FARGO — The Dakota Access Pipeline was a topic of debate Thursday afternoon, Sept. 29, among candidates for one seat on the three-person North Dakota Public Service Commission.
The three candidates — incumbent Republican Julie Fedorchak, Democrat Marlo Hunte-Beaubrun and Libertarian Tom Skadeland — gathered at the Prairie Public studio in downtown Fargo for the debate, which was sponsored by the broadcaster and AARP. The candidates all ran unopposed in their parties’ primaries June 14.
Fedorchak first claimed the seat to fill the vacancy left by former Commissioner Kevin Cramer, who resigned after being elected to the U.S. House in 2012. With her on the commission are two other Republicans, Randy Christmann and Brian Kalk.
Fedorchak said in her time on the commission, she’s offered a “common-sense approach” to regulatory policy, adding that her priorities include the improvement of rail safety and reclamation and ensuring that electric rates are affordable and reliable.
Hunte-Beaubrun, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said it was “time we bring some diversity to the commission.” There are five tribes in North Dakota, she said, “and there isn’t one seat on this commission to have the tribes be heard.”
She emphasized her priorities of “communication, cooperation and collaboration” during the debate, particularly as they relate to permits for projects such as the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Skadeland said he’d started his campaign to ask “fundamental questions” about the role of government, including that of the Public Service Commission.
“After extensive review,” Skadeland said, “I’ve come to what I consider a rational and logical conclusion that the PSC is inherently inefficient and unethical.”
Economic law opposes the commission’s attempts to guide market processes, Skadeland said, adding he believes the commission restricts North Dakota citizens’ natural rights.
“It is my belief that the PSC can and should be abolished and handled through pure, free-market processes and controlled by private-sector participants,” Skadeland said.
In discussion of the pipeline, Fedorchak described its permit process as thorough, open and transparent.
“I’m a huge believer in public input and work hard to get public awareness about our hearings and involvement in them,” Fedorchak said. “We provided the pipeline permit when we were assured that the company had met all the requirements under state law.”
Fedorchak said during the 14-month process, the commission hosted three public meetings, which were “noticed widely and broadly,” along the pipeline route. The meetings, in Mandan, Kildeer and Williston, came after “traditional listings and direct mailings” to agencies including the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, who Fedorchak said directly notifies tribes as appropriate. A personal invitation to the hearings was extended to the Standing Rock Tribe, she said.
“We had hundreds of participants and took lots of comments during the hearing process, and incorporated a lot of those concerns in our ultimate permitting process,” Fedorchak said.
Hunte-Beaubrun said she disagreed with the incumbent’s account of the process.
“I believe there was outreach to the city people in Bismarck when the pipeline was going to go north of Bismarck, and I don’t feel that that was extended when it was moved down the line,” she said.
“On both sides of the coin,” more preventative measures could have been taken to avoid conflict, Hunte-Beaubrun said, however, in the present, leaders are being called upon to “sit down and communicate” in efforts to resolve the dispute.
“At the end of the day, we’re all being reactive to something that’s already in place,” Hunte-Beaubrun said. “We have to start learning to work together because we all reside in this state, we’re all North Dakotans, and that’s the only way we’re going to see ourselves move forward into the future.”
Tribes should be a bigger part of permitting processes, she said. “Hence my running for office.”
Fedorchak said she is in favor of involving more tribal input, though she does not think it’s fair to hold future standards to the existing project, “which is 60 percent in the ground in North Dakota today.”
She also called the pipeline a vital infrastructure investment, adding its environmental restrictions make it the safest option for oil transport, though it traverses bodies of water such as Lake Sakakawea and Lake Oahe. Block valves are on both sides of each river crossing, she said, and the pipeline will be monitored 24/7, 365 days a year.
“Whether everyone wants to agree with it or not, right now, we are dependent on fossil fuels for our electricity and for a lot of our energy needs,” Fedorchak said.
Skadeland said he is opposed to the pipeline because the individual property rights of those involved have not been respected. In Iowa, he said, landowners have had their land confiscated “illegitimately and unjustly” through eminent domain. More concerning to North Dakota residents, he said, should be the government subsidies given to companies involved in pipeline construction, which he called “an illegitimate source of production financing” and a burden on taxpayers. A free-market approach to pipeline production would be more appropriate, he said.
The Public Service Commission seat debate will be broadcast on Prairie Public’s television network 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 12, and rebroadcast at 2:30 a.m. Friday, Oct. 14.
It will also air 2:30 p.m. Nov. 6 as part of a back-to-back broadcast beginning 1 p.m. of all of this election season’s debates. All airings will be available at prairiepublic.org after their initial televised broadcasts.