BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Leading North Dakota Democratic lawmakers want the state's top oil regulator to quit encouraging oil development and focus solely on oversight.
North Dakota law says the state's top oil regulator also is charged with promoting oil development. But House and Senate minority leaders say they intend to introduce legislation next year that would permanently separate those roles. In the interim, Democratic lawmakers have asked the North Dakota Industrial Commission "to use its authority" to separate the duties of state Department of Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms.
"Recent, high-profile incidents across the state confirm the public is ill-served by a director who is charged with regulating the development he is duty-bound to promote," Sen. Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, and Rep. Kenton Onstad, D-Parshall, said in a letter dated Tuesday to the Industrial Commission, which regulates oil and gas activity in the state. "It is apparent there is no longer any viable policy rationale for having our state's oil regulator also be the lead promoter of oil development, if such a rationale ever existed."
Gov. Jack Dalrymple, Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem — all Republicans — make up the commission.
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.
Helms said in a statement that "my primary job is that of a regulator" and that his "department's role is defined in statue, and any change would have to be left to state policymakers."
He said his department is making many changes to "toughen and strengthen the protection of North Dakota citizens and the environment."
The Democrats' letter cites Helms' role after a massive oil pipeline rupture last fall near Tioga and a fiery oil train derailment in December near Casselton. The Casselton derailment came just days after Helms told state lawmakers that his agency was considering crafting a report "to dispel this myth that it is somehow an explosive, really dangerous thing to have traveling up and down your rail lines."
The idea for the report has now been dropped.
"The director was looking to dispel a 'myth' that everyone knows now is the truth," Schneider said.
Helms had refused to comment on the massive oil spill near Tioga, saying it wasn't part of his agency's jurisdiction. The massive spill from the Tesoro Corp. pipeline that was discovered by a Tioga farmer in September, and the incident exposed that state regulators had known about the spill but failed to notify the public — or even some lawmakers — until The Associated Press asked about it.
While Helms would not comment on the spill to the media, he provided details on the spill to his daughter and her classmates at Penn State University.
"The public, and legislators like ourselves, were initially kept in the dark about the existence of the spill and later became anxious for updates after learning of this extraordinary failure," the Democrats' letter says. "However, an open-records request by a member of the media revealed that while the rest of us scrambled for answers, director Helms had shared detailed opinions on the cause of the spill with a relative in a private email message. Even accounting for the director's lack of jurisdiction over pipelines, we believe our state's oil regulator should have first shared that information with legislators and the public."
The Dalrymple administration defended Helms on Tuesday.
"Lynn Helms is a regulator," Dalrymple spokesman Jeff Zent said. "His primary responsibility to regulate the oil and gas industry. From time to time he does express enthusiasm for the potential of this industry, but that does not mean he is not a regulator."
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