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 on: Nov 24, 2014, 07:28 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Where Oil and Politics Mix

After an unusual land deal, a giant spill and a tanker-train explosion, anxiety began to ripple across the North Dakota prairie.

By DEBORAH SONTAG   
NOV. 23, 2014
NYT

TIOGA, N.D. — In late June, as black and gold balloons bobbed above black and gold tables with oil-rig centerpieces, the theme song from “Dallas” warmed up the crowd for the “One Million Barrels, One Million Thanks” celebration.

North Dakota took on the oversight of a multibillion-dollar oil industry with a regulatory system built on trust, warnings and second chances. Nov. 22, 2014

The mood was giddy. Halliburton served barbecued crawfish from Louisiana. A commemorative firearms dealer hawked a “one-million barrel” shotgun emblazoned with the slogan “Oil Can!” Mrs. North Dakota, in banner and crown, posed for pictures. The Texas Flying Legends performed an airshow backlit by a leaping flare of burning gas. And Gov. Jack Dalrymple was the featured guest.

Traveling through the “economically struggling” nation, Mr. Dalrymple told the crowd, he encountered many people who asked, “Jack, what the heck are you doing out there in North Dakota?” to create the fastest-growing economy, lowest unemployment rate and (according to one survey) happiest population.

“And I enjoy explaining to them, ‘Yes, the oil boom is a big, big help,' ” he said.

Outsiders, he explained, simply need to be educated out of their fear of fracking: “There is a way to explain it that really relaxes people, that makes them understand this is not a dangerous thing that we’re doing out here, that it’s really very well managed and very safe and really the key to the future of not only North Dakota but really our entire nation.”

Tioga, population 3,000, welcomed North Dakota’s first well in 1951, more than a half-century before hydraulic fracturing liberated the “tight oil” trapped in the Bakken shale formation. So it was fitting that Tioga ring in the daily production milestone that had ushered the Bakken into the rarefied company of historic oil fields worldwide.

But Tioga also claims another record: what is considered the largest on-land oil spill in recent American history. And only Brenda Jorgenson, 61, who attended “to hear what does not get said,” mentioned that one, sotto voce.

The million-barrel bash was devoid of protesters save for Ms. Jorgenson, a tall, slender grandmother who has two wells at her driveway’s end and three jars in her refrigerator containing blackened water that she said came from her faucet during the fracking process. She did not, however, utter a contrary word.

“I’m not that brave (or stupid) to protest among that,” she said in an email afterward. “I’ve said it before: we’re outgunned, outnumbered and out-suited.”

North Dakotans do not like to make a fuss. Until recently, those few who dared to challenge the brisk pace of oil development, the perceived laxity of government oversight or the despoliation of farmland were treated as killjoys. They were ignored, ridiculed, threatened, and paid settlements in exchange for silence.

But over the past year and some, the dynamic seemed to be shifting.

Satellite photos of western North Dakota at night, aglitter like a metropolis with lighted rigs and burning flares, crystallized its rapid transformation from tight-knit agricultural society to semi-industrialized oil powerhouse. Proposals to drill near historic places generated heated opposition. The giant oil spill in Tioga in September 2013 frightened people, as did the explosion months later of a derailed oil train, which sent black smoke mushrooming over a snowy plain.

Then, this year, North Dakotans learned of discovery after discovery of illegally dumped oil filter socks, the “used condoms” of the oil industry, which contain radiation dislodged from deep underground.

Suddenly a percolating anxiety came uncorked. “The worm is turning,” Timothy Q. Purdon, the United States attorney, said in April.

It was against this backdrop that on a brisk spring day David Schwalbe, a retired rancher, and his wife, Ellen Chaffee, a former university president, walked headlong into the wind on their way to an F.B.I. office in Fargo.

A mile-long oil train was rumbling through downtown. Wordlessly, Mr. Schwalbe tightened his grip on the black binders bearing what he considered evidence, based on an unusual deal involving his family’s land, that Governor Dalrymple had a corrupt relationship with the oil industry.

‘This has David kind of nervous,” Dr. Chaffee confided. “He comes from a very below-the-radar culture.”

A Potential Advantage for the Oil Industry

As a boy in the 1950s, Mr. Schwalbe scampered up and down the steep banks of Corral Creek, which flows from Killdeer Mountain into the Little Missouri River. His family homestead lay in the remote region where Theodore Roosevelt sought solitude in what he called the “desolate, grim beauty” of the Badlands.

Like many in his generation, Mr. Schwalbe took for granted the craggy buttes and rippling grasslands, the cottonwoods and poplars, the mule deer and mountain lions. He never anticipated a day when this singular landscape would be ravaged, in his view, by rigs, pumping units, waste pits and pipelines and when he would become an archetypal North Dakotan of a certain age, disheartened by what others saw as progress.

As he helped his father run cattle 11,000 feet above the Bakken formation, Mr. Schwalbe came to understand that the family ranch would never sustain his parents and their six adult children. After college, he settled in eastern North Dakota, returning home mostly for “brandings, hunting and holidays.”

Ellen Chaffee and her husband, David Schwalbe, gave the F.B.I. what they considered evidence of Governor Dalrymple’s corrupt relationship with the oil industry.
Jim Wilson/The New York Times

When their father died, five Schwalbe siblings — David, Dennis, Donnie, Donnette and Dale — sold their shares of the ranch to their brother Delry. All six kept their rights to what lay beneath the surface, however. Just in case.

The Schwalbes were following the lead of Burlington Northern Railroad, which once owned every other tract in the area, the legacy of a federal land grant. The railroad eventually sold the surface but retained the minerals, which were managed by its energy company, Burlington Resources, now a subsidiary of ConocoPhillips.

“We figured they knew something we didn’t,” Mr. Schwalbe said.

Land has long been sliced and diced in North Dakota from generation to generation, with surface ownership severed from the ownership of underlying minerals like coal and oil. Given that mineral rights trump surface rights, this made many residents of western North Dakota feel trampled once the boom began.

In 2006, a land man for Marathon Oil offered to lease the Schwalbe siblings’ 480 acres of minerals for $100 an acre plus royalties on every sixth barrel of oil.

“Within a few years, people were getting 20, 30 times that and every fifth barrel,” Mr. Schwalbe said. But the Schwalbes did not expect “to see any oil come up out of that ground in our lifetime.”

Oil companies were just starting to combine horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing to tap into the mother lode of Bakken oil. “We didn’t really know yet about fracking,” he said.

