Several Democratic legislators put up a fight Wednesday against a proposal to repurpose $16 million in federal coronavirus relief aid to subsidize fracking in North Dakota's oil fields, but they were overruled by a significant majority of lawmakers, including some in their own party.
The legislative Budget Section voted 33-5 to approve the proposal, which offers grants to oil companies to reimburse up to $200,000 per well completed by the end of 2020. The money will go toward the acquisition and disposal of water used in the hydraulic fracturing process, which involves sending water, sand and chemicals down a well to crack rock and release the oil stored there. Proponents say the measure will help stabilize oil production and tax revenue, as well as create jobs for laid-off workers.
Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, who opposed the proposal, requested that the committee vote on the matter independently of a package of requests from state agencies totaling $205 million. That package, which divers significant funds to schools and grants to businesses for installing virus mitigation measures, passed unanimously.
"There are other ways to spend that $16 million that are directly related to the coronavirus pandemic," Mather said. "There are nursing homes, family leave -- a lot of items that could be addressed."
His concerns were echoed by House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, who said no other industry in the state is receiving a direct payment to bolster its output.
He argued that the money could be better spent on steps to facilitate visitation at nursing homes as the cold weather arrives and poses challenges to families seeking to reunite outdoors. Or, he said, it could go toward resources to bolster contact tracing or more quickly notify residents who have tested positive for COVID-19. The state in recent weeks has struggled to keep up with both contact tracing and test result notifications.
"We are at a point now where we are peaking every day as we try to battle this crisis," Boschee said, referring to the numerous statewide records set this month in new cases, active cases, hospitalizations and deaths. "I think any of the funds we use need to help us reduce the spread of this virus, to help with the lives and livelihoods of thousands of North Dakotans."
The $16 million originally was meant to go to a new state program to plug and clean up 380 abandoned oil field well sites, an effort meant to employ oil field workers who had been laid off during the pandemic and to restore thousands of acres of land for farmer's use. But the money had to be spent by the end of 2020, and the program rollout experienced delays. With winter approaching, state officials said that only about half of the cleanup work will be completed this year, leaving about $16 million unused. They plan to finish the work next year using state funds.