Inside the Oil Boom

Why Won’t Obama Visit North Dakota?

President Barack Obama at Henninger High School in Syracuse, N.Y., Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013.
National Journal
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Amy Harder
Aug. 25, 2013, 8:30 a.m.

DICKIN­SON, N.D. — North Dakota is like an over­achiev­ing child who at­tracts the at­ten­tion of every­one — ex­cept Dad.

The oil boom tak­ing over west­ern North Dakota and trans­form­ing Amer­ica’s en­ergy land­scape has promp­ted vis­its from people around the world — Ger­many, Tur­key, Ja­pan, Dubai, and else­where — to see what they can learn and how they can be­ne­fit.

Pres­id­ent Obama, however, has not vis­ited the state since mov­ing in­to the White House (al­though he did drop in twice dur­ing the 2008 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign).

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., has a goal to change that, and she asked Obama earli­er this year if he would vis­it.

“He said he wouldn’t come in the winter,” Heitkamp told Na­tion­al Journ­al while driv­ing out­side of Dickin­son, a town of about 20,000 people on the edge of the oil patch. “That’s as much of a com­mit­ment — I think it’s really im­port­ant for him to take a look,” said Heitkamp, chan­ging her thought mid-sen­tence.

North Dakota is at the heart of Amer­ica’s oil and nat­ur­al gas boom. The state, thanks to two deep un­der­ground shale-rock form­a­tions called Bakken and Three Forks, pro­duced more than 800,000 bar­rels of oil a day in June, roughly 10 per­cent of the coun­try’s over­all daily oil pro­duc­tion and an all-time re­cord for the state. North Dakota has sur­passed both Cali­for­nia and Alaska to be­come the second-highest oil-pro­du­cing state in the coun­try, be­hind Texas.

This en­ergy boom is pro­du­cing clear be­ne­fits, for North Dakota, which has the low­est un­em­ploy­ment rate in the coun­try, and for the rest of Amer­ica, which is im­port­ing the few­est bar­rels of oil since the mid-1990s and get­ting closer than ever to the elu­sive goal of en­ergy in­de­pend­ence.

“I would en­cour­age him to go out,” said former Sen. Byron Dor­gan, D-N.D., who cam­paigned with Obama in the state in 2008. “You’ve got to see it to be­lieve it. It’s a big boost to our eco­nomy and also a big boost to our na­tion’s en­ergy policy.”

Sen­ate En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee Chair­man Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is plan­ning to vis­it the re­gion in Septem­ber, and In­teri­or Sec­ret­ary Sally Jew­ell toured the oil fields earli­er this month. While not­able, these vis­its don’t carry with them the power and sig­ni­fic­ance of a pres­id­en­tial trip.

“He’s got an in­cred­ibly busy travel sched­ule, and it’s not something we’ve spoken about,” Jew­ell said. “The pres­id­ent re­lies on me and oth­er mem­bers of his Cab­in­et to be his eyes and ears on the ground where de­vel­op­ment is tak­ing place.”

Jew­ell said she and Obama have so far only talked at “a high level about a com­mit­ment to an all-of-the-above en­ergy strategy about re­du­cing our de­pend­ence on for­eign oil,” Jew­ell said. “But, I haven’t had a con­ver­sa­tion with him about the Bakken. I know his ad­visers close with him are keenly aware of it.”

Why hasn’t Obama vis­ited North Dakota as pres­id­ent? Al­most every­one in­ter­viewed for this art­icle, in­clud­ing Jew­ell, simply said, “I don’t know.” A White House spokes­per­son did not re­spond to re­peated re­quests for com­ment.

From a polit­ic­al per­spect­ive, it’s easy to see why Obama tra­di­tion­ally de­voted little at­ten­tion to North Dakota and the oth­er five states he has nev­er vis­ited as pres­id­ent — Arkan­sas, Idaho, South Car­o­lina, South Dakota, and Utah. They have some of the smal­lest num­bers of elect­or­al votes — with roughly 700,000 people, North Dakota has three — and are either solidly Re­pub­lic­an or mov­ing that way. But be­cause Obama is not fa­cing reelec­tion again, elect­or­al polit­ics should not os­tens­ibly mat­ter much any­more.