The Schwalbes’ first well was drilled in 2008, their second the next year. Powerless to block the development, Mr. Schwalbe and his wife, nearing retirement, took some comfort in the extra income, the few thousand dollars a month.

Then that was threatened, too.

On June 20, 2011, the Schwalbes received a letter informing them that Burlington Resources intended to forge a 30,883.94-acre oil production unit that would effectively override their lease agreement with Marathon and subsume their mineral property. In the Bakken, such units are typically 1,280 acres.

The Schwalbes were instructed to sign a ratification agreement by August, when a hearing was scheduled on what some started calling “the mega-unit.” The mega-unit would include the Little Missouri State Park, a patchwork of private, state and federal land beloved for its rugged trails.

Initially perplexed by the thick document on their doorstep, the Schwalbes soon grasped a painful point: though they would be ceding control of their mineral property, their consent was not required. Only the owners of 60 percent of the unit’s minerals were needed for ratification, and Burlington, together with the federal government, already met that goal.

“That’s part of why they chose Corral Creek for their scheme,” Dr. Chaffee said. “They didn’t have to deal with a lot of fleas like us, the pesky citizens.”

The proposal had the potential to set an advantageous precedent for the oil industry.

As ConocoPhillips officials explained at the August hearing, they aimed to maximize oil recovery by being freed of the “artificial boundary lines” that require 200-foot setbacks from the borders of each standard production unit. Their plan would allow for 23 more wells; for 73,000 more barrels of oil per well; and for consolidated production that would reduce “surface disturbance,” truck traffic and air pollution. It was a proposal “for the common good,” they said.

Many of the “pesky citizens” were skeptical. “Basically this whole unit scenario is only good for one person, and that’s Burlington,” Leroy Fettig, a land and mineral owner, said at the hearing.

In normal units, oil leases expire after a set time if no drilling occurs and owners can then renegotiate on better terms or put them up for bid. But under the proposed unit, Mr. Fettig said, “You wouldn’t have to drill one additional well to hold all the acreage here theoretically for a very long period of time.”

He worried, too, he said, that Burlington would have unfettered access to a nearly 50-square-mile area and be able to situate well pads, roads and gathering pipelines without having to negotiate easements or rights of way.

“Mr. Fettig, you’re not an engineer, are you?” a lawyer for Burlington asked him. “You’re not a geologist?”

“I’m not a lawyer, either,” Mr. Fettig replied.

Mr. Schwalbe’s lawyers cautioned that he would see a significant drop in his monthly checks, as his royalties would be shared with all the mineral owners in the mega-unit, including ConocoPhillips itself. Down the road, he could recoup that loss, and then some, when wells were developed elsewhere in the unit. But he worried that if, say, oil prices dropped, he would not see that income in his lifetime.

Before the hearing, Mr. Schwalbe had approached Lynn D. Helms, director of the state’s Department of Mineral Resources, with a compromise: unitize the property in phases to be fairer to the owners of the dozen existing wells.

“I realize in the overall scope of things, my check is pretty small, but it’s got a Social Security check beat all to hell,” Mr. Schwalbe said at the hearing. “I’m hoping with the help of the commission this can be worked out equitably for everybody.”

Mr. Helms ultimately executes the policies of the three elected officials — the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner, all Republicans — who make up the North Dakota Industrial Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry. Yet at their monthly meetings, he guides them calmly from vote to vote and rarely encounters dissent. A review by The New York Times of meeting minutes since 2011 found no failed motions concerning oil and gas.

“You feel as if the meetings are a performance, that everything’s sort of done under the table, with a lot of back-room deals,” said Wayde Schafer, the Sierra Club’s sole employee in North Dakota.

Private citizens were not the only ones concerned about the mega-unit. “Before we get all up in arms about it, we have a few questions about what the proposal is and if it is going to benefit us or not,” a state land official wrote to a state oil official in October 2011. “One of the things that has got us so upset is that they are playing this off as a ‘done deal.' ”

It is essentially a done deal, the oil official responded, saying he expected an order at the Nov. 21 commission meeting would “dispose of this case.”

The Nov. 21 vote was postponed.

On Dec. 16, Mr. Schwalbe received a notarized copy of an order signed by Mr. Helms on Dec. 5. Citing “issues in this case of such complexity that additional time is necessary for the commission to render a decision,” it continued the case for 45 days. Mr. Schwalbe breathed a sigh of relief.

Lynn D. Helms, the director of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, has a dual mission as both an oil industry promoter and its chief regulator.
Jim Wilson/The New York Times

On Dec. 20, however, he got a call from his brother Donnie: The commission had taken up the matter after all, voting unanimously to approve the mega-unit.

“We were just dumbfounded,” Mr. Schwalbe said. “It seemed so sneaky. You know how sick a feeling it is when somebody takes your property away and gives it to somebody else? And you don’t even get a chance to be there and protest?”

Mr. Helms’s spokeswoman, Alison Ritter, said, “There’s nothing in that order that says we couldn’t act before the 45 days was up.”

Before the vote, Mr. Helms had recommended approval because, he said, the mega-unit would allow for more efficient drilling with fewer multiwell pads and storage tank batteries and “a much smaller impact on the park.” He also cited “one other major positive” — the recovery of an additional 15 million barrels of oil. During the long discussion that followed, the park was barely mentioned, though Mr. Helms did note that the development called for no tank batteries inside it.

In a statement to The Times, Governor Dalrymple’s office said the commission had acted “solely to preserve the Missouri State Park’s viewscape.”

Under the present development plan, there will be up to 28 wells and, despite what was said before the commission’s vote, three storage tank batteries inside park boundaries, Jesse Hanson, a state parks official, said. He called it “a significant intrusion.”

‘Reluctant Landowners Standing in the Way of Progress’

North Dakota’s small conservation movement has shied away from the confrontational approach that characterizes the antifracking movement elsewhere.

“We all feel we have to issue the apologia that we’re not anti-oil, we just want to see it done responsibly,” Dr. Chaffee said.

The industry, as a result, has not grappled with much opposition. “From a conservation standpoint, I can name most of those people,” said Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council.

In her split-level house overlooking the majestic White Earth River Valley, Brenda Jorgenson, for one, has been a persistent thorn in the side of industry and state officials.

“ 'Reluctant landowners’ is the phrase they use for people like us,” her husband, Richard Jorgenson, said, laughing. “Reluctant landowners standing in the way of progress.”

