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Helms: Comment period on drilling near ‘extraordinatory places’ could slow permitting

BISMARCK — Allowing more than five days of public comment on proposed oil and gas drilling in certain designated areas of western North Dakota would slow the permitting process, the state’s top oil regulator said Thursday.

The Industrial Commission — Gov. Jack Dalymple, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring — voted Wednesday to have their staff attorneys tweak a proposal by Stenehjem that would require companies to submit plans to mitigate the impacts of drilling near 18 “extraordinary places,” including Theodore Roosevelt National Park, White Butte and Lake Sakakawea.

The attorneys met Thursday morning, receiving a revised version of Stenehjem’s proposal in the form of a policy rather than an administrative rule, after concerns were raised about a rule sparking legal challenges.

The revised policy reflects Dalrymple’s recommendation to designate a site analyst — now referred to in the policy as an “impact mitigation consultant” — to create a summary of the public comments and make recommendations to Department of Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms.

Helms said the department previously estimated it would take two full-time staffers to process comments in compliance with Stenehjem’s original proposal.

The department is receiving an average of 20 drilling permit applications per day, after averaging 12 per day in 2013, he said.

About 20 percent of the applications fall within the “zones of review” — originally referred to as buffer zones — that would extend for up to two miles around each special place, he said.

“So you’re talking about two to four (permits) a day that would have to be handled by this policy,” he said. “It certainly will be a full-time job.”

Within five days of receiving an application to drill within a buffer zone, the department would have to post a notice on its website describing the application. Public comments could be submitted within 10 business days after the notice is posted. The applications also would be forwarded to interested state and federal agencies for professional guidance.

The average time to process a drilling permit was 27 days last year, and a public comment period lasting longer than five days would slow the permitting process because of the additional time needed to summarize the comments, Helms said.

“Every day you add beyond that is going to add to the 27 days,” he said.

Jeror Tufte, the governor’s legal counsel, said the public would likely perceive a five-day comment period as being too short.

The group meets again at 1 p.m. Friday in the Capitol’s Red River Room and plans to have the revised policy ready for the Industrial Commission’s regular meeting Wednesday.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.