obvious that the Forest Service does not have the current funding or the legislative support to purchase “all” the mineral estates.  The issue at hand is not the entire minerals estate but the gravel within the viewshed. 

 Minerals acquisition funding could be accomplished through a combination of appropriated funds, partnership contributions, grants, etc.  In fact, agency policy (FSM 2830.3) states: “Consider acquisition of mineral rights…when the public benefits derived from surface values are deemed to justify the cost of acquisition.” Coordination with the delegation and governors office outlining the limited scope and voluntary nature of the acquisition would help to address their concerns. More elected officials are embracing the protection of North Dakota’s “special places”.

 In 2002 Western Sand & Gravel (see attachment) estimated the value of the gravel if marketed for quick sale at $52,500. Over the life of the resource the value was estimated to be from $130,000 to $275,000. Gravel quantity and market value must be determined to provide a basis for any exchange or purchase. Hopefully Mr. Jablonski anticipated this work when he signed an Agreement in Principle in 2012 to exchange with the proponent.

 The purpose of the Agreement was to work out an exchange for other federal land or mineral rights at a different location. Mr. Jablonski said, “We are going to take a look at options for some type of exchange.” However, now Mr. Jablonski (DN p. 8) discusses potential liability associated with partial mineral ownership and that any mineral exchange would have required the government to obtain 100% of the mineral ownerships from all mineral owners  (even though he signed the Agreement with only the proponent). This statement is misleading, capricious and calculated to lead the reader to believe that minerals acquisition is an all or nothing proposition.

 Mr. Jablonski states the potential liability associated with partial mineral ownership proved to be an obstacle with any mineral exchange. If the basis for the potential liability issue is erionite, it appears that test results now obviate this concern.

 Mr. Jablonski also states that overall timeframes to resolve and exchange minerals resulted in the agreement being withdrawn.  This statement is disingenuous. Work planning and timely accomplishment of priority work products, including completion of the plan amendment, is the core issue. The focus should be on alternatives to accomplish acquisition rather than arbitrary requirements to limit options.

 In summary, I request that the Forest Service consider the following: 1) Rescind the Elkhorn Gravel Pit decision and complete the plan amendment, 2) Determine the volume and value of the gravel resource proposed to be mined, 3) Develop a plan to exchange or purchase the surface mineral rights within the viewshed, 4) Pursue donations of outstanding and reserved gravels rights within the viewshed, and 5) Coordinate meaningfully and candidly with the partnership, especially with Mr. Baier, that enabled and completed the acquisition of the Elkhorn Ranchlands.

 Finally, some may believe that the proponent will never mine the gravel for lack of resource and associated costs. That may be true. The next owner, however, may not share that sentiment. Through its partnership with the conservation community, the Forest Service goal should be to exhaust all opportunities to acquire these minerals before permitting mining operations. That will take leadership, initiative and partnership development skills; something that is clearly lacking in this proposed decision.  The Forest Service can and must do better.

 Sincerely,

 Dave Pieper

Cc:  Tom Tidwell, Chief US Forest Service

Faye Kreuger, R1 Regional Forester

Lowell Baier, President Emeritus Boone and Crockett Club

Previous Posts:

October 6, 2011

October 8, 2011

October 11, 2011 (#1) 

October 11, 2011 (#2)

May 29, 2012

June 1, 2012

June 4, 2012

June 15, 2012

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Finally, A Tax I Don’t Like

I’m an old liberal who, my conservative friends say, “never met a tax he didn’t like.” Well, they’re pretty much right. Taxes generally do good things for people, especially those at the local level. The federal government is often another story. But that’s our own fault, for electing the wrong people sometimes, and leaving them in power.

But at the local level, I don’t remember ever voting against a mill levy increase or school bond issue. City Commissioners, County Commissioners, School Board and Park Board members are generally in pretty close touch with their constituents, and I tend generally to trust them with my tax dollars. The wackos get weeded out pretty fast if they get out of hand.

But I’m voting against the sales tax increase for a new jail next Tuesday. Uffda. The earth just shook under my house as I wrote that.

Burleigh and Morton County residents are being asked to approve a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for a new $70 million jail. In the big picture, that’s not much of a tax increase. If it passes, I’ll pay a penny more every time I spend two dollars at a store. It won’t apply to groceries, since food isn’t taxed in North Dakota, and I’d guess for a retired couple like Lillian and me, groceries are the biggest item in our retail spending budget. I’d be paying an extra cent and a half for a scoop of minnows or a box of night crawlers at Pony Express, and probably a nickel more for a box of shotgun shells at Runnings. Gas would cost another couple cents per gallon, so I’d pay another quarter every time I fill up. You get the point. It’s not a big burden.

It’s just that, WE SHOULDN’T HAVE TO PAY FOR A NEW JAIL!

Burleigh and Morton Counties have fairly new jails. I can remember when both of them were built. With local tax dollars. And we said “There, now we have places we can lock up the bad guys that will take care of us for a long time.”

We should have added “Or until we have an oil boom.”

The oil boom has brought a rapid increase in population, and a significant number of those new people are bad guys who need to be locked up. That’s just the reality. Crime is up as a result of the oil boom. Local police and prosecutors are doing the best they can to protect us from the new, bad people. They’re catching them and putting them away. And now all of a sudden there’s no room at the inn.

And, well, jails have always been the responsibility of local taxpayers. It’s time to change that. It’s time for Jack Dalrymple to pay for a jail or two (I can’t believe we’re the only ones who need one). Because he created the problem and he’s got all the money.

Our state government leaders, Dalrymple in charge, turned the oil industry loose here with no regulations and no planning. They let things get out of hand when lots of people were hollering “Slow down and figure out what the problems are going to be with this boom, and how to solve them.” The result has been an unmanageable boom, with the burden falling on local taxpayers. All across the western half of our state, people are being asked to raise their own taxes to pay for jails, schools, streets, sewage lagoons, water lines and all our other infrastructure needs, and the people to manage them. That’s not right.

Because Jack Dalrymple is collecting billions of dollars in oil taxes as a result of this boom. Oh, and sales taxes and income taxes too. And it’s all just going in the bank, while we are being asked to pay for the problems the boom is creating. That’s just wrong.

In this biennium alone, the state Office of Management and Budget said a couple months ago, our state budget surplus will be almost half a billion dollars. That’s just their current projection. I’d bet dollars to donuts that when July 1, 2015 comes around, it’s closer to a billion than to half a billion. That’s surplus. Tax money we will collect but not spend.

And I am told that by the end of the biennium, when you add all reserve funds together that are not committed to any spending project, we will have $6 billion in the bank. That’s Billion, with a B. I’m old enough to remember the end of one of the Legislative sessions in the 1970s when Democrat House Leader Richard Backes, who was trying to squeeze out a few more dollars for education funding instead of leaving it in the bank, said “Representative Strinden, there’s not an emergency we can’t take care of in the next biennium with a $10 million surplus.”

I know, that makes me a geezer, but you can see the scale of how things have changed. No one could have imagined this.

And it is not just the Burleigh/Morton County jail that bothers me. Just this morning in the paper, there was a story about the little town of Medora, population a hundred and something, needing to raise their sewer rates to pay off a $1.7 million loan for a new sewage treatment plant. WTF? A town with maybe 50 or 60 sewer hookups paying off a $1.7 million loan?  It makes no sense.

Why do they need a new sewage treatment plant? The oil boom, that’s why.

You’ve read the stories about new schools in Watford city and Williston and little towns across the oil patch. Paid for by local taxpayers. It needs to stop. It is time for the state to step up and pay for it. All of it.

