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Don Nelson, Published May 08 2013

Letter: North Dakota lawmakers gut good oil well setback measure

Just because a legislator says it doesn’t make it so.

Shortly after the North Dakota House passed a very weak setback bill,

HB 1348, Rep. Todd Porter, R-Mandan, said in a KX News story, “I believe it’s not only landmark but it’s going to be the benchmark for other states as they move forward with oil exploration and production.”

That claim sure makes it look like North Dakota is doing oil and gas development right. But, in reality, in this session that couldn’t be further from the truth. HB 1348 started out with an oil well pad setback of 1,320 feet from a person’s home. As this bill went through committee hearings, Lynn Helms, the director of the Department of Mineral Resources, who claims to be both a “proponent” and a “regulator” of the industry, always stood by Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, who is very clever at pushing for the oil and gas industry and speaking against North Dakota landowners.

This session, farmer and rancher members of the Dakota Resource Council have gone to many hearings on oil and gas development to help build a better Bakken, only to sit there after testifying and listen to Helms speak against North Dakota farmers and ranchers whom as a public servant he is supposed to represent, not the energy industry.

By the end of the legislative process on HB 1348, the bill was turned from a good setback bill into a very weak flaring bill. The House Natural Resources Committee removed the setback increase and added a suggestion that Helm’s agency could have flares and equipment put on the far side of the pad from the home. The setback for well pads didn’t budge from the 500 feet in current law.

We aren’t exactly sure how North Dakota sets the benchmark for other states for oil development because some oil-producing parts of Texas have 2,000-foot setbacks. If you ask us, North Dakota seems to be behind the times compared to other states.

On bill after bill, Helms was there defending Ness and the Petroleum Council and going against North Dakotans who’ve had generations of work building a good life in western North Dakota. After this whole process, we are wondering: If we can’t trust our own state government, who can we trust? This shouldn’t be happening in America.

Nelson, a Keene, N.D., farmer/rancher, is chairman of the Dakota Resource Council Oil and Gas Task Force. Also signing this commentary: Jim Stenslie, retired pastor, New Town, N.D.; Theodora Bird Bear, Mandaree, N.D., landowner; Rose Person, White Earth, N.D., landowner.