North Dakota Democrats pushing legislation banning regulators from promoting oil development

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BISMARCK, North Dakota — North Dakota Democratic lawmakers want the state's energy regulators to quit promoting oil development and focus solely on oversight.

State law currently requires regulators to "foster, encourage and promote" oil and gas development in the state.

Sen. Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks, is sponsoring a bill that would that separate the roles and shift promotion to the state Department of Commerce. Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider and House Minority Leader Kenton Onstad are among the bill's co-sponsors.

Triplett told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday that regulators "are only doing what our law requires them to do." But, she said, promotion duties have the appearance of a conflict of interest and "it can affect the perception of our citizens and whether they trust that their government is looking out for their best interest."

The committee took no action on the legislation. The full Senate will debate it later.

State Department of Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms, North Dakota's top oil regulator, spoke in opposition of the bill. He said 16 states and one Canadian province have similar language written into their laws. North Dakota adopted the law in 1953, when oil was first discovered in the state.

Regulators only promote "responsible development and production of North Dakota oil and gas resources," Helms said. "Promoting the oil and gas industry is the job of the North Dakota Petroleum Council," a group that represents more than 500 companies working in the state's oil industry, he said.

Ron Ness, the group's president also spoke in opposition to the bill Thursday.

Many other state agencies, including the Agriculture Department, Game and Fish, and even the Board of Higher Education, are charged with both promotion and regulation, Helms told the committee.

If those duties aren't stripped from those agencies as well, then the bill smacks of "anti-oil politics," Helms said.

Helms, a chemical engineer, spent 18 years working with an oil company before being hired by the state in 1998. Some Democrats and environmental groups increasingly have been critical of Helms' stance on oil development, likening it to cheerleading.

Wayde Schafer, a spokesman for the North Dakota chapter of the Sierra Club, said expecting Helms and other regulators to oversee and promote oil development "just doesn't feel right. Your gut just tells you something is wrong."

Mike Smith, executive director of the Oklahoma City-based Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, told North Dakota lawmakers that it wouldn't be in the best interest for the state to change its law. He said other states are competing for "North Dakota drilling dollars" and passing the legislation "puts you at a competitive disadvantage."

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