BISMARCK (AP) - The public will not be allowed to comment on oil wells planned on private land in North Dakota under a plan approved by state regulators Monday that's designed to lessen the impacts of exploding energy development in certain western parts of the state.
The three-member Industrial Commission, which regulates oil and gas development in the state, approved the plan Monday after voting unanimously to allow a 10-day public comment period only on drilling applications on public land deemed an "extraordinary place." North Dakota already has restrictions in place to minimize impacts from oil drilling on public land, but the state lacked a formal requirement for public comment.
After May 1, any application for a drilling permit on public land will be subject to the review period.
The plan was originally unveiled in December by Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who submitted a list of 18 proposed "extraordinary places" on about 1.2 million acres of both private and public land in western North Dakota that could be subject to public scrutiny. The list included the Little Missouri River National Grasslands, Lake Sakakawea and White Butte, the highest point in North Dakota, which is privately owned.
Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who heads the commission, told a packed house at the state Capitol Monday that including private land in the proposal raised a "very serious policy question ... and one we should not take lightly." Dalrymple, Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring and Stenehjem, all Republicans, make up the commission.
Stenehjem's proposal had been lauded by conservation groups but criticized by some Republican lawmakers and oil and farm groups because of the private land provision.
Stenehjem said that private land owners have a legal and constitutional right to develop their land and that his proposal "was never intended to interfere with anyone's property rights." But he said his proposal was intended to prompt discussions about reducing the impact on all lands targeted for oil drilling.
Valerie Naylor, superintendent of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota, was visibly upset after the industrial commission's action, saying it does "nothing whatsoever" to protect the park, some of which is made up of a patchwork of state, private and federal land.
Goehring has been highly critical of including private land in public discussion since the proposal was introduced, and continued to emphasize his point Monday.
"Viewscapes are not constitutionally protected," he said. "They may be beautiful, and we like them, but there is still a right that exists" with the private property owner.
The commission had tabled the issue for a month, awaiting public input. The state received more than 530 comments, most of which opposed the proposal. Almost 200 of the letters were identical or nearly so to one sent by the North Dakota Petroleum Council, which represents hundreds of companies working in the state's oil patch.
Billionaire oilman Harold Hamm, the chairman and chief executive officer of Oklahoma City-based Continental Resources Inc., wrote that the special places proposal was "stolen ...right out of the environmental movement's playbook."
His company is one the oldest and biggest operators in North Dakota and has drilled there for more than two decades. He said further restrictions by regulators could force companies to move elsewhere to drill for oil.
"North Dakota's bureaucracy is strangling the proverbial golden goose by placing one too many hardships on an already overburdened industry," Hamm wrote.
Wayde Schafer, a North Dakota spokesman for the Sierra Club, said the oil industry is doing nothing more than playing a big game of chicken with the state.
"As important as the Bakken oil play is, it's not the only special thing about North Dakota," Schafer said in an interview. "There has to be a balance between oil development and preserving the natural beauty of western North Dakota. There was an opportunity to protect what was left, and we missed that opportunity," he said.