BISMARCK – The Democratic candidate for state agriculture commissioner unveiled a five-piece “landowner’s bill of rights” Tuesday that he says will help balance the interests of North Dakota farmers and ranchers with those of the state’s thriving oil and gas industry.
Four of the five pieces have roots in bills that either failed to pass the Legislature last year or were approved but didn’t go far enough in the opinion of Ryan Taylor, the rural Towner cattle rancher and former state senator hoping to unseat current Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring in November.
“Our ag commissioner was absent and silent in the debate when our farmers and ranchers needed him,” Taylor said.
Goehring refuted that notion, saying he conversed with lawmakers, landowners and energy industry representatives during the 2013 session and has continually pushed for minimizing the oil and gas industry’s impact on farmers and ranchers, both as agriculture commissioner and a member of the North Dakota Industrial Commission.
Taylor, after first expressing his support for oil drilling and its benefits to North Dakota, said if elected he would push to increase the required distance between drilling operations and occupied homes from 500 feet to a 1,320 feet, or a quarter mile, which was proposed in the original version of House Bill 1349 last session but was stripped out before the bill passed.
Taylor said he has visited western North Dakota farmhouses where the roar of natural gas being flared from a nearby oil well sounds like a jet on a runway. Having oil rigs too close to homes also could pose a risk to children, he said.
“It’s not the kind of playground equipment that we’d want to have as parents,” he said.
Goehring said mandating longer setbacks would disrupt the energy corridor concept by forcing wells to be drilled farther from roads and requiring longer pipeline right-of-ways, which would disturb and fragment more farmland and wildlife habitat than necessary.
“The setbacks will end up being further out into a unit, and you’re going to have in some cases double or triple the footprint,” he said.
Taylor said he would advocate for landowners’ safety by pushing for mandatory flow meters and pressure cutoff switches on all gas and liquid transmission pipelines not regulated by the North Dakota Public Service Commission, including those that transport saltwater, a byproduct of oil production.
The Northwest Landowners Association, which recently has drawn attention to the lasting damage saltwater spills can cause to cropland, backed a House bill last session that would require such pipeline monitoring devices, but it died on a vote of 4-86 before it could reach the Senate.
Goehring said the devices aren’t sensitive enough to detect pinhole-size pipeline leaks, and requiring annual pressure testing of saltwater pipelines is a better solution.
Taylor proposed extending to private landowners the same reclamation protections afforded to public lands to ensure that their land is restored to its previous condition. Goehring said the current reclamation process for oil wells “appears to be working,” though the state needs to make sure some older wells are being reclaimed to the extent new rules will allow.
Taylor also called for making fixes to the mediation process to level the playing field between landowners and oil and gas developers. Goehring said the existing process has been successful in settling disputes.