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."