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Defining 'interested party' could affect North Dakota oil hearings

BISMARCK - A proposed North Dakota Industrial Commission rule would severely limit public participation in oil and gas issues, the Democratic candidate for governor said this week.

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BISMARCK – A proposed North Dakota Industrial Commission rule would severely limit public participation in oil and gas issues, the Democratic candidate for governor said this week.

Marvin Nelson, a state legislator from Rolla, said he opposes a proposal under consideration that would define an "interested party" in oil and gas statutes as a landowner or property manager.

"Years ago, people were required to own land to vote, and we thought those days were past," Nelson said. "Now, the Industrial Commission says people can't even comment without owning land."

In North Dakota oil and gas statutes, there are several references to an "interested party" in the context of appearing at hearings or submitting comments. But the statutes don't define interested party.

The proposed definition states this: "Interested party means an individual or number of individuals that have a property ownership or management interest in or adjacent to the subject matter."

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Nelson said the policy change would prevent North Dakotans from commenting on oil and gas proposals that affect the state's land, water and air.

"To me, it seems like such a huge limitation on the public," Nelson said.

Alison Ritter, spokeswoman for the Department of Mineral Resources, said the proposal seeks to find a workable definition for "interested party."

"This is exactly why we go through the lengthy public process to get comment and to get input so we can get to the right conclusion," Ritter said.

The definition was drafted by the Department of Mineral Resources Oil and Gas Division, Ritter said.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, one of three Industrial Commission members and the Republican candidate for governor, said the definition is only a proposal and the Industrial Commission has not taken a stance on it.

"I favor a wide and robust public involvement when the government is taking any kind of action," Stenehjem said.

The Industrial Commission consists of the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner.

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Jan Swenson, who routinely testifies at monthly oil and gas hearings on behalf of the Badlands Conservation Alliance, said she's concerned about how the definition could affect her group's ability to participate.

"We don't really know what this says at this point," Swenson said.

The Badlands Conservation Alliance often comments on oil proposals that affect areas near Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the Little Missouri National Grasslands and other public lands.

"Industry has, on occasion, shown concern that we are there. We have been tolerated more than we have been welcomed," Swenson said. "Which we, of course, think is an error because BCA has an expertise about public land in western North Dakota that we don't think industry has."

The public will have the opportunity to comment on that proposed rule and others next week at four public hearings scheduled April 11-14 in Bismarck, Dickinson, Williston and Minot. Stenehjem noted that typically such hearings have only been in Bismarck, but this time hearings were scheduled in other Bakken communities.

Many of the other proposed rules under consideration deal with adding stronger regulations for gathering pipelines and saltwater handling facilities.

"It's kind of a shame because most of the rest of the rules generally look pretty good," Nelson said.

The full proposal, details about the public hearings and information about how to submit comments can be found at www.dmr.nd.gov/oilgas . Written comments will be accepted through April 26.

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