N.D. Oil and Gas Division questioned about deleting potentially valuable emails

BISMARCK, N.D. - An attorney for landowners in the Bakken found potentially valuable information in deleted folders at the state's energy regulation agency.

Now he's speaking out. ​

Derrick Braaten filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the North Dakota Oil and Gas Division to see how many emails they delete.

In a two-week period in early May last year, nearly 39,000 emails were in delete folders.

About 7,000 emails went through a three-step process of being deleted forever or purged.

Still, state officials say they did nothing wrong.

While spills are an unfortunate side-effect of oil development, some say oil companies aren't doing their part to avoid as much damage as possible.

"They're abusing the land. They're abusing the right to be on that land and the ultimate person that's going to pay for it is the landowner," said Former Rep. Kenton Onstad, D-Parshall.

Representative Onstad's email concerning a well pad's construction was among those deleted. However, the Oil and Gas Division maintained the inspector's notes on that site in the department's records.

"Be it our internal servers, our well files, our case files, so it's going to be retained in the agency. So, just because the email's gone, doesn't mean the information is gone," said Alison Ritter, Oil and Gas Division.

Ritter says information is stored in a variety of places on the division's servers.

"It is the most difficult agency in the state to work with on getting records and it's a continual problem," said Derrick Braaten, landowner's attorney.

Braaten filed the open records request and found landowner complaints, dumpsite pictures and emails with industry leaders marked for deletion. He feared documents that could be valuable for his clients were ending up in the trash.

"It's difficult to even frame a request for information to get that because in my opinion they make it intentionally difficult to get at those records," said Braaten.

"We're an open book. If you want to know something, or if you have a question or you want to request something, absolutely ask me and we'll provide it to you," said Ritter.

Braaten says the department should have more information readily available. He says the department should also be more forthcoming on where records can be found in the system.

KFYR-TV looked into several of the deleted emails, to see what records remained in the department, including one with pictures sent in that were deleted.

Ritter says the illegal dump site in the pictures wasn't under Oil and Gas's jurisdiction, so there are no inspector notes and agency didn't keep the submitted pictures.

The inspector did, however, keep these pictures he took when he inspected the site.