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Financial assurances by operators

Posted on: June 14th, 2016
by David Ganje

Business projects involving some type of government oversight are usually regulated because of a project’s significant environmental or property rights impact.  The purpose of regulation is to safeguard the public in the event of a problem arising from such a project. End-of life decommissioning, reclamation, contamination are all typical contingency events.  Proper planning, evolving around the full life of a proposed project, is key.  But government is not always well endowed with the skills of planning and foresight.
 
No owner, officer or director of a business likes to consider the mortality of a business project.  Even more challenging are government regulators who oversee a project.  Regulators do not always require good exit planning or end-of-business planning for regulated projects. This shortcoming is shown when one considers a government agency’s duty to require a financially viable exit plan. It might be a mining project, a wind farm or a pipeline.  One need only look at existing requirements for decommissioning a project, or for reclaiming the property at the end of the life of a project. By way of example, in four different General Accountability Office public reports over the years, the GAO was critical of several federal agencies ability to set or determine such things as the costs of reclamation for a project.

Bonds, deposit accounts and self-funding are some of the ways that an operator provides its legal obligation for end-of-life financial assurances. These financial submissions are, in my view, often inadequate.

A couple of recent experiences in South Dakota spotlight this problem. A few years back a state-licensed grain warehouse (in the old days we called them grain elevators) by the name of Anderson Seed Company went belly up. Authority for setting bonds was then and is now given to the SD PUC. The bond for Anderson had been set at $100,000. However, $2.6 million in claims were lost. The insolvency of the company resulted in a little over 4 cents on the dollar paid back to those South Dakota parties who lost money in the insolvency. The setting of the bond was inadequate. The payout to the innocent grain sellers/producers was inadequate. The end-of-life planning was not well done. This experience resulted in a change in the law, but that change is itself an incomplete effort at planning project end-of-life contingencies. The second example is the very recent oil well breakdown near the town of Wasta. A drill bit broke part way down an oil well. This break necessitates the plugging of the well to protect aquifers. But the operator has run out of money. The operator was required by the state to put up a nominal bond of $120,000 for each well for which it had obtained a permit. According to a recent news article, the state DENR reported that the bond money was not enough to address this problem. The official stated that the cost could be $2 million because of the broken bit and the 150 feet of drill pipe that remain in the hole about a mile into the earth.

Board members and agency staff are often appointed to their positions because of their expertise and training in geology, law, hydrology, engineering and the like. Agency staff and appointed board members often have expertise dealing with normal board matters including mining permit applications, water rights disputes and similar issues.  It is unusual however for even a large agency to have expertise on financial qualification matters that must be designated by the agency and directed to the operator who is then obligated to provide the agency with end-of-project planning or safety assurances. Further, a regulatory system that sets a ‘statutory amount’ for this type of bonding may be too simple a solution.

A state official has stated that we don’t have a “broken system” in South Dakota. That is not the issue. The issue is not whether lots of bonds are liquidated on a regular basis. The whole system is not broken. The issue at hand is, did the called-in bond do what it was supposed to do when an insolvency, bankruptcy or contamination occured?

I have previously put before the public a suggestion that will address some of these problems.  This recommendation should be considered by the state legislature. My recommendation:  an agency with authority over an operator’s financial assurance requirements shall evaluate in writing all financial assurance proposals using an agency-designated non-party (an outside consultant) with recognized experience on the matter of providing financial assurance.  A completed report and recommendation by an outside consultant shall be a condition before granting or maintaining a permit or license. The costs incurred by the agency in contracting with the independent outside consultant shall be paid by the operator.

Op-ed available at the Argus Leader

David Ganje practices law in the area of natural resources, environmental and commercial law in South Dakota and North Dakota. His website is Lexenergy.net