What’s the state’s response? Jack Dalrymple tells his state agency heads to bring him budgets with no funding increases for the next biennium. Sorry, Jack, but that is just total bullshit. You created this mess. You clean it up.

As for us voters and taxpayers, here’s what we do. First we send a signal to the Capitol that we are sick and tired of cleaning up someone else’s mess by voting down the new jail tax. And then we ask every Legislator we see on the street and every Legislative candidate who comes to our door if they will appropriate the money in the next Legislative session to pay for stuff like this. And we vote for those who say yes. We don’t need tax increases with $6 billion in the bank. “That’s OUR money,” the right wingers like to say. Well, here’s a left-winger saying “Let’s spend it.”

I’m pretty sure my hand is going to be shaking pretty violently as the pencil approaches that “No” box on the ballot next Tuesday. But my vote counts even if I don’t stay inside the lines. I hope my friends in Bismarck will join me. And those everywhere else in the Oil Patch who are being asked to raise their own taxes to pay for things the state should pay for with existing taxes.

There is simply no reason that anyone in North Dakota should pay more taxes this year. Ouch! Did I really say that?

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Last Dance of the Sage Grouse

Note: This article appears in the current issue of Dakota Country magazine, a monthly outdoors publication headquartered in Bismarck. I write a regular monthly article for the magazine focusing on the oil industry’s impact on the North Dakota Badlands. You can find subscription information on the magazine’s website, www.dakotacountrymagazine.com.

I’ve shot probably half a dozen, or maybe as many as ten, sage grouse in my life. I’m likely among a small group of North Dakotans alive today who can say that. And that group is not going to get any bigger. Ever. Because there’s an awfully good chance we’ll never have another sage grouse season in North Dakota. In fact, I’ve had a wildlife biologist tell me flat out this spring that he thinks within the next three years the sage grouse will be gone from the prairie in North Dakota. Completely gone. Here’s their story.

I grew up in southwest North Dakota, in a hunting family. Sometime when I was in my late teens, my dad befriended a rancher from the Rhame area in Slope County, who invited us to come and hunt sage grouse at his place. We did. (In an incredible coincidental set of circumstances, I later married that rancher’s daughter. But that’s another story. I told it a year or so ago. You can read it here if you missed it.) I don’t remember a lot of details of that first sage grouse hunt, other than it was the biggest bird I had ever shot—we didn’t have a huntable population of geese in our area in those days, and I wasn’t a turkey hunter then. We hunted sage grouse off and on over the next ten or so years. Those were my first real experiences with the North Dakota Badlands. I’ve been hooked ever since, not so much for hunting, but for the appreciation of the fragile ecosystem that provides such a wide range of outdoor experiences.

I had another one of those experiences this spring, when I traveled back to that same area to watch the sage grouse perform their Spring mating rituals. I had never seen that before. I can hardly find words to describe it. It’s one of those things you have to see to believe and understand. I got to see the ritual early one morning, thanks to the biologists at the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, who were willing to share a lek location with me and a couple of my friends.

We call it a “dance,” but it’s not so much a dance, as sharptail grouse do, but a “strut.” Males gather in early morning and perform for their hoped-for mates, spreading their spikey tails and puffing up the air-sacs in their chests to almost unbelievable volumes. I have never seen such a prideful display—pride well-deserved—in any other outdoor experience I’ve ever witnessed.

It’s a good thing I saw it. Because this spring the mood of biologists doing the annual Spring Sage Grouse Count was gloomy, and it may portend the unthinkable—the disappearance of another species from the North Dakota prairie.

Each year, in April, the Game and Fish biologists set up camp in Slope County, north of Marmarth, and spend most of a week visiting known leks to check on the population and condition of sage grouse. They’ve been doing it for 50 years. This year they counted just 31 male sage grouse. An all-time low. Down from a peak of more than 500 many years ago, down from counts of 50 to 75 in recent years.

The biologists had to halt sage grouse hunting in the state 2008 after the birds suffered a two-year bout with West Nile Virus. Prior to that, the season was a brief one, a week at most, sometimes just one weekend as I recall, with a limit of one bird per hunter per year, restrictions so limiting that few hunters actually took advantage of the opportunity to hunt.

Too bad, because it was a great hunt. It happened early in the fall, around Labor Day, when the weather was pleasant for an early morning hike in the Badlands. If you knew a friendly rancher, or had a good Grasslands map, and had done a little scouting, you could pick a dry creek bed or two to walk through, with or without a pointing dog, take a bird, and be back in Rhame for a late breakfast at the café.

Now, the population is so low that it may have gone beyond the birds’ ability to rebound. Because it wasn’t just West Nile decimating the bird numbers. It was the combination of the disease and massive oil development in the critical habitat range of the birds that led to a “perfect storm.” I spoke with both federal and state biologists after my return from my trip, and both said the same thing: West Nile Virus hit the population hard in 2007 and 2008, but at the same time, the fragmentation of their habitat range created huge reproductive problems for the birds.

“West Nile comes and goes, but the population recovers from that,” one biologist told me. “But when you destroy the habitat, they can’t recover from that.” He used the example of cutting your arm versus cutting your arm off. If you cut your arm, it will eventually heal, but if you cut your arm off, it’s gone forever.

Both state and federal biologists (I’m not going to use their names here, because they have jobs to look out for and families to feed, even though they all gave me permission do so) told me the critical problems now are fragmentation of the habitat and loss of habitat, caused by oil and gas exploration. One said that the sage grouse might be able to withstand one oil well per square mile, but in the critical habitat area of Bowman County, in many places there are three or four wells per square mile. The impact once you get beyond one well per square mile is exponential, he said. And then he surprised me with this: “Go ahead and use my name. I’m sick and tired of everyone walking on eggshells. This massive oil and gas development is bad for wildlife, and not just sage grouse. There are other species suffering just as bad.” Pronghorn antelope. Mule deer. Sharptail grouse. He didn’t mention them. He didn’t have to. We all know that.

I can verify his claims about the loss of sage grouse habitat and fragmentation. I drove for a couple of hours through the area I used to hunt, 50 or so miles of gravel roads. Once there was only one main road through that area, and no one used it at that time of the day but me, ranchers out checking cows, and the critters.  Today it is criss-crossed with dozens and dozens of roads and home to an almost unbelievable number of oil well and tank battery sites. It’s the area mostly south of U.S. Highway 12 in Bowman and Slope Counties. It’s the southern end of our Badlands, and it is well-hidden from the highway, so no one really realizes the massive—and I do mean massive—scale of the development. We drove past a wastewater recovery site the size of a small town, as big as the town of Marmarth, where we spent a couple nights. The truck traffic is beyond comprehension. It is no wonder the birds cannot survive there.

To their credit, the biologists are not giving up on the birds. The State Game and Fish Department has written plans to try to save them. The plans have two focuses: First, to try to conserve the remaining population and its habitat—survival—and second, to try to improve the conditions the birds need to grow in numbers—recovery. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with landowners to improve habitat in nearby areas away from the intensive oil development, trying to lure the birds to a more wildlife-friendly area where they might be able to survive, and even thrive.

There is much talk of listing the birds as an endangered species. That’s freaking everybody out—the state wildlife agencies, the ranchers, the energy industry, the chambers of commerce, and the elected officials in the states the birds call home. State wildlife agencies believe they are better equipped to deal with the problem on a state-by-state basis, rather than have a bunch of federal regulations slapped on them. Ranchers don’t welcome restrictions on what they may or may not be able to do on their own land, and especially on land they lease from the Forest Service and BLM. The energy industry and the industry’s allies in the chamber of commerce offices fear intrusive regulation of the oil and gas industry—and well they should, because that’s who’s causing most of the problems. And the politicians in these western states generally take up the side of the industry. Indeed, our own North Dakota Game and Fish Department director recently attended a meeting in Denver, a “governor’s-level meeting,” to discuss strategy that can be used by the states to avoid listing the bird as endangered.

