ExxonMobile oil drilling no longer threatens historic site in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

View of Badlands, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.

Jason Ahms, Flickr

Oil drilling on the doorstep of the historic site known as the "cradle of conservation" is a concept that doesn't sit well with many. So, when ExxonMobil drilling operations threatened to obscure views of Elkhorn Ranch in North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the place where Theodore Roosevelt formed his strong conservationist ideals more than a century ago, conservation groups and and national park officials quickly mobilized to oppose the leasing of this significant parcel of land.

Conservation groups succeeded last month in blocking the permit that would have allowed XTO Energy Inc., a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, to stake out drilling sites 100 feet from the entrance to Elkhorn Ranch. The oil drilling company withdrew its permit application to develop up to four oil well sites on two sections of land adjacent to the historic ranch.

A new and recently-approved plan will keep the oil company's drilling activity about two miles away from the ranch.

Elkhorn Ranch, Theodore Roosevelt's property on the Little Missouri River, North Dakota. 1881-1891.

Inforum reports:

The company responded by calling reports that it intended to drill on the site premature, but it nonetheless withdrew its permit application to develop up to four oil well sites on two sections of land adjacent to Elkhorn Ranch.

The proposal...combines those two 1,280-acre units into one 2,560-acre unit that XTO will tap using up to eight horizontal wells. All drilling will originate from an existing well pad that will expand from about 5 acres to 10 to 15 acres on U.S. Forest Service land in the Little Missouri National Grasslands, said Lynn Helms, director of the state Department of Mineral Resources.

Helms said the well pad is two miles from the Maah Daah Hey Trail and more than two miles from Elkhorn Ranch, where Theodore Roosevelt ranched for several years before becoming the nation’s 26th president in 1901.

Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor said that while park officials don’t like to see any development near Elkhorn Ranch, they support XTO’s solution because it will keep development hidden from the ranch. It also will protect the access road to the ranch and thereby a Forest Service campground and the Maah Daah Hey Trail, she said.

“I see it as a win-win-win kind of situation if it’s done right,” she said.

This settlement came just weeks before Interior Secretary Sally Jewell's first major conservation speech since the government shutdown, during which she cited Theodore Roosevelt National Park as an example of what the Interior will be fighting to achieve under her leadership: a responsible balance between development and conservation on America's public lands.

Sec. Jewell has renewed calls for protecting areas that are “too special to develop," such as Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and has urged balanced approaches to conservation and energy development in others, like the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska.

But keeping such development away from Theodore Roosevelt National Park has been complicated by the oil boom that undeniably boosts North Dakota's state economy.

"No one is saying, 'We're against the oil boom,'" said Jim Fuglie, a former North Dakota tourism director, in an interview with the LA Times. "This is a huge economic benefit to North Dakota. But with a boom comes all kinds of problems."

"We have pristine air, we have pristine water; nothing has ever threatened those things before," Fuglie added. "We have cattle ranchers whose grass is being covered by the dust of a thousand trucks a day."

Sec. Jewell remarked in her speech last month that Theodore Roosevelt National Park superintendent, Valerie Naylor, described helping developers recognize their effect on the park "as something like playing Whac-A-Mole."

"[Naylor] said, 'I live in fear of taking a few days off.'"

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. Photo: Bureau of Land Management

Striking a conscientious balance between development and conservation will continue to be a carefully choreographed effort. While some leaseholders, such as ExxonMobile, have been mindful of the park, listening to concerns before developing, others remain reticent to consider alternative proposals that would reduce the environmental footprint of drilling operations.

"This landscape, which inspired President Roosevelt and still inspires visitors today, is a big economic engine for the region," Jewell said during her visit to the park in August. "It's also a powerful reminder that, even as we bear witness to a production boom in the Bakken, there are places important to America that are too special to drill and must be protected for future generations."