Go­ing to a state to tout do­mest­ic oil pro­duc­tion could also fur­ther in­flame Obama’s en­vir­on­ment­al base, which is already worked up over his pending de­cision on the Key­stone XL pipeline (which would ship some Bakken oil, if ap­proved). In­deed, from an en­vir­on­ment­al per­spect­ive, vis­it­ing North Dakota might seem coun­ter­in­tu­it­ive. En­vir­on­ment­al con­cerns about hy­draul­ic frac­tur­ing and oth­er drilling tech­no­lo­gies per­sist here, al­though they’re quieter than in more pop­u­lated areas in the East such as Pennsylvania’s Mar­cel­lus Shale form­a­tions. Pro­du­cers are “flar­ing” roughly a third of the nat­ur­al gas in North Dakota, which is dis­covered as they drill for oil, be­cause the in­fra­struc­ture doesn’t yet ex­ist to move and pro­cess the gas. The flar­ing ex­acer­bates cli­mate change — meth­ane is a green­house gas 20 times more po­tent than car­bon di­ox­ide — and wastes a us­able re­source. But the prac­tice could also be a reas­on to vis­it the state, as Jew­ell noted while on a tour of a drilling rig near Wil­lis­ton, N.D. “A good part of why we’re here is to learn about that,” Jew­ell said of meth­ane flar­ing.

From an eco­nom­ic and en­ergy se­cur­ity per­spect­ive, no clear reas­on ex­ists for why the pres­id­ent has not vis­ited the state with the low­est un­em­ploy­ment rate in the coun­try, at 3 per­cent, es­pe­cially after he’s been ex­pli­citly in­vited by a sen­at­or in his own party. In his re­cent tours around the coun­try to places like Ari­zona (where the un­em­ploy­ment rate is 8 per­cent) and Ten­ness­ee (8.5 per­cent) to talk about the eco­nomy, Obama of­ten men­tions how much oil and nat­ur­al gas the coun­try is pro­du­cing.

“We’re go­ing to cre­ate strategies to make sure that good jobs in wind and sol­ar and nat­ur­al gas that are lower­ing costs, and, at the same time, re­du­cing dan­ger­ous car­bon pol­lu­tion, hap­pen right here in the United States,” Obama said in a Ju­ly speech in Illinois. He also gave some at­ten­tion to oil in that speech: “We’re about to pro­duce more of our own oil than we buy from abroad for the first time in nearly 20 years.”

Both of these lines show up in oth­er speeches Obama has giv­en on the eco­nomy re­cently.

“It’s not enough to talk about it,” Heitkamp said. “Just like it’s im­port­ant for the [In­teri­or] sec­ret­ary to see this, it’s im­port­ant for long-term ana­lys­is on what we’re go­ing to do on en­ergy policy for the pres­id­ent to see this.”

Re­wind­ing to April 2008, Obama gave what Dor­gan de­scribed as a “really ter­rif­ic” cam­paign speech to a huge crowd of about 18,500 people in Grand Forks, N.D.

“We lost more than 200,000 jobs since the year began,” Obama said at the time. “Job­less claims are highest than we’ve had in sev­er­al years. We have mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans who stay awake at night won­der­ing if next week’s pay check will cov­er next month’s bill.”

Today, the prob­lems in North Dakota look more like grow­ing pains. Small towns such as Wil­lis­ton, Wat­ford City, and Dickin­son are strug­gling to build ba­sic city in­fra­struc­ture, in­clud­ing af­ford­able hous­ing, wa­ter, and roads, to ac­com­mod­ate all of the people mov­ing in.

If Obama gave a speech in North Dakota today, it would no doubt be much dif­fer­ent — if he makes a vis­it to the state.


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