In spite of all that, the ones we need to listen to are the biologists. But at this point, either because of, or in spite of, everything man does, the biologists say, “It’s up to the birds.” We’ll have to see if they can adapt to a new environment. Disease will continue to take a toll from time to time, and so will predators, although almost everyone told me that disease issues are fleeting, and predation is overrated as a problem for the birds. Fragmentation of habitat, and loss of habitat, will continue to be the biggest problems. Oil and gas development.

There’s a new normal. And the birds are going to have to adapt to that. If they can, they will survive and perhaps, someday, thrive. More likely, one biologist told me, “Within three years, we’ll see the last dance of the sage grouse in North Dakota.”

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Happy Syttende Mai

Two hundred years ago today, on May 17, 1814 (Syttende Mai in the Norwegian language), a young couple, Mons Olson Fuglen, and his wife, Ragnhild Knudsdatter, likely sat across the table from each other and toasted the newfound freedom and independence of their country. They may have toasted with a glass of aquavit, a traditional Scandinavian liquor (aqua vitae—the water of life).

Their table was on a small farm near the town of Ron, in Valdres, southern Norway. Their celebration was of a casting off of a longtime, unholy alliance with Denmark, as a result of the defeat of Napoleon, and entering into a new alliance with Sweden, which had been smart enough to ally itself with the English during the Napoleonic Wars. The Danes had chosen Napoleon. The Norwegians, ever a peace-loving people, had kind of shimmied along for the ride, since they were subject to the Danish king.

But as a result of the Treaty of Kiel, Sweden got Norway from Denmark. Until they asked the Norwegians if that was what they wanted. They said, well, yeah, kind of, we’ll maintain an informal union with you, but we’re going to elect our own king and write our own constitution. That happened two hundred years ago today, and that is what those of us of Norwegian descent celebrate on Syttende Mai. Norway never really did get around to electing its own king, and remained allied with Sweden, subject to the Swedish king, until 1905, when they finally dissolved their relationship.  Having no royalty of their own, they then borrowed a prince from Denmark, elected him king, who became King Haakon VII, a revered ruler who led Norway through two world wars and served 52 years,until he died in 1957.  That’s my fractured history lesson for the day. I’m a blogger, not a historian or a geographer. I think my version is pretty close to being right. It’s the way I remember my Norwegian grandfather telling it.

(Note, perhaps if you are not named Fuglie, or surely if you are not at least of Norwegian ancestry, you might want to quit reading now, because the rest of this is pretty much family and Norwegian history.)

My grandfather’s name was Ole Dekko Fuglie. He was the great grandson of Mons Olson Fuglen and Ragnhild Knudsdatter, mentioned above. He was a first-generation American. His grandmother, Ambjor Monsdotter Fuglei, was the daughter of Mons and Ragnhild. She emigrated to America in 1870 and changed the spelling of the name from Fuglen to Fuglei. There are still Fugleis in the Midwest, but my branch of the family changed it to Fuglie. I like it better that way (I before E, except after C, you know).

Ambjor came with her husband, Ole Arneson, and four children, to America in the spring of 1870. Ambor was 45 years old. Ole was 35 years old. Their three children were aged 10, 8 and 6. And there was also Knut, an older son of Ambjor’s, from some kind of mysterious previous relationship. Knut was 20 at the time they came here. Knut married and fathered my Grandpa Ole. More about him in a minute.

The family left Oslo on a steamship on April 23, 1870. The disembarked in Quebec City, and rode in a cattle car on a train to Wisconsin, headed for Minnesota, where Ambjor’s brother, who had emigrated earlier, lived. In Wisconsin just a few days, Ole and Knut took jobs cutting hay to get some money for the final leg of the trip to Minnesota. Ole died of sunstroke in a hayfield on June 30, 1870, just a few days after arriving in the U.S.

Ambjor was a strong woman, and had the help of 20-year-old Knut, and they made their way to Minnesota, where most of the family has lived since.

I know all this because our family has a resident genealogist, Winton Fuglie, a second or third cousin of mine. He’s been to Norway, knows the Fuglies who still live there, and searched church and courthouse records to trace the family back to—get this—740 AD. Really. He published the family history in a 200-page book. He shared it with us back in the late 1990’s at a family reunion. My copy is well-worn. It shows that I am the 43rd generation of the family he was able to trace, and he shows a direct link from generation 1 to generation 43, although there’s some question about a little gap in the 15th century I haven’t been able to figure out.

Here’s what he says about Generation 1: “Halvdan Olavson “Hvitbein” (Whiteleg) – King of Toten, Romerike, Hadaland, Vestfold and Soler. He died of old age in 740 and was buried in a mound at Skiringssal in Vestfold. He married Aasa’, the daughter of Oystein “The Severe,” the king of Hedemark and Opplandene, Norway.”

Yes, I am descended from royalty.

I don’t let it go to my head, though. I’m not a student of Norwegian history (although I should be) but I think Norway had a lot of little kings (my family’s branch was called the Yingling kings and they go on as royalty until well into the 13th century—I have not figured out when we drifted away from royalty—records are incomplete and my guess is that some naughty daughter married a commoner, and the rest of the family is descended from her). My guess is that they were a little more like county commissioners, and that they simply were the owners of large tracts of land which they called kingdoms.

Anyway, the book quits using the word kings in about the 21st generation in the 13th century, but the family is traced right up until Ragnhild, born October 10, 1793. She’s the direct link to royalty. Then she married a Fuglie (Mons)and that shit came to an end for sure.

But back to Knut. Mons and Ragnhild had Ambjor, and she had a child, named him Knut, in 1850, at age 25. Winton’s book is silent on the father, although the book refers to him as Knut Knutson at one point, offering a hint of parentage—he assumed the Fuglei (Fuglie) family name when he came to America. At a family reunion some years back, a group of us were sitting around a picnic table at a park in Minnesota, discussing which of Ambjor’s four sons we were descended from. Knut, of course, was my great grandfather, and I was the only one at the reunion descended from him. So I asked Winton what he thought about Knut’s parentage. There had been some speculation that Ambjor may have been a sort of concubine in her younger years, and had perhaps borne a child out of wedlock. As I recall the conversation, Winton said he didn’t know, but he thought he would go back to Norway and do a little more investigating. At which point one of my elderly great-aunts, sitting beside the table in a wheelchair, said “Winton, I think that is a bad idea. I think you have dug a little bit too deep already.”

There are some things you just don’t want to know, I guess. I don’t know if Winton ever went back. I have not seen him in many years. I wouldn’t mind knowing who my great-great-grandfather was, though. I mean, I know my royal ancestors, so it would be good, I suppose, to know the rogue who knocked up my great-great-grandmother Ambjor.

Well, anyway, that’s the brief Norwegian Fuglen-Fuglei-Fuglie family history. Fuglen, I am told is a Norwegian word for “The place where birds live, or bird-home.” I like that. The Fuglen farm still exists. I have distant relatives there. No kings or queens though. And if they knew I was descended from Knut, they might not claim me.

As for the rest of my lineage, well, I am at least half Norwegian. Grandpa Ole married a lady named Sadie Wurm. She’s of Bohemian (that could explain some of my less desirable traits) and Dutch-German ancestry. But she threw four kids with blonde hair and blue eyes so Grandpa Ole apparently had strong genes. My maternal grandmother was Sophia Aaberg, as Norwegian as you can get, but she married a German, Peter Boehmer. My mother always said she was half Norwegian (the best half, I thought) and so did my dad, so I guess I am too.

