Conservationists: North Dakota officials not doing enough to protect Little Missouri River from oil development

Jay Obrigewitch shows where a proposed bridge in Billings County would cross the Little Missouri River. An oil well site is seen in the distance near the river that flows through Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

MEDORA — Peter Odermann’s home is tucked away along the Little Missouri River about 20 miles north of Medora.

The mostly retired rancher — his son has taken over cattle operations — doesn’t have to go far to find an oil well in the Badlands. Some nearby wells are hundreds of feet from the Little Missouri, and some are just a stone’s throw from the winding river.

Odermann said oil companies do their best to make their wells safe, but he noted spills are not completely avoidable.

Asked how he feels about oil development along the Little Missouri, he said no one likes to have it in their backyard, but it has to happen somewhere. “If you want to drive a car, you have to have oil to do it,” he said.

Odermann doesn’t believe the Little Missouri is endangered by the nearby oil development. But conservation groups see it differently. They say the encroaching oil development is a threat to the river, and fear the scenic integrity and environmental safety of the waterway is at risk.

In a February letter, the Badlands Conservation Alliance, North Dakota Wildlife Alliance and North Dakota Chapter of the Wildlife Society asked the state Industrial Commission to come up with a long-term strategy to handle development.

The same letter called out Denver-based NP Energy Services, which owns NP Resources, a group that’s been approved to develop about 180 wells on more than 50 sites near the river, according to documents from the BCA.

According to maps from NP Resources, the wells would be in Billings County north of Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit, stretching to land north of the park’s Elkhorn Ranch Unit, where President Theodore Roosevelt had his ranch in North Dakota. The company has dubbed the venture the Elkhorn project.

More oil development along the Little Missouri would create an “industrialized river corridor,” said Lillian Crook, BCA president and founder, adding that the state has “failed utterly” in “preserving a state treasure.”

“Industrialization has b een their highest priority,” she said of the state.

How many wells?

With 450 wells as of March, Billings County has about 3% of the roughly 15,300 producing wells in North Dakota, according to the state Department of Mineral Resources. Billings produced 427,594 barrels of oil in March, almost 1% of the state’s total crude production.

NP Resources has 78 existing wells in the Badlands, said Clayton Miller, president and chief operating officer for NP Energy Services. The company has been operating in the Badlands since 2016, and it’s acquired wells from other operators, some that date back to the early 2000s.

NP could develop about 180 wells, both on existing sites and sites to be established, according to state documents.

Miller said development depends on the future health of the industry. NP uses what Miller calls “eco-pads,” which can hold multiple wells on one site.

“Our strategy is to do things in a very careful and controlled way, not to be out there like other parts of the state where it is just blowing and going,” Miller said.

Most of the well sites approved for the Elkhorn project are authorized to hold up to four wells each, according to state documents.

The well sites won’t necessarily be right next to the river, and it’s possible not all of the sites will hit the maximum wells allowed, said Bruce Hicks, assistant director for the state oil and gas division.

The sites may already have a well on them from previous owners, meaning the limit includes the existing wells.

NP has installed 11 new wells in the Badlands since 2016, and it has no plans to drill this year, Miller said. So far, they haven’t applied for permits this year, Hicks said.

Miller said his company works with landowners, stakeholders and organizations to find ways to mitigate impacts to the landscape.

“We think the Badlands are wonderful, too,” he said. “We’re not a company that places the oil and gas and profits of our company ahead of being a good citizen of the community and landscape out there.”

Private vs. public

NP has a mix of private and public land permits. North Dakota has a policy with setbacks for public lands that could host wells. Public land drilling also is open to public hearings and comments.

For example, a well would have to be a mile from the center of the Little Missouri if it was built on public land.

Such requirements are not in place for private land, Hicks said. The state policy lays out regulations and factors to take into consideration. There are no official public hearings or comment periods when it comes to private land drilling.

Hicks said the state does its best to mitigate scenic and environmental impacts, including requiring companies to use paint to help camouflage wells and tanks. “The policy that we have today is much different than what we had 20 years ago,” he said, adding that most wells that are hundreds of feet from the Little Missouri tend to be older wells.

The Industrial Commission does what it can to keep wells away from the Little Missouri, said Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, who sits on the commission. But not allowing oil development at all along the Little Missouri would infringe on the rights of the mineral rights owners, Hicks said.

‘They kind of ruin the scenic view’

Conservation groups are not advocating for a complete ban on oil development in North Dakota, said Mike McEnroe, board member and past president of the North Dakota Wildlife Federation.

“That doesn’t mean it has to be developed without some kind of cognizance or recognition that there are public values out there also,” he said, adding that he’s concerned about oil spills.

Billings County has seen several controversial projects. The Davis Refinery planned near Fairfield has seen pushback for being too close to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. A Little Missouri bridge project north of Medora has seen support from those who want a connection for emergency responders and opposition from people who want to protect the scenic integrity of the Badlands.

Randy Mosser, who lives 14 miles north of Medora, has land along the Little Missouri. Oil development often brings increased traffic, which can create dust or be hard on roads, especially gravel ones in the countryside.

Though Mosser said the good outweighs the bad, he acknowledged that not everyone would agree with that. Oil revenue has helped improve infrastructure, and technology has made drilling safer than several years ago, he said.

On the topic of oil development putting the scenery of the Little Missouri at risk, he pointed out the wind turbines along Interstate 94 between Dickinson and Bismarck. “They kind of ruin the scenic view,” Mosser said.

McEnroe recognizes that oil development is going to happen along the Little Missouri because oil is there. He wants the state to do a better job at placing wells in a way that protects the Little Missouri, including holding public hearings for all permits and letting residents — whether they own the land or not — speak their minds.

“The state doesn’t seem to be very interested in doing that,” he said.

Goehring said most landowners he’s talked with are happy with how the Industrial Commission has managed oil development. But he claimed there are groups that don’t want any development.

“Their opinion of beauty and natural is, ‘This wasn’t here 200 years ago, and I don’t want to see it now,’” Goehring said. “But that is not reality.”

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