North Dakota’s Industrial Commission (IC) is in the midst of a year-long process to review and update its rules for oil and natural gas permitting, including seeking to better define "interested parties" who are given legal standing in that process.

Four days of public hearings on proposed rule changes will be held April 11-14 in Bismarck, Dickinson, Williston and Minot.

While industry and regulators at the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) are generally supportive of efforts to modernize rules, critics are opposing the effort as a hidden attempt to restrict public participation in the oil/gas permitting process.

They contend the proposed changes could severely limit public participation in oil and gas issues. Marvin Nelson, a Democratic state lawmaker and candidate for governor, has said it would define an “interested party” in oil and gas statutes as a landowner or property manager.

“Years ago, people were required to own land to vote, and we thought those days were past,” Nelson said. “Now, the IC says people can’t even comment without owning land.”

A DMR spokesperson said the proposed changes are being mischaracterized.

"This in no way is looking to restrict who can comment at hearings," said DMR's Alison Ritter. "This is merely about drafting a definition of 'interested party,' which is a term used many times in the oil and gas century code and administrative code but has yet to be defined."

The proposed definition says, “Interested party means an individual or number of individuals that have a property ownership or management interest in or adjacent to the subject matter.” Critics, like Nelson, argued that the policy change would prevent North Dakotans from commenting on oil and gas proposals that affect the state’s land, water and air. Ritter said the state is only seeking something workable.

She told NGI's Shale Daily that the issue of who has standing during hearings goes back a long way and is not just a present-day issue. The definition was drafted by DMR's Oil and Gas Division, Ritter said.

One of three IC members, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, a Republican candidate for governor, said the definition is only a proposal and the commission has not taken a stance on it. “I favor a wide and robust public involvement when the government is taking any kind of action,” Stenehjem told local news media. The governor and agricultural commissioner are the other two IC members.

Many of the other proposed rules under consideration deal with adding stronger regulations for gathering pipelines and saltwater handling facilities. Critics, such as Nelson and various conservation groups, have little or no objection to them.

The full proposal, details about the public hearings and information about how to submit comments can be found at Written comments will be accepted through April 26.

After the comment period closes, final language will be drafted. Rules will then be sent to the attorney general for a legal opinion (tentatively in June) prior to the final proposal being presented to the IC for approval (tentatively in July) and then filed with state Legislative Council for approval by its administrative rules committee sometime in September. At that pace, final rules could be in place Oct. 1.