While the Schwalbes were battling the mega-unit, the Jorgensons were trying to get their dirty drinking water tested by the state and then challenging, unsuccessfully, the burial of a waste disposal pit they call a “toxic tomb” on their property. Later, also unsuccessfully, they fought the construction of a high-pressure gas pipeline in their fields.

“We had a human prayer line to block that pipeline,” Ms. Jorgenson said. “It’s like having a ticking bomb in your backyard.”

Ms. Jorgenson maintains photo albums that intermingle pictures of her grandchildren doing snow angels with those of fracking trucks advancing on her home. Relatives ask why she and her husband do not just move. “But that’s just what the oil companies want,” Ms. Jorgenson said. “They see us as the trespassers.”

One company, in fact, sued three activist landowners in 2011, seeking damages for trespassing after the men tried to document what they believed was the cover-up of a saltwater spill.

A judge dismissed the lawsuit, calling it an effort to “shut these people up.”

“It was a great result, which is kind of rare,” said Derrick Braaten, their lawyer.

When Mr. Purdon, the United States attorney, tried to hold oil companies accountable for dead migratory birds, the result was not as satisfactory.

For years, federal wildlife agents had been imploring oil companies to cover their waste pits; migratory birds sometimes dived or fell in, dying preventable deaths. But some companies preferred to absorb the cost of citations rather than invest in netting.

In 2011, Mr. Purdon decided firmer action was needed. In one sweep through the Bakken, Richard Grosz, a special agent for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, collected 28 dead birds from drilling sites. One, found submerged, had a rock tied to its neck: “They had tried to deep-six the evidence,” Mr. Grosz said.

Six oil companies were charged with misdemeanor violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Mr. Purdon said that within hours of the complaints being filed, he received a call from a friend with a message from top-ranking state officials: “If Tim thought he would be a federal judge someday, that’s done.”

Three companies signed plea agreements. The others fought the charges, and not just in court. During a presidential campaign debate, Mitt Romney, whose energy adviser was chief executive of one of those companies, Continental Resources, mocked the prosecution; The Wall Street Journal called Mr. Purdon “dodo prosecutor of the year.”

A federal judge dismissed the cases, saying the bird act was meant to address deliberate killing by hunters and poachers.

Since then, Mr. Grosz said, “we have not gone back out in the oil patch to look for these things. Birds are still being killed. But we’ve quit.”

A ‘Case of Such Complexity’ Suddenly Be comes a Done Deal

The mega-unit became a reality on Jan. 1, 2012. Mr. Schwalbe’s first royalty check was reduced by 95 percent.

For many months, Mr. Schwalbe and his wife stewed. Then Dr. Chaffee, apolitical during 15 years as president of state universities, decided to get partisan. She joined the Democratic ticket of State Senator Ryan Taylor, a fresh-faced rancher who faced an uphill battle against Mr. Dalrymple for an office under Republican control for two decades.

Mr. Dalrymple was running his own first race for governor, having ascended to the post in 2010 after his predecessor was elected to the United States Senate.

On the day Mr. Taylor announced Dr. Chaffee’s candidacy for lieutenant governor, Mr. Schwalbe stepped off the sidelines of what his wife called a “near-hermit existence.” His first campaign assignment was to study the opposition’s year-end financial disclosure report.

And there he found what he believed to be an explanation for why the mega-unit “case of such complexity” had gotten simpler after Mr. Helms signed the Dec. 5 continuation order.

On Dec. 5, the Exxon Mobil Corporation PAC contributed $600 to Mr. Dalrymple’s campaign. On Dec. 12, Harold G. Hamm, chief executive of Continental, gave $20,000. On Dec. 17, the Marathon Oil PAC gave $5,000. On Dec. 21, the day after the mega-unit vote, for which he was present, Continental’s Bismarck-based lawyer gave $5,000. On Dec. 27, Denbury Resources contributed $5,000.

All these companies held a working interest or lease ownership in the Corral Creek mega-unit. ConocoPhillips, which stood to profit the most, had contributed $1,000 through its PAC in October.

Ryan Taylor, at his ranch in Towner. Running as a Democrat, he lost a bid  for governor in 2012 and for agriculture commissioner this year.
Jim Wilson/The New York Times

The governor’s office declined The Times’s requests to interview him, and provided a written statement. It did not verify or deny The Times’s calculation of contributions or respond to specific questions about allegations of conflicts of interest.

Over the campaign, Mr. Dalrymple would collect over $93,000 from those with a direct interest in the mega-unit and a total of about $550,000 from oil-related executives, lawyers and political action committees. That represented a quarter of the $2.16 million in contributions over $200 (the bar for disclosure) to Mr. Dalrymple.

Governors in top oil-producing states typically get industry contributions. In North Dakota, though, the governor’s relationship to those contributors’ interests is uniquely direct because he is chairman of the Industrial Commission.

In California, by contrast, the Department of Conservation supervises the industry. In Alaska, it is a commission appointed by the governor. In Texas, it is the elected Railroad Commission.

“North Dakota’s is a hugely defective setup,” said David C. Thompson, a lawyer in Grand Forks. “Our elected officials regulate companies they get contributions from and companies they own stock in. Nobody ever recuses himself; they just vote.”

In mid-2012, Mr. Schwalbe approached Mr. Thompson at a campaign event. The lawyer happened to be researching state corruption laws on behalf of Brad Crabtree, a Democratic candidate for the Public Service Commission, which, in addition to regulating utilities, oversees oil pipeline siting and mine reclamation.

Mr. Crabtree, who went on to lose, had declined to accept contributions from the energy industry and sought to shine a spotlight on “comprehensive, institutionalized conflict” in the way North Dakota’s regulators conducted business.

Mr. Thompson, meanwhile, discovered a Watergate-era bribery statute that made it a felony for public officials to accept “a thing of pecuniary value” from any “actor” with an imminent or pending proceeding before them. No quid pro quo was necessary; the mere possibility that the official’s “performance or nonperformance” of his duties could be affected made it a crime.

Therefore, Mr. Thompson concluded in a legal analysis posted on the blog NorthDecoder.com, Mr. Dalrymple, in the case of the mega-unit, had taken bribes.

That bombshell landed with a fizzle. The state media took no interest, Mr. Taylor said, and, “as a candidate behind in the polls, who would be accused of trying to make sheer political hay,” he declined to use the allegations.

Then Mr. Thompson got a call from Paul Sorum, a founder of North Dakota’s Tea Party running for governor as an independent.."He said, ‘Are you aware of the citizen-initiated grand jury process?' ” Mr. Thompson related. “You need 10 percent of voters” in a county to sign a petition.