Which gives me enough reason to celebrate Syttende Mai. I’m going to a party tonight hosted by a fellow named Rolf. There ought to be plenty of good karma at that party. And maybe even a little aquavit.

Happy Syttende Mai to all my Norwegian friends, and those who wish they were.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Sons of the Fathers

Okay I’m going to get a little preachy again. It’s about the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment (you can read the text of the proposed amendment here). You’ll remember I said I was going to sit this one out this year because I have some differences with the measure’s authors. But at least they’re doing SOMETHING, and something needs  to be done. And they seem to be running a good campaign, and I like good campaigns. What I don’t like is what the other side is doing—running a dishonest campaign.  The other side is the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce and the North Dakota Petroleum Council, doing the bidding of Jack Dalrymple, trying to stifle any serious effort to provide real conservation initiatives in our increasingly degraded state. And doing it in a dishonest way, by using the Big Lie strategy: if you’re going to lie, lie big, and do it over and over, and soon people will come to accept it as truth. Frankly, they’re shameless.

So the Big Oil boys and the Chamber have trotted out various spokespersons using the same phrases over and over in letters to the editor, press releases, interviews and talk show conversations. Most recently, they duped the new Farmers Union president, Mark Watne, into believing they were friends of his, and handed him a letter which he unwittingly signed and sent to all the newspapers. I don’t know what they promised him in return, but it better be big, because Mark made a giant screwup by signing that letter. Still, Mark’s a big boy, responsible for his own actions, so he needs to be called to task for what he’s done.

The letter Mark sent was so bad that it is causing concern among Mark’s friends and mentors inside the Farmers Union. One of them told me this week “Mark’s letter is truly terrible. It reads like it was from a political unit of the Koch brothers. I can’t figure out why he’d sign such crap and blatant misinformation.” He went on to say that the Farmers Union is “dirtying their good reputation for being a reasoned voice for farmers by acting as a mouthpiece for fear mongering misinformation.  I’m deeply concerned about this.”

I’m concerned too. And so I wrote another letter to the editor of my own, one I’m going to send this time. You may recall I wrote one a few weeks ago about the same issue, responding to the same kind of letter, which I didn’t send, because the writer’s father, James Odermann, is a friend of mine. Well, history is repeating itself. Turns out Mark’s dad, Gene, is a friend of mine too. But there’s a difference this time. Mark is a public figure by virtue of his statewide office. He needs to accept responsibility for what he’s doing as president of the Farmers Union.

So I sent my letter off to the ten daily newspapers yesterday, asking them to print it if they printed Mark’s. I expect it will start showing up this week. I thought I’d share it with you first. So here it is, along with Mark’s letter, so you can see what it is I am upset about. Marks’s is first.

Dear Editor,

As a longtime farmer, I’m a big believer in protecting our state’s great outdoors and natural resources. North Dakota’s farmers and ranchers were our state’s first conservationists going back to statehood. But the proposed Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment wildly misses the mark in trying to accomplish that.

Under the amendment, 5 percent of North Dakota’s oil extraction tax would be set aside in a new conservation fund. The amendment requires that between 75 and 90 percent of this fund be spent each year.

The only conservation spending specifically outlined in the measure is that these massive funds — anywhere from $300 million to $400 million per biennium, based on current oil production projections — could be used to acquire farm land.

If nonprofit groups are given millions of dollars every year that they can use to acquire land, it won’t be long before we will see them buying and removing land from production agriculture, driving up land prices and making it harder for agriculture to compete, especially new farmers and ranchers.

The measure also is troubling because the groups supporting this amendment have a history of being hostile toward the ag industry, which still is our state’s largest industry. Imagine the impact to our state’s economy and workforce if these groups suddenly have hundreds of millions of dollars to spend to undermine the agriculture industry in the name of conservation.

Let’s be clear, folks: The out-of-state groups financially behind this measure would like to change our way of life here in North Dakota, and they see the creation of this private fund in our state constitution as their way to do just that.

The truths behind this amendment are loud and clear, and that’s why farm and ranch groups have come together in the North Dakotans for Common Sense Conservation coalition to oppose it.

Mark Watne

* * * * *

Dear Editor,

I am saddened that less than six months into his new job as North Dakota Farmers Union President, Mark Watne has really damaged his credibility and sullied the reputation of North Dakota’s most prestigious farm organization.

As a nearly lifelong Farmers Union member, I want to reassure members of the conservation community that his recent letter about the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment does not reflect the feelings of most rank and file Farmers Union members. And I want to correct a few misstatements Mark made.

Mark charges that “out of state groups” are trying to undermine agriculture. That’s not true. In addition to being a Farmers Union member, I’ve been a member of two of the major sponsors of this measure, Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited, throughout many of my years as a hunter and conservationist, as have more than 10,000 current North Dakota members of those organizations. We’re not from out of state, and we’re not “hostile to the ag industry” as Mark says. We know that farmers, who make habitat for the birds we hunt, are our best friends. We’d hardly want to undermine them.

Pheasants Forever, to my knowledge, doesn’t own any farmland. Ducks Unlimited from time to time buys small pieces of wetlands, mostly unproductive farmland, on a willing-seller basis, although not so much in North Dakota because of our state’s anti-corporation farming laws. Mark knows full well that those laws, of which the Farmers Union is the staunchest defender (one of the reasons I am proud to be a member), prevent those groups from even owning farmland here.

Mark says that the measure will create a “private fund” in our constitution and give nonprofit groups hundreds of millions of dollars to buy land. Again, that’s not true, and Mark knows it. All funds that go into the new program are controlled by a committee made up of the governor, the attorney general and the agriculture commissioner. They have to approve every penny that is spent from that fund. I’m pretty sure they are not going to allow it to be used to compete for land with farmers.

As president of Farmers Union, it is okay for Mark to have his own opinion on these things, but he represents the members of an organization, and he can’t just make up his own facts. At last fall’s state Farmers Union Convention, delegates voted to reject a statement opposing this measure. In fact, I expect there is pretty broad general support from Farmers Union members for this measure. And I would think there is a lesson to be learned from the actions of the state’s other farm organization, the Farm Bureau, when its leaders got too far out ahead of their members at the recent state Republican convention. They turned around and found no one was following them.

Most farmers, and most Farmers Union members, don’t hold the hostile attitude towards conservation organizations reflected in the recent letter. Many of them are members of those organizations. And most sportsmen and women know that farmers are our best friends. It’s their land we hunt on. We’d never get behind any measure designed to hurt agriculture. The facts are, that much of the money generated for this Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks fund (the N.D. Office of Management and Budget says it will be about $150 million, not the made-up $300-400 million figure Mark and other opponents of the amendment have been using) will likely find its way back to farmers to help them make habitat for wildlife, much as the CRP and PLOTS programs have been doing here for years. In that case, everyone wins—farmers, hunters and critters.

Jim Fuglie

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Next: Planting Potatoes

I’m pissed off about so many things this week I don’t know where to start. That’s what I get for taking a few weeks off to play. Things pile up. I’m about to go on a rant that will surely get me another admonishment from my friend Wayne Tanous: “Jim, lighten up. It’s spring.” Okay. So I’m going to get all this off my chest. And then lighten up and plant potatoes.

FLARING REGULATIONS

First, I’m pissed off at Conoco-Phillips, WPX Energy, Whiting Petroleum, Continental Resources, and the North Dakota Petroleum Council. They’re the ones whining about the discussion of restricting their ability to flare natural gas instead of capturing it. Most North Dakota daily papers reported on it this week. Oil companies are threatening to pull out of North Dakota and take their drilling rigs elsewhere if we try to regulate them. Cripes sake, western North Dakota is lit up like a centenarian’s birthday cake—from space it looks like New York City. Everyone in North Dakota knows we need to stop flaring a third of all the natural gas we’re taking out of the ground. Everyone except those who are putting the match to the flare spouts—the oil companies.

