Lynn Helms mugshot

State Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms.

No one knows for sure how long oil and gas leases on federal lands will be on hold, but the hearings to begin the Biden administration’s study of them are set to begin March 25 with public forums to gather comments.

A lot of eyeballs in North Dakota will be watching these hearings, including North Dakota’s top oil and gas regulator Lynn Helms. In the state’s most recent monthly oil production report, Helms indicated he will watch the proceedings but doesn’t expect to offer comments during the forum itself.

That’s due more to timing than anything else. The March meeting of the North Dakota Industrial Commission isn’t until five days later.

“I haven’t been cleared by the policy people to comment at the public forum,” Helms said. “But I am going to recommend to the Industrial Commission members that we offer them after that. So after the public comment period opens, I really anticipate we will be commenting.”

Helms indicated Division of Oil and Gas personnel have already begun evaluating which lands could be affected and in what way by the Biden administration’s impending analysis.

“I think we are really going to focus on what we call split estates in North Dakota,” Helms said. “Most of the federal public lands in North Dakota are split estates, where a tract as small as 10 acres of federal lands can prevent the drilling or development of 5 to 600 acres of private or state land by just blocking the ability to lease and permit on those lands.”

Among such tracts is one by Trenton, which has 10 acres of federal minerals, and 580 acres north and south of that belonging to five individuals.

The properties were to have been nominated for lease during the March sale, and would have supported between three and 45 wells. But now the whole thing is on hold.

“They are actually subjecting themselves to private litigation by blocking the leasing of those small tracts and preventing the drilling of those state and private minerals,” Helms said. “So we have a unique and interesting story to tell, along with the cumulative effects (on the state’s oil and gas production.)”

Financially the cumulative effects are potentially significant, Helms said, though perhaps not as sweeping as had initially been thought.

“It’s less than expected because it was retracted from tribal and allotted lands, anything held in trust,” Helms said. “That is, dominantly, the best geography in North Dakota. So that really mitigated the impact on the state.”

Helms said his preliminary analysis suggests it could affect 150 new wells in the upcoming biennium, and would accelerate from there if the suspension becomes a long-term thing.

“Right now, there’s a significant slowdown, in that no one in the district or local offices can issue permits,” Helms said. “They all have to go to Washington D.C. But it’s still possible to get one. So it’s not as impactful as the initial letter would have implied, since it doesn’t apply to trust lands and there isn’t an absolute moratorium on permitting. It’s just a slowdown.”

Hearing details

The Department of the Interior’s public hearing on the federal oil and gas program was ordered by President Joe Biden in January. The forum will be from 1 to 4:30 p.m. March 25 in a live Zoom Webinar.

Register online at tinyurl.com/3fdpe5t5. Or watch the livestream at https://www.doi.gov/events.

Information gathered during the forum will be part of an interim report, which will include the administration’s recommendations to “improve stewardship of public lands and waters, create jobs, and build a just and equitable energy future,” according to a media release from Department of the Interior.

The hearing will not be the only opportunity to submit comments. Comments may also be submitted via email to energyreview@ios.doi.gov.

“The federal oil and gas program is not serving the American public well. It’s time to take a close look at how to best manage our nation’s natural resources with current and future generations in mind,” Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary — Land and Minerals Management Laura Daniel-Davis said. “This forum will help inform the Department’s near-term actions to restore balance on America’s lands and waters and to put our public lands’ energy programs on a more sound and sustainable conservation, fiscal and climate footing.”

The program will include remarks from recently appointed Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, as well as presentations from the Bureau of Ocean and Energy management and Bureau of Land Management, as well as presentations and Q&A from invited individuals who represent environmental justice and frontline communities, academia, oil and gas industry trade associations, indigenous organizations, conservation organizations, and labor groups.

A list of participants will be updated at the Interior’s website as they become available.

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