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.