According to a story in yesterday’s Forum chain of newspapers, “Industry officials resisted the idea of curtailing production, cautioning that it could discourage oil and gas development and result in less tax revenue for North Dakota, which has collected billions from the industry on its way to becoming the No. 2 oil-producing state behind Texas . . . Imposing broad limits on drilling permits and production as a means to curb flaring is unnecessary and could force oil companies and third-party investors to think twice about doing business in North Dakota’s Bakken and Three Forks oil formations.” Here are some examples of the spouting off at the Industrial Commission hearing this week on implementing new rules to try to get a handle on flaring:

  • Continental Resources: “The state must give individual companies flexibility to meet flaring targets. Exemptions should be given for production restrictions on a case-by-case basis . . .  when midstream companies are unable to meet system gas capture plan capacity or if landowners or federal regulations hinder infrastructure buildout.” (Translation:  “It’s not our fault we’re flaring. Those darned laws that prevent us from running a pipeline through those uncooperative farmers’ back yards are to blame.”)
    • Conoco-Phillips: “It may cause an adjustment to our oil and gas development strategy in the Bakken.” (Translation A: We’d have to slow down a bit and get some pipelines built to haul away our gas,” or Translation B: “We’re out of here.” You pick.)
    • Whiting Petroleum: “Curtailments are not the answer. That cuts into our cash flow and the economics of each well we drill. That could prompt companies to decide to invest elsewhere.” (Translation: our enormous profits are way more important than your stupid clean air.)
    • WPX Energy: “Restrictions on production could be counterproductive.” (Translation: WTF does that even MEAN?)

Well, here’s my response: Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out of the state, boys. Just pick up your toys and go home.

Oh, but wait, there’s a little problem here. All those companies have invested substantial amounts of money in mineral leases. If they pack up and go home, they’ve just wasted their money. A lot of their money.

  • Conoco-Phillips has more than 600,000 acres under lease. Let’s say they paid an average of a thousand dollars an acre for those leases. That would not be out of line today. In fact, it is probably low. But let’s just say it was a thousand.  That would mean they’ve invested about $600 million in those leases. Huh. Not likely to go home without developing them.
  • Whiting has almost 700,000 acres. $700 million.
  • WPX is just a little guy, doing most of its drilling on the 90,000 leased acres on the Fort Berthold Reservation. Knowing what the white guys have done to the Indians over the years, they may have paid less for their leases, but at a thousand an acre, that’s $90 million.
  • And then there’s the big guy, Harold Hamm’s Continental. He’s the biggest leaseholder in the state, with at least a million acres. At least a billion-dollar investment.

So, okay, if we restrict their ability to flare their gas, they’re all threatening to go home. And leave a couple of billion dollars worth of leases laying on their empty office desks? Yeah, right.

I suppose they could try to sell those leases to some companies who are not complaining about the new flaring regulations, but most of them probably have all they can handle right now, and those leases are getting closer and closer to their five-year expiration date, so trying to dump a couple million acres of leases on the market right now doesn’t seem like a good business decision either.

So, y’know what? They’re bluffing. They aren’t going anywhere. They’re just, as one of my Facebook friends said, trying to bully the state into letting them keep on wasting gas and polluting our air. Well, boys, the jig is up. You’re busted. If we decide (that’s a mighty big IF) to try to keep our air clean and dark, you are going to just have to live with that.

Of course, we all know why you were at that hearing Monday. Not to protest. But to remind Jack Dalrynmple, the chairman of the North Dakota Industrial Commission, whose staff routinely grants you exemptions from our flaring regulations now, that you were big contributors to his re-election campaign a couple years ago. That you and your oil company buddies pumped almost $450,000 into the Dalrymple campaign to keep him in office, so his staff can keep granting you exemptions from our flaring regulations—and to keep him from imposing new regulations.

Well, you’re probably gonna get your way. Any new flaring regulations are going to include generous new exemption provisions, and you’re gonna get to keep on flaring a third of all the gas you’re taking out of the ground. It was all a big show for the media. Nothing is going to change. Unless Jack Dalrymple and Doug Goehring, the new ruling majority on the Industrial Commission, grow a pair of balls. Not likely.

FIGHTING THE EPA?

Here’s something that really pissed me off last week, and it’s been stewing in me for a week. I picked up a copy of The Dickinson Press and the banner headline all across the front page read “Dalrymple: ND to use ‘every tool available’ to fight EPA.”

WTF? Fight EPA? Hey, do you remember what the acronym EPA stands for? It’s the Environmental Protection Agency. And you’re going to use the resources of the state, my tax dollars, to fight AGAINST environmental protection?  Excuse me, but I think I’m FOR environmental protection.  Me and about 670,000 other North Dakotans, And 300 million Americans. And most of the people in the civilized world. But not Jack Dalrymple. And not those unfortunate people who happen to work for him.

Take Dave Glatt, for example. Dave is the head of the Environmental Health Division of our State Health Department. He’s North Dakota’s chief environmental protector. But the story I read about Dalrymple and the EPA said Glatt, our chief environmental regulator, had convened a “summit” to bring together other state health department officials and the energy industry—read Basin Electric—to talk about fighting FOR the right to burn coal, which fouls our air, and fight AGAINST the EPA, which wants to keep our air clean.

At issue is the new set of standards for greenhouse gas pollution from coal fired energy plants. Dave Glatt—the man in charge of keeping our air clean—apparently is opposed to standards that might keep our air clean. Good God Gertie. People who know Dave Glatt—I’m not among them—say he’s a good guy. He just happens to work for a bad guy. I do know the bad guy. Name’s Dalrymple.

And this Dalrymple fellow has got the head of his environmental health division organizing summit conferences to fight against steps being taken to keep our air clean. WTF is the matter with that picture?

I was around in the 1970’s. We had a governor who wasn’t afraid to tell the coal industry they had to clean up their act. They did. But now we know a whole lot more about what is happening to our planet. And we need new regulations. That 1970’s governor didn’t have his health department trying to figure out how to do an end run around federal regulations.  Wish we had a governor like him around these days.

COLLECTING ENORMOUS FINES

Then I got home from a few days in the Bad Lands last week and saw the front page story in The Bismarck Tribune about a company from Wyoming that could be fined more than $1 million by the state of North Dakota (that was the figure used in the great big headline on the front page) for dumping saltwater from an oil well on a road in Williams County. Yeah, right.

I remember the headline from last summer, too, that the Industrial Commission levied a $1.5 million fine against a company called Halek Operating, another salt water disposal violator. So, seeing there’s another big fine about to be levied, I thought I’d check and see how collection of that other one was going. A spokesman for the Attorney General told me almost breathlessly in her excitement that, with only half a year gone by, they had already cashed and deposited two bonds posted by the company which had illegally dumped hundreds of thousands of a gallons of saltwater down a well south of Dickinson. Total take: $40,000. Wow, good start, eh? Only $1,460,000 to go. Let’s see, at the rate of $40,000 every six months . . . except there aren’t any more bonds. They have to get the rest in cash. Good luck with that.

I don’t have the paper in front of me, but I remember that big banner headline saying the Industrial Commission had fined Halek $1.5 million. Well, turns out the company had filed bankruptcy, didn’t have $1.5 million, and had no intention of paying it. Worse, the members of the Industrial Commission knew that, and went ahead and levied the fine anyway, because they knew the big headlines were going to be great for them. No mention that the state never had any intention of collecting that money—they were just collecting a big headline.

