BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota regulators approved a plan by the developer of the Dakota Access oil pipeline to replace trees removed during construction, but the permission won't impact an upcoming decision on whether Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners is fined for removing too many.
Meanwhile, the tree work has been stalled by drought and won't be completed for another year.
Public Service Commission Public Utilities Director Patrick Fahn earlier this month signed off on the company's plan to plant two trees for every one removed — a total of about 94,000 along the route of the $3.8 billion pipeline that on June 1 began moving oil from North Dakota to Illinois.
A law firm representing numerous North Dakota landowners in May filed a consultant's report that said ETP's plan had flaws, including planting far fewer species than were removed. Landowner attorney Derrick Braaten said in an interview Friday that talks continue with the company to resolve numerous issues. While taking the company to court remains an option, "that's certainly not the direction I'd want to go," he said.
ETP spokeswoman Lisa Dillinger said the company continues to work with landowners to address concerns. The tree work began in May but has been put on hold due to drought and won't be completed until next spring, she said.
A report last December from a third-party inspector for the Public Service Commission identified 83 sites along the 380-mile (610-kilometer) pipeline corridor in North Dakota where trees might have been cleared in violation of the commission's orders. The commission has scheduled an Aug. 17 public hearing. ETP, which could face fines of up to $200,000, maintains it did nothing wrong.
The tree replacement plan isn't part of the discussion and the company's double planting of trees won't be a possible mitigating factor in any decision on fines, according to Commissioner Julie Fedorchak. The ratio is standard, she said, and it's also impossible to know how many of the new trees will survive.
"The concern in this whole tree removal issue is that there is a good portion of North Dakota where growing trees is a challenge," she said. "If you've got trees in existence that are helping prevent erosion and providing wildlife habitat, we want to minimize the amount that are removed."