A week before the election, a petition filed in Dunn County, where the mega-unit is, asked a judge to convene a grand jury to determine whether Mr. Dalrymple could be prosecuted for bribery.

On Election Day, Mr. Taylor lost by nearly 30 points. Even before he had formally announced his candidacy for governor, the State Legislature had eliminated two rural districts, one of them his. “That was a dirty deal,” he said.

A couple of weeks later, a judge dismissed the grand jury petition, finding a few signatures illegitimate.
The Seeds of a Resistance Movement

The conservationists of North Dakota often express nostalgia for the strong stance that former Gov. Arthur A. Link took during a coal-mining boom in the 1970s. He pledged to protect the state for future generations “when the landscape becomes quiet again.”

“When the draglines, the blasting rigs, the power shovels and the huge gondolas cease to rip and roar, and when the last bulldozer has pushed the last spoil pile into place and the last patch of barren earth has been seeded to grass or grain, let those who follow and repopulate the land be able to say, ‘Our grandparents did their job well,' ” he said.


The current governor is better known for his business acumen than his rhetoric. John Stewart Dalrymple III, 66, is something of a patrician, a rarity in North Dakota. His state biography says he grew up “on the family farm in Casselton,” N.D., but he was born in Minneapolis and attended a private day school there before boarding at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire and going on to Yale, like his father before him.

The 140-year-old family farm once stretched over 32,000 acres, making it “the largest cultivated farm in the world,” according to North Dakota State University archives. More recently, Dalrymple Farms has been one of the state’s largest recipients of federal commodity subsidies.

Mr. Dalrymple was more of an agribusinessman than the typical North Dakota farmer: “I’m not saying he never greased a combine, but his farm office was in the National Bank building in Casselton and he’d wear a white shirt to work,” said Bill Patrie, a specialist in rural cooperatives who worked with Mr. Dalrymple to establish a farmer-owned pasta co-op.

Mr. Dalrymple served as co-op chairman through eight years in the legislature and a decade as lieutenant governor. While lieutenant governor, he championed the cooperative’s conversion to an investor-owned firm in which he was a major shareholder, and then oversaw its sale to a Canadian conglomerate, making $3.77 million.

“In essence, Jack converted a quasi-public local institution into a personal, one-time profit maker and sold it to a multinational corporation,” Mr. Patrie said, adding, “I believe he used his public office for private gain.”

But Mr. Patrie said the local news media and farmers’ groups did not raise objections.

“We North Dakotans trust our politicians — even when they sell us out,” he said.

Many Democrats were incensed when Edward T. Schafer, a Republican former governor, toured the state in an oil industry-sponsored “Fix the Tax” bus in 2011, arguing that oil taxes should be lowered to prevent the boom from going bust. The effort failed; afterward, Mr. Schafer was named to the board of Continental Resources, and awarded a compensation package, mostly stock, valued at $700,000 that year.

According to Mr. Dalrymple’s 2012 statement of interests, he and his wife own oil stock themselves, including unspecified amounts in at least one company with regular business before his Industrial Commission: Exxon Mobil, a top state producer through its subsidiary XTO.

Because XTO was a working interest owner in the mega-unit, Mr. Schwalbe believed the governor himself could be said to have “owned a piece of the property.”

In early February 2013, Mr. Schwalbe filed a second grand jury petition.

At the same time, state legislators pushed for a higher bar for citizens to convene grand juries so that innocent people would not be subjected to criminal charges, as one legislator put it. They succeeded. And a judge threw out the second citizens’ petition.

Mr. Schwalbe felt defeated, but pockets of resistance were beginning to develop as the boom intensified.
Taking Steps to Assert Greater Authority

Early this year, an irritated crowd at a Mountrail County Commission meeting confronted Mr. Helms, the director of mineral resources, asking why state officials had approved an oil waste pit in the wellhead protection area for a municipal water supply.

Mr. Helms explained that his inspectors had had the wrong maps, adding, “We strive for perfection, but since we’re human, we have to settle for excellence.”

That came across as cavalier to the Rev. Carolyn Philstrom, a young Lutheran pastor, who shot off a letter to the editor of a local newspaper. “I baptize babies with that water,” she wrote, though she subsequently tempered her outspokenness because it bothered parishioners.

When the illegally dumped oil filter socks were discovered, Rick Schreiber, the director of solid waste for McKenzie County, became the rare official voicing outrage at what he called oil company recklessness and state inaction.

“I’m not here to make friends with the oil patch,” Mr. Schreiber said in February as trucks rolled over the radiation detector he had installed at his landfill. “If I’m the guy that has to beat the hornets’ nest with a stick, I’ll do it.”

This year, the Industrial Commission has gradually taken steps to assert greater authority over the industry.

After applications to drill near a 19th-century battlefield and near the Elkhorn Ranch in Theodore Roosevelt National Park stirred unusually heated public debate, the commission established special procedures including a public comment period for drilling on public, though not private, land near 18 “areas of interest.” The petroleum industry had resisted, cautioning that “radical environmentalists” would exploit the comment period to obstruct development. But conservationists saw the measure as a watered-down version of a proposal that already offered too little, too late.

Next, after more than a dozen mineral owners filed anti-flaring lawsuits, the commission moved to clamp down on a longstanding problem. Some 30 percent of the natural gas produced in the state — compared with less than 1 percent nationwide — was being treated as a byproduct of oil production and burned off.

At a hearing in April, Dr. Lyle Best, a pediatrician, said he lived downwind of tall flares that roared like jetliners and flickered light through his bedroom window.

“Our real annoyance, however, is the understanding that these two flares have burned off over 60 million cubic feet of natural gas in the past six months and are continuously wasting enough energy to heat hundreds of homes at the same time that many people in our country are sleeping on the street, and at least one North Dakotan died of hypothermia this winter,” he said. “This doesn’t even address the issue of carbon dioxide and other pollutants.”

When the commission voted in July to require “gas-capture plans” and impose production restrictions if companies did not meet them, Mr. Dalrymple said, “I hope that what we do today, we are serious about.”

And when QEP Resources petitioned to create its own mega-unit, Mr. Dalrymple dissented from the 2-to-1 vote of approval. In its statement, the governor’s office said the QEP mega-unit, unlike the Corral Creek one, would not have provided a “benefit to conservation efforts.” QEP later dropped its plan.