So, who wants to bet this headline—“Penalty may top $1M”—will turn out the same way?

This crime by a fellow named Leo Slemin has been charged out in Williams County District Court in Williston. Slemin is charged with a Class C felony, violating the rules and regulations of the North Dakota Industrial Commission under section 38-08-16 of the North Dakota Century Code, specifically opening up the valves on the bottom of his Black Hills Trucking Company water tanker truck and dumping his poison water all over a road in southwest Williams County. A preliminary hearing has been scheduled for June 3 at 11:30 a.m. at the Williston Court House. And here’s something else that pisses me off more than a little bit: he has applied for and will be granted a public defender. So instead of his company paying for his lawyer, you and I, the taxpayers of North Dakota, will pay for his lawyer. Makes his bosses at Black Hills Trucking look a little sleazy. They are quickly putting as much distance between him and their company as possible. According to a story in the Williston Herald, Dave Glatt, referenced above, told the Associated Press that the company has been operating here since 2008 without a license. The Attorney General has instigated civil charges against them, and operating without a license is subject to a penalty of a thousand dollars a day. That could add up to somewhere around $2 million, not just one million. I wonder if they’ll apply for a public defender too? More about that in a minute.

Another interesting sidelight is that, unlike most cases of a bad guy being caught in the act of committing a crime, this case is being prosecuted by the North Dakota Attorney General, not the County State’s Attorney. Generally, State’s Attorneys are responsible for prosecuting crimes in their county. That was the case in an earlier instance, when Mountrail County (next door to Williams county) State’s Attorney Wade Enget won a conviction on a guy who did the same thing. Just a couple weeks ago. Fined the dude $3,000 and put him on probation for a year. No big headlines—just a local sheriff and state’s attorney doing their jobs.

In this case, I suppose we can excuse Attorney general Wayne Stenehjem for jumping in and taking charge of this case. I mean, it’s an election year, and the state has been under fire for being a bit too lax with the oil industry, and this seemed like an open invitation to make a big deal out of what seems to have become routine in the oil patch—leaky vales on water trucks (Honest, your honor, I took the truck in to get those darned leaky vales fixed right away, as soon as your Oil and Gas Division guy told me there was a problem). Sock it to ‘em. A headline with the number $1,000,000 in it is just too good to pass up.

But I’m not buying this bullshit about using the big headlines to set an example for the rest of the industry to “toe the line.”  Because, like in the Halek case, I’m guessing nobody is going to pay a million-dollar-plus fine for violating an Industrial Commission rule (the same charge was brought in both cases). Although there is a difference between Halek Operating and Black Hills Trucking.

Unlike the fly-by-night Halek company, Black Hills trucking is a wholly-owned subsidiary of a respected Wyoming company named True Oil. True Oil, and its founder, Dave True, who died in 1994, are a big deal in Wyoming. Dave True was Wyoming’s most famous wildcatter who built an oil and gas empire from a one-rig operation to a business of more than ten companies operating in about half of all the states in the country (shades of Harold Hamm—but way before Harold came on the scene). He was one of the original inductees into the Wyoming Business Hall of Fame when it was founded last year. I met him a couple of times through his involvement in the Old West Trail Foundation. He actually reminded me a lot of Harold Schafer, and he and Schafer were great friends, and the Trues were regular visitors to Medora. The company is now managed by his sons and grandsons, and the Black Hills Trucking Company website lists Dave True, son of the founder, as president of the trucking company.

Integrity seemed to be a word associated with True Oil, so it is a bit surprising to think  that they would be operating here without a license for six or seven years, although I don’t know if they’re still doing business—that would involve applying for a license.  I can’t imagine they would allow their drivers to pull such shenanigans. I’ve got to think somebody at the top was not minding the store.

Jason Halek is long gone, but so far, Black Hills Trucking is still around. I called their office in Williston (the number is 774-0011) and a female answered the phone “Black Hills Trucking” in a clipped voice. I said I was calling to see if they were still in business and she said “No comment.” I asked if there was anyone there who would comment and she said “No.”  I asked again if they were still operating in North Dakota, and she repeated “No comment.” I thanked her for her time and hung up. I actually kind of felt sorry for her, because I could tell from the tone of just those two words she was just a functionary doing what she was told, with a lot of misgivings.

So maybe Wayne Stenehjem has a “live one” here. He’s certainly not saying “No comment.” He said in a press release “The state will not hesitate to bring criminal and civil actions when we learn of instances of illegal dumping. Those who blatantly disregard rules designed to protect the environment and keep our citizens safe will be held accountable for their actions.”

Read that again.  “Blatantly disregard the rules designed to protect the environment and keep our citizens safe.” Hmmmm. Hey, Wayne, send that message across the hall to the guy in this headline: “Dalrymple: ND to use ‘every tool available’ to fight EPA.” Oh, yeah, that EPA. The one that writes those “rules designed to protect the environment and keep our citizens safe.”

Okay, Tanous, I’m done. Time to lighten up and plant potatoes.

Oh, one more thing. Just to prove to Tanous I am lightening up, I present the image below. You may remember a month or so ago I wrote about my dad, the optometrist,  and his business card. Wayne Tanous was a particular subject of my dad’s attention (as I was of his), so he’ll appreciate this. Rummaging through some old boxes the other night, I found one of the cards I had mentioned in my blog post about my dad. Here it is.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Getting The Facts Straight

You may be reading in the papers this week a letter to the editor from a young man named Jacob Odermann.  If you haven’t read it, go here. It’s about the proposed Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment headed for the ballot this fall if all goes right. I don’t know Jacob, but his dad, James, has been a friend of mine in passing for more than 40 years. At different times we held the same job at the Dickinson Press and respected each other’s work.

Now most of my friends know I am not totally sold on the proposed amendment, precisely because it is just that—a constitutional amendment. I wished it had been handled differently, and I don’t like all the details in it, but it is what we’ve got, so I am going to support it. We need to do SOMETHING. I just hope the sponsors know what they are doing. I signed their petition last week.

But back to Jacob’s letter. I was disappointed that he used a bunch of the hyperbole and misinformation that the Petroleum Council and Chamber of Commerce (now there are two good reasons to take a position on this measure, I guess) have been spreading. Since I knew it was bullshit, I decided to write a response. But then I thought about my friendship of all these years with his dad, and decided not to send it. I don’t have a son, but if I did, I would not like someone, especially a friend, publicly humiliating him, even if he deserved it. Still, I had invested some time in it, and I don’t want that to go to waste, so I thought I’d put it here on my blog, which almost no one reads. And maybe someone else who reads this will use the information in it to send a letter refuting Jacob’s letter. It needs to be corrected. And I’m sure it will be, in the ongoing “letters to the editor war.” The proponents of the measure have been doing a good job of responding to inaccurate portrayals of their measure. Maybe I’ll help them later on, after they’ve gotten the signatures and its place on the ballot is insured. Meanwhile, I thought I’d share with my few readers what I wrote, so all of you are armed with correct information if you need to be. I wrote:

Dear Editor,

Young Mr. Odermann should get his facts right. And it wouldn’t hurt for newspaper editors to do a little fact-checking before printing letters like the one Jacob sent to your newspaper. I don’t know this young fellow, but I do know his dad, and his dad was a journalist of high caliber. Maybe Jacob just needs to run his letters by his dad before sending them.

Let’s start at the top. First, Jacob says there will be $300 million per biennium in the new Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks fund. The correct number, from everything I can read is $150 million. That number comes from the North Dakota Office of Management and Budget.

