Editor's note: This updates with comment from park staff, former Theodore Roosevelt Superintendent Valerie Naylor, and Bart Melton, Northern Rockies regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association.
Plans to build an oil refinery, with supporting infrastructure that would include 1,000 residential units and a commercial development, just three miles from the entrance to Theodore Roosevelt National Park are moving forward, with the company filing its application for a permit to start construction on the proposed Davis Refinery.
As envisioned, this mix of industrial/residential/commercial development would dwarf most, if not all, towns in southwestern North Dakota, and potentially could impact the park's air quality, soundscape, and viewshed, according to opponents.
“The town of Fryburg, which is the nearest town, it’s not very large at all. Only a handful of houses. It's tiny," said Eileen Andes, chief of interpretation and public affairs for the national park, adding that most of the residents probably lived on ranches. "Medora, which is the town where our park headquarters is, has a year-round population of about 110. Medora is the county seat for Billings County, and the town itself isn’t much bigger than four blocks by four blocks."
The refinery proposal from Meridian Energy Group has in the past drawn criticism and opposition from the National Park Service, with past and present superintendents of Theodore Roosevelt voicing concern over the project that would be located near Belfield, North Dakota. That was before the company announced that it will "provide developed sites for over 1,000 residential units, ancillary commercial services such as restaurants and theaters, educational and acute care space, water and sewage treatment facilities, commercial, retail and industrial space as well as a new police and fire facility. The development will include two hotels that will house workers during refinery construction."
Valerie Naylor, a former superintendent of the park, was skeptical that Meridian Energy would be able to receive the necessary permits.
"I doubt that Meridian will be able to meet the strict requirements of the Clean Air Act that protect the air quality in Theodore Roosevelt National Park," she said in an email Tuesday evening. "I know the North Dakota State Health Department will carefully analyze the request for an air quality permit over the coming months and may very well deny it. Regardless, it is not appropriate to site an oil refinery at the gateway of our treasured national park. Air quality is one of the many serious aspects of this proposal that could be detrimental to the park and its visitors. It still shocks me that Meridian and others would choose this site for their proposed refinery without any other alternatives."
Meridian, which last week applied for the construction permit from the North Dakota Department of Health, Air Quality Division, maintains that it can build a refinery that will "exceed North Dakota’s most stringent air quality regulations." The company specifically is seeking a Minor Synthetic Source Permit, rather than a major-source permit, for a refinery capable of producing 55,000 barrels of fuel products per day. If the company's schedule is met, a refinery producing 27,500 barrels a day will be up and running in 2018. The difference in the two permits comes down to emissions; Meridian officials believe they can operate the cleanest refinery ever built.
Meridian also is proposing a gas-fired power plant to meet the refinery's energy needs.
“We are excited to take this next step in the process, as we continue to elevate and re-define the standards of a modern oil refinery. Our innovative design, equipment and the manner in which we have comprehensively integrated Best Available Control Technology will ensure that the Davis Refinery meets the strict air quality regulations put forth, and will remain compliant for years to come. Our state and our community should expect and accept nothing less," said Meridian CEO William C. Prentice in a release.
The excitement wasn't shared by the National Parks Conservation Association, which opposes the location of the operation so close to Theodore Roosevelt.
“Just as we shouldn’t allow an oil refinery to be built within view of Yellowstone or Yosemite national parks, and we will fight against the Meridian refinery, proposed within view of President Roosevelt’s namesake national park," Bart Melton, NPCA's Northern Rockies regional director, said Tuesday. "An oil refinery and associated industrial development would fundamentally threaten the pristine air and other conservation values that our nation committed to protect when we created Theodore Roosevelt National Park.”
Back at the park, Chief Andes said the Park Service would be closely monitoring the permitting process.
"We are definitely concerned about having a refinery close to the park boundary, and the National Park Service will be keeping a close eye on it," she said during a phone call.
Eddie Martinez, president and CEO of Zia Environmental Engineers & Consultants LLC., the company that will help design the plant, predicted that the operation would be "the most environmentally sustainable refinery ever built."
"This project will undoubtedly create a standard within the industry how companies will effectively control emissions," he said.
At NPCA, Mr. Melton shared Ms. Naylor's skepticism of the project.
“I would be surprised if they can achieve a 'Minor Source' permit," he said. "It’s a pretty large facility. But that’s really going to be determined at the end of the day by the North Dakota analysis of the proposal, which will take six months to a year.”
Targeted for a 620-acre swath of farmland between Belfield and Fryburg just east of Theodore Roosevelt, the refinery project is just the latest industrial development pressing in on the 70,447-acre national park. The U.S. Forest Service last year gave the OK for a 25-acre gravel pit across the Little Missouri River from Theodore Roosevelt's historic Elkhorn Ranch and roughly 25 miles from the core of the park's South Unit, while oil pumps dot the landscape in just about every direction. From Buck Hill in the park's South District, gas flares from fracking operations outside the park stand out at night.
The park, of course, was named after Theodore Roosevelt, who came to this landscape as a young man and discovered his conservation bent. The Elkhorn Ranch was where he recovered from the deaths of his wife, Alice, two days after giving birth to their daughter, and his mother on the same day, Valentine's Day 1884. The ranch setting remains bucolic today. While the ranch house is gone, there still stand some of the cottonwood trees that shaded the house and the porch from which the young Roosevelt would escape the heat with a book or simply to rock in his chair while taking in the Little Missouri and the badlands that it carved into the landscape.
Back in 2011, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, citing the gravel pit, named the ranch as one of its 11 most-endangered historic sites in the country. The pit is a byproduct of the oil boom, as it is a source for stone needed for the drill pads rising around northwestern North Dakota. Now, if plans to construct the oil refinery come to fruition, Theodore Roosevelt National Park might claim the distinction of being rimmed by more energy-related developments than any other park in the National Park System.