In April 2014, a cleanup crew equipped to handle hazardous radiation removed a large cache of filter socks illegally dumped inside an abandoned fuel station in Noonan, N.D.

At the entrance to the mega-unit, on the dirt access road built for the hundreds of trucks that now traverse what used to be pristine pastures, Mr. Schwalbe’s cousin, Candyce Kleemann, sat at the wheel of her pickup, photographs on her dashboard.

“These are the before pictures: before the invasion,” said Ms. Kleemann, who lives and ranches inside the unit. “When we fought the unit, they told us there would be minimal damage or changes. But it’s a different landscape. Look, that’s our new saltwater injection well.”

She pointed to a sign: “Danger: H2S. Poisonous gas.” And to another: “Caution: power lines.” Her own sign, proclaiming her land to be private property, made her snort.

“That one’s useless,” she said. “We’re even more powerless than surface owners in the rest of the oil patch. In this unit, oil can go wherever they want here, put roads and gathering lines wherever they want, bury crud in our ground. The state does not seem to care.”

In 2012, Ms. Kleemann’s husband, Robert, a Dunn County commissioner, complained to the state that the unit development plan was being modified, putting 11 wells within a half-mile of six homes.

When an official responded that the changes appeared necessary for topographical reasons, Mr. Kleemann wrote back, “I do not think you could understand our concerns unless we could put a drilling rig on each side of your house so you could listen to the clang of pipes, the roar of motors, the constant beep of the horn and be awakened in the morning to the driller giving orders over the bullhorn and you could try to sleep with the constant noise of Jake Brakes.”

State officials were more concerned that ConocoPhillips was not developing the unit as aggressively as promised. Now the pace has picked up, with several dozen wells drilled in 2013 and several dozen more this year.

In April, when the Schwalbes laid out their concerns to two F.B.I. agents in a windowless room in the Fargo federal building, they felt encouraged. The agents seemed apprehensive “because of the individual involved,” Mr. Schwalbe said, but gradually “their interest was piqued.”

“They thanked us for coming forward,” he said afterward, surprised.

In the summer, though, a final meeting with the agents left them disheartened. The investigation remained open, they were told, but prosecutors saw no federal case to be made.

Mr. Schwalbe, who had wagered that “this year is going to be better because people are starting to get mad,” was disappointed by the November elections, too.

His wife’s former running mate, Mr. Taylor, ran again, this time for agriculture commissioner, proposing that oil well setbacks from homes be increased to a quarter-mile from 500 feet and that pipelines be fitted with antispill devices. But he lost, as did a ballot initiative to set aside tax revenues for conservation. With considerable oil industry backing, the agriculture commissioner was re-elected, as was the attorney general, extending the mandate of the current Industrial Commission.

Mr. Schwalbe does not like to visit Corral Creek anymore. The landscape is, in his eyes, scarred, the tranquillity spoiled. His new outspokenness led him into an uncharacteristic public role as spokesman for a new group, North Dakota Rural Voters.

“I never thought I’d be involved in anything like this,” he said. “At my age, I thought we’d just slide through the rest of our lives. But at a certain point, it became a point of pride for me personally and me as a North Dakotan. I don’t like people taking things that don’t belong to them, not my money, not my property, not my state.”

North Dakota took on the oversight of a multibillion-dollar oil industry with a regulatory system built on trust, warnings and second chances.

In 2011, Andrew J. Rohr and two other workers were badly burned when a towering derrick erupted into flames and toppled. “I was a human torch,” Mr. Rohr said.

Michael Wines contributed reporting from Bismarck, N.D.

Sources: North Dakota Department of Health; analysis by The New York Times; Satellite imagery courtesy of Google; final image in flyover by Jim Wilson/The New York Times.

Produced by Gregor Aisch, Hannah Fairfield, John Niedermeyer, Matt Ruby and Jeremy White
Correction: November 24, 2014

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Ryan Taylor, a Democratic State Senate leader who ran against  Gov. Jack Dalrymple of North Dakota in 2012, had his Senate seat redistricted out of existence after he lost that election. His seat was eliminated in late 2011 as he was preparing to announce his candidacy.

 62 
 on: Nov 24, 2014, 07:19 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Colombia Suspends Military Operations ahead of Hostage Release

by Naharnet Newsdesk
24 November 2014, 07:00

Colombia's military has suspended its operations in the east in order to allow the liberation of two soldiers held by the leftist FARC rebels, authorities said Sunday.

The move came after FARC guerrillas warned that increased military activity was jeopardizing the release of the two soldiers, captured on November 9 in the Arauca province, and of a Colombian general abducted with two others on November 16.

"The national government, conforming to established protocols, has already suspended operations of the public force in the sector," the defense ministry said in a statement, adding that it had not yet received details on where the two soldiers were to be handed over.

Their release is scheduled for Tuesday under an agreement reached between the government and the rebels that also arranged for the general to be freed at a later date.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos made the release of the hostages a condition for restarting the two-year peace negotiations which he suspended after the general's abduction.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) had warned earlier Sunday they may no longer release the captives due to military action in the Choco region where General Ruben Alzate was taken.

Troop deployments, aircraft overflights and movement-restricting security measures have brought life in the jungle region to a standstill.

"These communities have been practically besieged by the army," the FARC said in statement from its delegation in Havana.

As long as the military maintains a heavy presence in the jungle, Alzate and other soldiers are unlikely to be freed, the guerrilla group said.

The defense ministry insisted it had not attempted to mount any rescue operation and its presence was solely "for the protection of citizens."

General Alzate was kidnapped on November 16 in the remote Choco region, sending into disarray the peace talks aimed at ending Latin America's longest-running insurgency.

The 50-year struggle has claimed more than 220,000 lives.

The FARC called for a reduction in military operations before freeing the general, and the Red Cross has been asked to assist in the handover.

Source: Agence France Presse

 63 
 on: Nov 24, 2014, 07:18 AM 
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100 People Massacred in DR Congo's Restive East Last Week

by Naharnet Newsdesk
24 November 2014, 11:54

About 100 people were slaughtered last week in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the latest massacres to shake the restive region, regional deputies told Agence France Presse on Monday.

The carnage took place on Thursday near the town of Beni in the North Kivu province, where mainly Muslim Ugandan rebels have been blamed for killing more than 200 civilians in gruesome attacks since October.

"I have a figure of 95 bodies buried in a common grave," as well as "nine others that were shown to authorities in a morgue," opposition member of parliament Juma Balikwisha told AFP.