One farmer or rancher? Well, the measure guarantees at least one farmer or rancher, but there could be as many as 7 or 8, depending on who the Governor and the Legislature want to appoint. They are given broad flexibility to appoint farmers or non-farmers, as they please. So blame the Governor and the Legislature if there is only one farmer on the advisory board.

The fund will not be managed by that volunteer board, as Jacob says. The measure clearly states that “There is created a clean water, wildlife and parks commission that shall be comprised of the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner. The commission shall govern the fund in accord with this section.” The “citizen accountability board” which Jacob speaks of simply provides grant recommendations to the commission. All spending and granting decisions are made by our elected officials, who answer to the voters at the ballot box every 4 years.

Young Jacob is concerned that conservation organizations like Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited will use government money to “compete against a private citizen interested in purchasing land.” Well, I suppose so, but only if the Governor, the Attorney General and the Agriculture Commissioner approve that. They control the money.  Run that up Doug Goehring and Jack Dalrymple’s flagpoles and see how it flies.

And then young Jacob talks about “another commission of 13 bureaucrats in Bismarck.” Well, he’s got all the buzzwords down. Except my dictionary defines bureaucrat as “a person who is one of the people who runs a government or big company . . .” Hardly the definition of a volunteer citizens’ advisory committee. Bureaucrats is a word used to incite animosity, but it is not appropriate here. Deceitful, Jacob.

Jacob concludes with “Why don’t we increase the monetary incentive to landowners to participate in programs like the Conservation Reserve Program or North Dakota’s Private Lands Open To Sportsmen?”

Well, if Jacob had done his homework, he would know that this is exactly what the sponsors of this amendment have in mind, and he would have appeared a little less greedy to get his hands on this government money for himself.  I’m a member of Pheasants Forever, and our organization doesn’t own any land that I know of. We work with farmers to make habitat. Ducks Unlimited, as far as I know, wants to provide nesting habitat for waterfowl. It prefers to work in partnership with landowners, not become one. If this amendment passes, my guess is that much of the money will go to farmers to help them create habitat for wildlife. Not to purchase land. For a conservation organization, owning land to make habitat is a pain in the ass. Paying farmers to make habitat (and provide hunting access) is the best way to make that happen. Everyone wins.

Jacob comes from a journalism family. He should know better than to pass off hyperbole as fact. In the end, it will just prove embarrassing.

Jim Fuglie

Bismarck, ND

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Right Off The Cliff

Okay, History/Current Events/Sports Quiz.

Do you recognize the name Private Frazier? No? Well how about if it was on a list with Sergeant Pryor and Privates Goodrich, Gibson, and Hall?  Aha. Lillian Crook and David Borlaug and Tracy Potter think they know. As do Stephenie Ambrose Tubbs and Clay Jenkinson. Well, then, for the rest of you, what if I add the names Gass, Ordway and York? And Lewis. And Clark. Okay, now we’re all there. All members of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition, which spent the winter of 1804-1805 here in North Dakota, right?

Well, yeah, but that’s history. 200 years ago. There’s a 21st century connection among all those names. You know who knows what that connection is? I bet Lynn Helms does. See, Lynn is the director of the North Dakota Oil and Gas (one s) Division. And those are all names of oil wells in the Bakken. Boom! Gotcha!

Credit Zavanna, LLC, a Colorado oil company which, by the end of this year, will own 100 producing oil wells in the Bakken. Now, I never really paid attention to the fact that oil wells had names, but some creative production manager at Zavanna has forsaken the traditional way of naming oil wells, which generally consists of an operator name, a well number, and a lease name, and has taken to picking colorful names from groups like members of the Corps of Discovery (in addition to the ones above, they also have wells named Sakakawea, Charbonneau, Pompey and Jean Baptiste).

They also have another group of wells, with names like Bunning, Hunter, Martinez, Koufax, Young, Witt, Browning and Larsen. Tracy will probably get that one too. And Tom Gerhardt and Jeff Weispfenning. Clue: They’re all major league baseball pitchers who have thrown perfect games.

Even the name of the company is creative: Zavanna. Where did that come from? Well, according to their website, the word Zavanna came from the word “savanna” and its reference in Bernard DeVoto’s book Across the Wide Missouri. “It was a word of poetry and power. A savanna was of the mind only, of the mind’s edge, of fantasy. It suggested meadows in sunlight, groves beside streams, something lovely and rich and distant.”

Yeah, right. Gag. Somehow, I don’t think old Bernard envisioned the Missouri River, in the heart of the Bakken, as it looks today, all dammed up and surrounded by oil wells. And I’m not sure he’d appreciate being quoted on their website. Before you get all misty-eyed about savannas and expeditions and perfect games, you should know that, as oil companies go, Zavanna is something of a bad actor. Actions speak a whole lot louder than words. Here’s a line from a news story from last week:

“The Big Oxbow Wildlife Management Area is not clean until I say it’s clean.”

Those are the words of Kent Luttschwager, the Williston District Supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. On March 20, Luttschwager discovered that the vegetation on three-quarters of a mile of shoreline on Four Mile Creek, which runs through the Big Oxbow Wildlife Management Area, southwest of Williston, ND, was coated with oil.

The discovery came in the aftermath of one of the stupidest of all oil spills yet recorded in the Bakken Boom (and there have been some doozies). So stupid, so egregious, that somebody ought to go to the pokey. Somebody who works for, or owns, a company called Zavanna. Zavanna’s oil well named Pvt. Frazier 1-34H (as a Lewis and Clark nut myself, it was the name that caught my attention, and sent me looking at Zavanna’s website for all those other well names) sits on a section of land in the flood plain adjacent to the wildlife management area, whose northern boundary is the Missouri River, just below its confluence with the Yellowstone River. As the ice was going out on the two rivers a couple weeks ago, the North Dakota Oil and Gas Division began notifying companies with wells in the flood plain that the potential existed for flooding from ice jams near Williston, and that the companies ought to make sure that everything was secure, in case their well sites got flooded. (Conveniently, the Oil and Gas Division knew who all those companies were, because they had issued more than 50 drilling permits to those companies, allowing them to put those oil wells in the flood plain. Some might argue that was pretty stupid too—another pokey possibility.)

Well, Zavanna (they of the “meadows in sunlight”) didn’t pay much attention. So when the flood waters from the Missouri backed up through the game management area onto their well site, one of their nearly empty oil tanks, parked on the ground with no anchor, went floating away, with a leaking valve trailing a steady stream—at least 1,400 gallons, maybe more—of Bakken Crude. Bakken Crude which found its way into Four Mile Creek, through the game management area, and likely into the Missouri River. Officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the ND Game and Fish Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the ND Department of Health are monitoring the spill right now. The FWS employees in their boats are pulling dead critters out of the water and off the shoreline and will check to see how they died. Wanna guess? I expect we’ll be reading a lot more about this one.

It takes a little work, but if you page through the Health Department’s new website on environmental accidents in the Oil Patch, you’ll find Zavanna is a pretty frequent contributor. Just last month, on Feb. 12, Zavanna reported a 12,600 gallon crude oil spill at a well named Neils 32-29 1-H (I can’t find a gimmick for that name, except it is one of a long line of men’s first names Zavanna has assigned to wells), located just north of Lake Sakakawea in Williams County, which flowed onto private property beyond their well lease.  The Health Department’s incident report said “The oil sprayed out as far as 200 yards across the pasture to the west.” This was the second spill at this well in two weeks. An earlier, smaller spill was reported there Jan. 29.

