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Published August 05 2013

Forum editorial: Worrisome Badlands oil leases

The usual sage voices are being raised regarding today’s North Dakota oil and gas lease auction, but very few people in authority and/or of influence in state government are listening. The auction will take bids on tracts where habitat, wildlife and overall environmental values should be paramount; but skewed state law guarantees those values will not be adequately considered. The Department of Trust Lands works under a “fiduciary responsibility” mandate that minimizes factors other than maximizing revenues.

Land sale officials say they’ve incorporated recommendations from state game and fish reports to protect habitat on the more than 50,000 acres slated for mineral (read oil) leasing. But the key word is “recommendations.” The state Game & Fish Department prepared a lengthy work sheet evaluating trust lands leases. The department urges restricted development on dozens of sensitive tracts. But the work has no teeth. It is a compilation of comments and suggestions.

Of special concern to North Dakotans who cherish values other than those associated with oil and gas development is that 17,000 acres nominated in today’s sale are in Slope County. Slope is on the fringe of the Bakken play and has seen little oil development. But the auction focus there indicates that oil is poised to march into some of the most iconic reaches of the Badlands. As one activist noted, sage grouse and antelope numbers are so far down there are no hunting seasons. The mule deer season has been restricted. Yet, voices from the state’s hunting lobby have been muted or quiet.

Nothing happening today at the Medora auction is illegal. All is being conducted within laws and regulations promulgated by lawmakers and administered by bureaucrats. The Industrial Commission, made up of Gov. Jack Dalrymple, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, exercises almost unchecked authority in these matters. A few months ago they said they would tour environmentally sensitive locations in order to get a better grasp of what is at risk. No news on that front.

Again, nothing illegal or under-the-table in conducting an auction of mineral leases on lands eligible for auction. It’s routine. The problem, however, is that the structure of mineral lease laws and surface regulations evolved when the highest use of the land was relatively low-impact livestock grazing. North Dakota’s go-go oil development in all its phases is high impact. The laws have not kept pace.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.