"We still don't have a definitive toll. It lies between 70 and 100 people killed," said Albert Baliesima, an MP for the parliamentary majority backing President Joseph Kabila.

"We were told that the (Congolese armed forces, FARDC) didn't want people to go further into the bush, where more bodies could yet be discovered, he added.

Officials who spoke to AFP said they did not know who carried out the massacres, but they took place in a region where rebels of the Allied Democratic Forces and National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (ADF-NALU) battled the army early in November.

An administrative source in Beni said killings took place in four villages located near each other between the market town -- 250 kilometres (155 miles) north of the provincial capital Goma -- and the town of Mbau, 20 kilometres further north.

Reached by telephone, a local resident told AFP that 95 bodies picked up in the bush had been buried in the village of Tepiomba.

North Kivu's governor, Julien Paluku, last Friday said that nine bodies had been taken to a morgue in the affected region. The Civil Society of North Kivu, an association based in Beni, said that at least 50 people had died, according to "one of the survivors."

The ADF-NALU rebels have been hiding out in the Ruwenzori mountains that straddle the border with Uganda since being driven out of their homeland by President Yoweri Museveni's soldiers in 1995.

In January, the Congolese army and troops of a special U.N. intervention brigade launched a joint offensive against the insurgents. The brigade with the large U.N. mission in the DRC has an offensive mandate to tackle armed insurgent forces.

Source: Agence France Presse

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 on: Nov 24, 2014, 07:16 AM 
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Burkina Military Retains Powerful Posts in New Cabinet

by Naharnet Newsdesk
23 November 2014, 23:00

Burkina Faso's military retained powerful posts in a new cabinet unveiled Sunday, three weeks after the army took over in the wake of a popular revolt.

The army's Issac Zida will remain prime minster and also take the defense minister post, officials said. The military will likewise have control of the interior ministry, announced Alain Sery Ouattara, government secretary general.

In all, four military members will be in the 26-member cabinet. Interim civilian President Michel Kafando will double up as foreign minister.

Kafando, a former diplomat, took office on Friday to steer the west African nation for a transitional period after veteran president Blaise Compaore was toppled in a wave of popular unrest last month. The military has pledged to help bring the country back to full civilian rule.

The shape of the new government was initially expected to be unveiled on Thursday, and then Saturday, but was repeatedly held up by differences between the rival parties.

One source said the delay was caused by the army's opposition to several ministerial candidates proposed by civil society groups.

Despite the civilian shift with Kafando becoming president, the military's control of the security services means the officers will remain a powerful political force.

Some civil society representatives have voiced concern over Zida's appointment and some residents of Ouagadougou called it a betrayal of their "revolution".

Both Kafando and Zida are barred from standing in elections scheduled to be held in November next year under the transition deal.

But a diplomat said: "Make no mistake, it's (Zida) who will lead the country."

Zida, 49, was appointed premier by Kafando on Wednesday, a day after the former U.N. ambassador was sworn in as interim leader.

Chosen after negotiations between political parties, the army and civil society, Kafando has emphasized his "humility" as a figure entrusted with "power that belongs to the people."

Kafando has pledged he will not let his landlocked nation of 17 million people become a "banana republic."

He vowed to punish those responsible for excesses during the 27-year rule of Compaore, who was very close to slain Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi and Liberian warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor, currently jailed for war crimes.

"We will settle accounts with all those who have abused justice and who think they can siphon off public funds," Kafando said.

"The message of the people is clear and we have heard it," he said. "No more injustice, no more chaos, no more corruption."

Compaore, meanwhile, flew into Morocco Friday on a visit from Ivory Coast, where he fled after an uprising against a constitutional change that could have enabled him to extend his hold on power.

Under intense international pressure, and the threat of sanctions if the military retained the post of head of state, an agreement was thrashed out to work towards elections in November 2015.

Burkina Faso notably exports cotton and gold, but almost half the population lives on less than a dollar a day and many are subsistence farmers.

Every change of regime in the country has been triggered by a coup since independence from France in 1960, when it was called Upper Volta.

Source: Agence France Presse

 65 
 on: Nov 24, 2014, 07:14 AM 
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Tunisia Vote for Leader Likely to Go to a Runoff

By CARLOTTA GALL
NOV. 23, 2014
IHT

TUNIS — Tunisians turned out in steady, orderly lines on Sunday to vote in their first free and democratic presidential election, voicing confidence that they were turning the page on the often-fractious transition after the revolution of 2011.

Exit polls suggested that neither of the two leading candidates — the interim president, Moncef Marzouki, and the former prime minister, Beji Caid Essebsi — was likely to win an outright majority and that a runoff between them would be necessary. Official results were not expected for one or two days.

Mr. Essebsi, 87, leads the secular party Nidaa Tounes and has been ahead in polls for months; his party won the largest bloc of seats in parliamentary elections in October. He appeared to be winning between 42 percent and 47 percent of the vote on Sunday, according to the results of two private exit polls that were announced on Tunisian television channels.

Mr. Marzouki, 69, a dissident, physician and human rights activist who has served as interim president since 2011, appeared to be receiving 29 percent to 32 percent of the vote, the exit polls indicated. His party suffered badly in the legislative elections, punished for its role in an Islamist-led coalition government that ruled for two chaotic years. Other candidates among the field of 27 were drawing 10 percent or less.

Each of the leading campaigns claimed that its candidate was ahead but would fall short of a majority. The provisional date for a runoff is Dec. 28.

“We are very happy with the way the election has gone so far,” Mohsen Marzouk, a spokesman for Mr. Essebsi and a senior executive of his party, told reporters soon after the polls closed on Sunday. “We feel we accomplished all the goals set out in this campaign, and we are ready to continue to the next phase.”

Mr. Marzouki, who cast his ballot in the coastal town of Sousse, south of the capital, appeared on national television and called for a clean second round of campaigning. He appealed to those who had supported other candidates to rally behind him. “I ask them to help me put an end to the transition period,” he said, “to establish a democratic pole, national unity and a strong civil society, to end completely the transitional period and to move on to work hard on eradicating the issues of poverty and misery.”

The years since the Tunisian revolution, the first of the Arab Spring uprisings, have been marked with demonstrations, political assassinations and rising terrorism as the country struggled to establish democracy after decades of dictatorship.

Many voters said on Sunday that they were voting for Mr. Essebsi because of his experience. Yet it was not lost on them that nearly four years after ejecting the authoritarian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, they were selecting an older leader who had held senior positions in the era of dictatorship.

