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Bryan Horwath, Forum News Service, Published March 22 2013

Exxon subsidiary abandons plan to drill near site of Teddy Roosevelt's ranch

DICKINSON, N.D. – ExxonMobil subsidiary XTO Energy has backed off its request to drill for oil near the historic Elkhorn Ranch site in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The company, which had petitioned to drill on U.S. Forest Service land adjacent to the landmark for Roosevelt’s former homestead and cattle ranch, withdrew its application late Thursday.

In a letter sent by its legal counsel, XTO instructed the North Dakota Industrial Commission’s Oil and Gas Division to “dismiss without prejudice” its request to explore for oil on two sections of land next to the 218-acre park-controlled ranch.

Roosevelt raised cattle at the Elkhorn Ranch site in the mid-1880s before becoming the 26th U.S. president. The site was added to the National Register of Historic Places late last year.

Department of Mineral Resources officials had been scheduled to discuss the XTO plan, Case No. 19996, at a hearing next week. Department spokeswoman Alison Ritter said it is not uncommon for a company to make changes to or cancel a request to drill.

Park officials – who were gearing up for a battle over the drilling rights to the Billings County property – were surprised to learn early Friday that XTO had changed its plans.

“We are very pleased with XTO’s decision,” park spokeswoman Eileen Andes said. “We’re especially pleased that (XTO) realizes the importance of the Elkhorn Ranch and how important it is to preserve it for today and for future generations.”

In a statement emailed to The Dickinson Press by XTO spokesman Jeff Neu, the company said it has “been considering more than one option with the Forest Service” and that “XTO has requested the issue be withdrawn from the DMR’s hearing docket, for now.”

The correspondence went on to state that XTO is “continuing to work with the Forest Service regarding a location within the spacing unit,” which is an approximately 1,280-acre site within two sections of land in Billings County.

“The approval process to this point has been managed by the Forest Service,” Neu said. “We have not made a decision to drill in that location. As we have stated, reports that XTO is drilling or intending to drill on a site adjacent to the Elkhorn Ranch have been premature.”

One member of the three-person Industrial Commission, Gov. Jack Dalrymple, owns stock in ExxonMobil, according to a financial statement surrendered to the Secretary of State’s Office in April. Dalrymple also has holdings in more than 80 other companies worldwide, the document shows, though it does not disclose how many shares.

Dalrymple, through spokesman Jeff Zent, said he is not going to disclose the details of those shares, including how many or their value.

“He is not going to discuss the details of his personal finances,” Zent said in a statement to The Associated Press.

Though XTO’s application to drill near the Elkhorn Ranch site never came to a vote, the state attorney general says it is appropriate for the governor to abstain from voting only if he has “direct and substantial personal interest in a decision,” Zent said.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Agricultural Commissioner Doug Goehring are the other members of the commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry in the state. Neither lists interest in ExxonMobil on their financials.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.