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Oil funds staff to tackle applications backlog

Laurel Call, a minerals assistant at the Bureau of Land Management’s North Dakota Field Office, pages through publicly posted Applications for Permit to Drill at the office Friday. Call’s is one of a few positions the state’s oil industry funds at the office to speed up handling of APDs. (Katherine Lymn / Forum News Service)

DICKINSON, N.D. — The Bureau of Land Management’s North Dakota field office is inundated with permit applications for drilling on federal lands.

The agency has gotten creative to try to keep up with the workload — bringing in “strike teams” to the Miles City district headquarters, using teleworkers from around the country and even securing land for employee housing to help recruitment for its base in Dickinson.

One of the more simple solutions has been to have the oil industry — which both created the backlog and would benefit most from winnowing it down — pay for more staff.

Through a memorandum of agreement, certain oil companies operating in the Bakken that want faster Application for Permit to Drill processing give money to the North Dakota Petroleum Council, which then funds positions recommended by the BLM.

The partnership has been growing, from funding one position in 2012 to five this year.

To prevent any favoritism — like handling applications faster for a company that donated than for a company that didn’t — the field office never knows which companies gave the funds, and the memorandum is vetted by lawyers locally and federally.

The funding covers salaries and benefits for five employees involved in applications processing, like legal instruments examiners and archaeologists. The BLM and the petroleum council wouldn’t disclose the actual amount.

Petroleum council Vice President Kari Cutting would only say the employees are paid based on BLM’s regular salary scale — and that “they sure are worth more than they are paid.”

“Because of the activity that’s going on in western North Dakota and eastern Montana,” Cutting said, “and the fact that the Bureau of Land Management was not going to be able to get additional federal funding to help manage their workload, it seemed like an opportunity for everybody to work together and find solutions.”

According to the 2013 memorandum, the funding is to be spent on staffing for APD processing and related environmental analyses, and other oil-related tasks like sundry notices and well completion reports.

“They’re basically providing us a means to fill some of these positions so we can do the work coming in the door,” said Rick Rymerson, field manager at the Dickinson-based North Dakota field office.

The office struggles to keep up with the hundreds of permit applications it gets each year, and loses staff to industry or burnout.

As of Jan. 13, the North Dakota field office had about 450 applications pending, though that number includes permits awaiting action from other agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

On top of existing hiring obstacles, including the cost of living, the positions being just for a year at a time makes them hard to fill, said North Dakota assistant field manager Loren Wickstrom.

“You’re asking someone to come from out of state and move their family,” he said, and they may be here only a year.

Affected by staffing issues as a ripple effect of the Bakken boom and by budgeting restrictions, the Wyoming BLM district also gets help from that state’s oil industry, through the Petroleum Association of Wyoming.

There, the money goes to overtime and travel for temporary staff members who come from other offices.

“It’s not like they’re paying for a particular person or a particular job series,” BLM spokeswoman Beverly Gorny said. “It’s merely the catch-up work.”

An eye out                                  for favoritism

BLM and oil industry officials are quick to point out that the agreements have protections against favoritism.

“Those employees that get hired are Bureau of Land Management employees, they’re not industry employees,” Eastern Montana/Dakotas district manager Diane Friez said.

“They get their assignment and direction from a BLM supervisor,” Friez said.

Cutting calls it an “arms-length” agreement.

The agreement does not provide “priority of service,” the memorandum states. “The (North Dakota Petroleum Council) understands and agrees that the BLM is responsible for all workload assignments, prioritization and resource decisions.”

The Wyoming office, which has been partnering with the Petroleum Association of Wyoming for two years, also makes sure the money from a particular company doesn’t go toward just processing that company’s applications.

“We just deposit it,” Gorny said, “and it just becomes part of our regular day-to-day operations.”