“The revolution happened — that will stop things sliding back,” said Aroua Melika, who was beaming after casting her ballot in Tunis.

Another voter, Khira Ben Abderrahmen, said “we live in a democracy now and can choose.” She said she was not worried that Mr. Essebsi might revert to authoritarianism. “We used to be afraid, but we learned to say ‘Out!’ ” she said. “If Essebsi does not work, we can get him out.”

 66 
 on: Nov 24, 2014, 07:11 AM 
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General: Chinese Island Project in Disputed Waters 'Justifiable'

by Naharnet Newsdesk
24 November 2014, 07:10

Beijing on Monday fired back at U.S. criticism of an artificial island project in the disputed South China Sea that could reportedly include an airstrip, with a top general defending it as "justifiable".

People's Liberation Army Major General Luo Yuan told the state-run Global Times newspaper that Beijing was building infrastructure on the reef and the U.S. should stay out of the issue.

"The U.S. is obviously biased considering that the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam have already set up military facilities," Luo was quoted as saying.

"China is likely to withstand the international pressure and continue the construction, since it is completely legitimate and justifiable," he added.

A report last week by IHS Jane's Defence revealed new details of a vast land reclamation project China is undertaking on Fiery Cross Reef, known as Yongshu in China.

It is part of the Spratly Islands, which the Chinese call Nansha.

Beijing claims nearly all of the resource-rich South China Sea, while Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have their own claims, several of them also building structures on reefs or occupying islands.

According to the IHS Jane's Defence report the artificial island is a huge 3,000 metres (1,000 feet) long and 200-300 metres wide, one of several reclamation projects being pursued by China in the region but apparently the first that could accommodate an airstrip.

A harbour also has been dug out on the east side of the reef that appears large enough for tankers and naval warships, it said.

Days after the report, the U.S. called on China to halt the project and for other governments to cease similar efforts.

"We urge China to stop its land reclamation program, and engage in diplomatic initiatives to encourage all sides to restrain themselves in these sorts of activities," U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Pool said.

But the Global Times contended Monday that China was building on the reef "mainly to improve the living standards of the reef-stationed soldiers".

The U.S., which is "not a claimant" in the South China Sea, has been acting "selfishly" in the region, the paper added in an editorial.

"China's construction on the Yongshu Reef will not be affected by U.S. words," the Global Times wrote.

It added: "The Yongshu Reef is becoming a big island, which shows China's prominent construction capabilities."

Source: Agence France Presse

 67 
 on: Nov 24, 2014, 07:09 AM 
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U.N. 'Concerned' at Heavy Fighting in Myanmar's Kachin State

by Naharnet Newsdesk
24 November 2014, 14:31

The United Nations on Monday voiced alarm at an upsurge of fighting in Myanmar's northern state of Kachin, as shelling was reported near civilian areas and rebels said clashes could spread.

There has been heavy fighting in Kachin, near the border with China, since the army's surprise artillery attack on a Kachin Independence Army (KIA) training camp last week, which cast doubt over faltering peace talks.

The United Nations called for civilians to be protected in the fighting, which has caused around 100,000 people to flee their homes since a 17-year ceasefire ended in 2011.

"We are concerned by reports of renewed hostilities in Kachin State, particularly reports of shelling in the vicinity of villages and camps for internally displaced people," said Pierre Peron, spokesperson for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The powerful army has admitted carrying out Wednesday's attack on the KIA training camp, which the rebels say killed 22 recruits from various ethnic groups near its border stronghold of Laiza.

But the military said it was a warning shot in response to KIA attacks.

Local aid groups and the KIA have said shelling has continued, with heavy weapons fire near camps housing thousands of displaced people on Sunday. The camps themselves were not hit.

Rebel spokesman La Nan said the military could erode the trust of all ethnic groups by blaming the KIA for provoking its artillery attack.

"It could create fighting all over the country," he told AFP.

There is growing concern that months of painstaking negotiations between the government and multiple ethnic minority armed groups have reached an impasse over key issues -- such as the potential for the armed groups to continue to exist in some form.

In an interview last week with the Voice of America, army chief Min Aung Hlaing said the military was entitled to defend itself, including acting preemptively "to stop them (rebels) from being able to fight".

He rejected the idea that ethnic groups could continue to bear arms, but added: "We really want peace".

Some 14 of the 16 major rebel groups have signed ceasefire agreements with the quasi-civilian government as part of reforms in recent years. But deals with the KIA and the Ta'ang National Liberation Army in the eastern state of Shan have proved elusive.

A small group of protesters carrying candles gathered in central Yangon at dusk on Monday to protest at the recent attacks.

Source: Agence France Presse

 68 
 on: Nov 24, 2014, 07:08 AM 
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Former Bangladesh Ruling Party Official to Be Hanged for War Crimes

by Naharnet Newsdesk
24 November 2014, 09:56

Bangladesh's war crimes court Monday sentenced a former ruling party official to hang for mass murder, the 14th person convicted of atrocities during the 1971 independence struggle against Pakistan, a prosecutor said.

Mobarak Hossain, who was expelled from the Awami League after he was charged with war crimes in 2012, was found guilty of heading a militia that rounded up and killed scores during the nine-month conflict.

"He was sentenced to death for the murder of 33 people and given (a) life term for the abduction and murder of another person," prosecutor Shahidur Rahman told Agence France Presse.

The 64-year-old Hossain is the first person connected with the ruling party to be given the death penalty by the controversial tribunal, which has mostly focused on trials of officials of the country's largest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami.

Hossain, who was in court to hear the verdict, had previously been an official of Jamaat-e-Islami which opposed independence from Pakistan.

During the war he was a local commander of a notorious pro-Pakistani militia in the eastern border town of Akhaura which carried out murders, abductions and torture, Rahman said.

In one of the worst episodes of the war, "Hossain and his associates abducted 132 people and then murdered 33 of them on the bank of a pond", he said.

After Bangladesh gained independence, Jamaat was banned for some years. Hossain eventually switched to the Awami League, serving as a low-level official for 16 years until he was charged.

Jamaat's leader and its top lieutenants were sentenced to death last year for their roles in the war, triggering the country's deadliest political violence.

Thousands of Islamist activists clashed with police in various protests that left some 500 people dead.

An ex-minister of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has also been sentenced to hang.

The BNP and Jamaat have called the court's trials politically motivated and aimed at eliminating opposition leaders rather than rendering justice.