The Feb. 12 spill was actually pretty small, though, compared to one in August of 2012 at a Zavanna well named Nelson 3-10 1H, in the same neighborhood on the north side of Lake Sakakawea, where Zavanna had a blowout on a windy day which sprayed almost 35,000 gallons of oil and saltwater mist over an area stretching more than two miles from north to south. Here are some of the notes from the Health Department’s Incident Report, as reported by Health Department staffer Kris Roberts.

August 16, 2012

Fair amount of issues.

  • Due to wind direction changes and high pressures during the release, what didn’t land on the pad went in two directions – NW and SE. More oil in the mist to the NW, and more water to the SE. 
  • Both mist plumes went ¾ to a mile from the location.
  • Both directions dropped mist across drainages that merge and flow to the E-NE and end up in Long Creek and then the lake (that would be LAKE SAKAKAWEA—emphasis added).
  • Crop land in both directions. Oats and wheat to the SE, and I think hay field(?) to the NW.
  • Misted wheat and oats will likely not be viable for either sale or feed.

August 17, 2012

  • Basic Work Plan in and approved.
  • Absorbent booms set in drainages as precaution against rain washing oil off vegetation/soil and running.
  • Vegetation cutting and collection beginning.
  • Still working on plan for final stabilization of the well (very little risk, as the well is under control).
  • Initial delineation of mist impact area complete, but expansion possible/likely (emphasis added).

August 18, 2012

  • Mist impact delineation expanded (emphasis added) due to wilting/browning of vegetation
  • Transferable oil has been removed from approximately 2.5 miles of fence line.
  • 30 round bales of vegetation have been removed from property south of pad—approximately 30,000-36,000 pounds.
  • 120 bags of vegetation were recovered from hand work.

August 20, 2012

  • Vegetation removal going well. Some areas had sparse vegetation and may need amendments after sampling results come in.
  • Well was formally finally shut in this afternoon after the rods were removed. It was well under control with valving before, but now the rods are out and they can go about repairs and re-working for production.
  • Reporter met me there this pm from the Forum (out of Williston). Photos and story. Hope she was impressed as I am with the speed and willingness to move clean up along fast on the part of Zavana. (emphasis added)

August 21, 2012

  • Some areas yet to cut, due to rocky conditions. They will be using a brush-hog on a skid steer, then a side delivery rake before baling.
  • Although very minimal, wipe sample shows mist extent as far as 1.4 miles to the south. Grain bin there left recognizable, but very faint oil/dust residue on paper wipe. Will not expand vegetation disposal area beyond what they have now, as the fields beyond current area are either pasture or already harvested.
  • Some expansion of vegetation removal to the NW is possible, but waiting to see if vegetation wilts. 
  • Land owner is concerned and watching. Mist to NW was reported as far as 1 mile (oil specks on pickup windshield on first day.

End of Incident Report entries for 2012. Fast forward to next entry on August 7, 2013.

  • 10:30 telephone call with Zavanna and landowner. Gillian (Zavanna employee) reported that she had sent a remediation binder with all information from cleanup to landowner in March, but management had vetoed copy to DoH (emphasis added) unless specifically requested. Request now in, and advised that this type of report is required in the future.
  • Spoke with landowner by phone this date. He is unsatisfied with a couple issues left over from the response work. Apparently absorbent booms were never changed out, and are now overgrown. Soil stockpiles were brought in and placed on his property and are still there. He requested additional soil samples collected from northern portion of impact property and was denied. He requested that he be notified when contractors wanted access to his property and though he was called, they just wanted to go on even when he was not available to accompany them.
  • Gillian is in ND this week, and is willing to meet with both myself and landowner on location. Plan is for Thursday 8/8/13.

August 20, 2013

            On 8/8/13 – 08:30, on location for meeting with adjacent, impacted landowner and his daughter, Gillian and Andrew from Zavanna, and Chris Rodgers from Absorbent and Safety Solutions to address concerns and issues not completed from the blowout impacts. Landowner’s concerns:

  • He wants to be there when anyone is on his property, otherwise he feels it is trespassing.
  • The topsoil brought in last year was; A) not weed free, and B) not spread, but left in belly-dump rows, and C) has large rocks in it.
  • Lath marking sampling locations were not removed from his field.

Negotiated solutions:

  • Absorbent will make appointments to meet landowner anytime they need access.
  • Spray the indicated 4 acre parcel and soil windrows with Roundup to address the weed problem (either Absorbent, or a contractor of landowner’s choice).
  • Spread the windrows out, and 
  • Remove rocks.
  • Re-seed to alfalfa either this fall and spray for weeds next spring, or wait and seed in the spring after a pre-emergent herbicide is put down. Chris Rodgers and landowner’s daughter will work together to determine the best option and get buy-off from landowner. Zavanna and Absorbent will keep DoH informed of progress, and landowner will contact me if he has any further concerns.

That’s the end of the incident reports for that spill. You can draw your own conclusions. I’m guessing this is a pretty typical response to a pretty typical incident. Only God and the Health Department know how many more spills of this magnitude, or greater, are on that website. I’m not going to bother Kris Roberts at the Health Department to see if anything else has taken place. He has enough on his plate right now without being bothered by a blogger. I will check back on the Incident Report from time to time to see if there are any new entries. If you want to look at it yourself, click here.

I can tell you that a cursory look at the website reveals that between March 25, 2013 and March 24, 2014, 365 days, there were 2,002 reported spills, about a fourth of which, 468, were uncontained, meaning oil or salt water ran across the land or into a waterway. Some specific examples, from the Health Department’s Incident Reports:

  • 6,000 gallons of oil and saltwater mist “sprayed across the snow on a cultivated field” in Dunn County on March 14 of this year.
  • On the same day, almost 7,000 gallons of oil leaked from a pump at a well site next to a slough in Divide County. The company has been trying to contain it before it gets into the wetland, likely a nesting site for mallards this spring.
  • On November 25 last year, 714,000 gallons of saltwater leaked from a Denbury Resources pipeline just inside the Montana state line and ran into Big Gumbo Creek in Bowman County, North Dakota. Big Gumbo is a tributary of the Little Missouri River, which is a tributary of the Missouri River. Remediation? Here’s what the Health Department’s incident report said: “. . . the environment is too fragile to do more than flush the drainage/creek with fresh water . . .” Wonderin’ why we don’t have a sage grouse season any more?
  • And of course everyone remembers the 860,000 gallon oil pipeline leak near Tioga last September. They’re still cleaning that one up.

What this all adds up to, I’m afraid, is that we are doing some terrible things to our land and water. I think the Health Department is probably doing what it can—which is not enough. Instead of monitoring clean-ups of spills after they happen, we need to move into a prevention mode. Kind of like what the Highway Patrol does when it puts out its “saturation patrols” on holiday weekends. If people know they’re twice as likely to get busted, they are probably going to be twice as careful not to break the law. At least those with half a brain are. And I can’t believe these people who are in the oil business here are stupid. I think they are either careless or willing to gamble they won’t get caught, or both.

So our Legislature has to give the Health Department fifty, or a hundred, or two hundred, inspectors—however many it takes—who will do constant checking on pipelines and well sites, surprise inspections, to make sure oil companies are doing everything possible, every day, to prevent these environmental disasters. We as North Dakotans who love our state and want to protect it should demand nothing less than that. We’re going to vote this year. Let’s vote for people who will promise to do that. It certainly hasn’t gotten done by those who are in office now.

Meanwhile, back to Zavanna. In keeping with their “savanna” theme, they have a whole group of websites named for big cats:  Lynx, Bobcat, Ocelot, Cougar, Tiger, Lion, Jaguar, Puma, Bengal, Sabertooth, Panther, Leopard and Cheetah. Cute. And then there’s my two favorites that they have chosen for well names: Thelma and Louise. Yep. Appropriate. As they lead us right off the cliff.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment