A group of North Dakota legislators have introduced legislation aimed at gutting two of the state's most significant regulatory decisions involving oil and gas. A bill could nullify requirements to ratchet down the massive wasteful flaring of natural gas and to impose standards to make crude oil less volatile before shipment by rail. It also would risk forfeiting $112 million in revenues during a two-year budget period. The question is why?
House Bill 1187, whose primary sponsor is Rep. Keith Kempenich, R-Bowman, is a naked attempt by a handful of legislators to override the executive function of the North Dakota Industrial Commission, comprised of the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner, all elected by voters statewide. Members of the Industrial Commission - after lengthy consideration and input from industry and the public - imposed regulations that will force industry to curb the massive, wasteful flaring of natural gas and to make crude oil less explosive.
Kempenich, in trying to justify his sweeping bid to weaken executive authority, complains that the Legislature was "left out of the loop" in decisions that are squarely before the North Dakota Industrial Commission as ultimate overseers of oil and gas. He glibly dismissed the flaring reduction goals - standards based on lengthy testimony with considerable input from industry - as "arbitrary," and wants to make them go through a rule-making process that would involve lawmakers.
Where is the public clamor to roll back gas flaring? Halting progress on reducing flaring would cost an estimated $18.8 million per biennium in lost revenues. The state's top staff regulator has said reaching the next tier of flaring reduction goals will be a "real stretch," but officials say the Industrial Commission has leeway to grant flexibility in implementing its order, if deemed reasonable.
Where is the public outcry for softening standards to reduce the volatility of explosive Bakken crude oil? Not in Casselton, which last year dodged a massive explosion after an oil train derailment near the town. The order to "condition" oil before shipment carries an estimated cost of just 10 cents per barrel. But failure by the state to make oil safer for shipment could trigger more costly federal regulations that also could deprive the state of $93 million in revenues over a two-year budget cycle.
There is, of course, no public outcry to reverse either of these orders and send them through a legislative sideshow. Instead, Kempenich and his legislative accomplices have their ears attuned to the oil industry, which wants to exploit the drop in oil prices as an excuse to roll back sound regulations. The stewardship of North Dakota's natural resources - and especially the safety of its citizens - shouldn't be put in jeopardy. Lawmakers should kill Kempenich's boondoggle.