Rights groups have said the trials fall short of international standards and lack any foreign oversight.

The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina maintains the hearings are needed to heal the wounds of the conflict, which it says left three million people dead.

Independent researchers estimate that between 300,000 and 500,000 people died in the 1971 war.

Source: Agence France Presse

 69 
 on: Nov 24, 2014, 07:07 AM 
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Khmer Rouge Court Adjourns Genocide Trial until Next Year

by Naharnet Newsdesk
24 November 2014, 07:15

Cambodia's U.N.-backed court Monday adjourned the genocide trial of two ex-Khmer Rouge leaders until January 2015 after lawyers for one of the defendants continued to boycott proceedings.

Nuon Chea, 88, known as "Brother Number Two", and former head of state Khieu Samphan, 83, were given life sentences in August for crimes against humanity.

The pair were the first top figures to be jailed from a regime responsible for the deaths of up to two million Cambodians from 1975-1979.

Both men have lodged appeals against the convictions.

A second trial, in which they face genocide charges for the killings of ethnic Cham Muslims and Vietnamese as well as fresh counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes, began in July.

But it has been delayed since mid-October due to a boycott by lawyers for the defendants, who have demanded the disqualification of the trial judges and more time to file full appeal documents.

The motion to disqualify the judges was dismissed earlier this month, and Nuon Chea's defence team returned to court last week.

But Khieu Samphan has continued to instruct his lawyers not to take part in proceedings, saying it would affect his "right to a fair trial".

The trial chamber Friday again ordered Khieu Samphan's defence team to resume the trial.

But after they still refused to attend the hearing Monday, judge Nil Nonn, president of the trial chamber, said the court had "no reasonable alternative but to adjourn the case".

"The trial is adjourned until 8 January 2015," he said, adding the court would pursue misconduct proceedings against Khieu Samphan's lawyers.

The complex case against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan was split into a series of smaller trials in 2011 in a bid to get a faster verdict for reasons including their advanced age and the large number of accusations.

The August convictions followed a two-year trial focused on the forced evacuation of around two million Cambodians from Phnom Penh into rural labour camps, and on murders at one execution site.

Led by "Brother Number One" Pol Pot, who died in 1998 without ever facing justice, the Khmer Rouge dismantled modern society in Cambodia in their quest for an agrarian Marxist utopia.

Source: Agence France Presse

 70 
 on: Nov 24, 2014, 07:05 AM 
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India-Pakistan Tensions Set to Sour Regional Summit

by Naharnet Newsdesk
24 November 2014, 07:08

India's new premier heads to his first South Asia summit this week seeking stronger regional integration in the face of growing Chinese influence, but experts see little hope of progress while tensions with Pakistan persist.

The region's first summit in three years follows some of the worst cross-border violence in Kashmir in a decade, and comes as NATO-led troops prepare to pull out of Afghanistan, intensifying the India-Pakistan rivalry as the countries vie for influence there.

New Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a charm offensive on India's neighbours after winning a landslide election victory this year, raising hopes he would reinvigorate the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

The Washington-based Brookings Institution said Modi had "boldly stroked new hope for the future of SAARC" after a dismal past performance that earned it a reputation as the "unruly stepchild" of international organisations.

But expectations of progress at the summit have dimmed in recent weeks "owing to the escalation along the India-Pakistan border beyond the quotidian skirmishes that typically characterise this region," Brookings said in a recent briefing.

Modi raised hopes of a softening in relations with Islamabad when he invited all the SAARC leaders, including his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif, to his swearing-in.

But any hopes of a reconciliation were dashed when India angrily cancelled senior-level talks with Pakistan just months later, after Islamabad's envoy to New Delhi met with Kashmiri separatists.

Since then, the disputed Himalayan region has suffered some of its worst cross-border firing since India and Pakistan signed a ceasefire a decade ago, with both sides trading blame for civilian deaths.

India's new right-wing nationalist government has adopted a more aggressive policy on Pakistan than its predecessor.

Modi warned Islamabad in a speech during the latest unrest that "times have changed and their old habits will not be tolerated".

His aggressive stance on Pakistan contrasts with attempts to woo India's smaller neighbours.

The new government in Delhi says such neighbours were neglected under the previous administration, allowing regional rival China to make significant inroads in India's traditional sphere of influence.

Beijing has cultivated close economic ties with South Asian nations including Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Nepal while forging a close political alliance with Pakistan that some see as a deliberate strategy to encircle India.

Modi's visits to Bhutan and Nepal have "laid the groundwork for stronger and more substantive cooperation", according to the Brookings Institution.

- Rivalry over Afghanistan -

But experts agree that cooperation between New Delhi and Islamabad is key to the success of the eight-member SAARC, which will mark its 30th anniversary next year with little to show for its efforts so far.

India and Pakistan, both now nuclear-armed, have fought three wars since independence in 1947, two of them over Kashmir.

The 2008 attacks on Mumbai by Pakistan-based militants in which 166 people were killed dealt a blow to tentative peace talks, and mutual suspicion persists.

News reports this week said Sharif had refused to use armoured cars provided by India during the summit -- although Islamabad later denied that any offer had been made.

Efforts to reduce tensions have been complicated by concern over Afghanistan's prospects as international troops begin departing after 10 years of fighting the Taliban.

India is the biggest regional investor in Afghanistan, and was a close ally of former president Hamid Karzai.

Modi will hold his first talks with new President Ashraf Ghani during the summit as he seeks to develop India's involvement in a country that Pakistan sees as its backyard.

No formal agenda for the meeting of leaders of the SAARC nations -- Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, the Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka -- has yet been released.

Nepal's foreign ministry said last week that they would discuss poverty alleviation, public health, agriculture, tourism and cross-border trade, which remains minimal, due in part to poor transport infrastructure.

Three agreements have been prepared ahead of the summit, two on improving road and rail connections and one on making it easier for countries in the power-starved region to trade in electricity.

Security is also likely to be on the agenda after al-Qaida's recent announcement it has set up a new South Asia branch.

But analysts said domestic political concerns would likely take precedence, with Modi eager to appear tough on Pakistan ahead of local elections in Kashmir and two other Indian states in the coming months.

"I think the intention is to do something concrete this time," said New Delhi-based political analyst KG Suresh, citing the three agreements, which India's cabinet approved last week.

"But the fear is the summit may be overshadowed by what happens between the Indian and Pakistani leaders. It is crucial for SAARC that these two leaders meet."

Source: Agence France Presse

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