Trump’s Energy Guy Talked a Green Game but Now Sells Big Oil Priorities

Source: By Lisa Friedman, New York Times • Posted: Monday, June 10, 2024

Doug Burgum, the Republican governor of North Dakota, has stepped into the spotlight as a cheerleader for oil and former President Donald J. Trump.

Doug Burgum stands behind a podium in a suit and a red tie with a crowd and a Trump sign visible in the background.
Doug Burgum, the Republican governor of North Dakota, at a campaign rally for former President Donald J. Trump in Wildwood, N.J., last month.Doug Mills/The New York Times

Doug Burgum, the Republican governor of North Dakota, has emerged as a key adviser on energy issues in Donald J. Trump’s campaign to retake the White House, acting as a liaison between Mr. Trump and the oil billionaires whom the former president has encouraged to fund his presidential bid.

Along the way, Governor Burgum has articulated a sophisticated policy approach that can at times seem environmentally conscious, but in fact is designed to benefit oil, gas and coal, the fossil fuels that are driving climate change.

“It’s a tale of two Dougs,” said Dustin Gawrylow, a conservative political commentator in North Dakota.

Mr. Burgum set a goal in 2021 that North Dakota would stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by 2030, becoming “carbon neutral.” Carbon dioxide from burning oil, gas and coal is a major driver of global warming.

“What other state is doing carbon neutral by 2030?said Heather Reams, the president of Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, a group that tries to engage Republicans on climate policy.

“I was very impressed by the level of detail that he had,” said Ms. Reams, who recalled speaking to Governor Burgum about his carbon neutrality plan at a Republican Governors Association meeting. “Not like he gave me a couple of talking points and walked away. He talked about how this was about economic prosperity, national security, energy independence.”

Governor Burgum didn’t use the term “climate change” or talk about how burning fossil fuels was dangerously heating planet. Indeed, he accepted the financial and political support from oil and gas companies in a state where the economy is heavily tied to those fuels.

But he also challenged the oil industry to eliminate spills and created the state’s first Department of Environmental Quality. When he announced his carbon neutrality goal, Governor Burgum said North Dakota must meet the challenges of a “carbon constrained future.”

A two-term governor who is not seeking re-election in November, Mr. Burgum ran a short-lived campaign for the Republican presidential nomination last year. He ended his campaign December.

That experience gave Governor Burgum a brief taste of national politics. He quickly endorsed Mr. Trump and joined his campaign, serving as an informal adviser on energy and helping to connect Mr. Trump with oil billionaires, according to two people familiar with the campaign. In appearances around the country on behalf of Mr. Trump, Governor Burgum has aggressively argued that the country needs more oil and gas and has accused President Biden of “demonizing” the fossil fuel industry by encouraging the growth of wind, solar and other nonpolluting energy.

“Right now he is taking the party line of the energy industry,” Mr. Gawrylow said. He chalked up the shift to the “national exposure” Governor Burgum has received since his presidential run.

Others in the state made similar claims. “In the last three years he’s clearly been shifting,” said Scott Skokos, the executive director of the Dakota Resource Council, an environmental group in North Dakota. Mr. Skokos and others said they had witnessed Governor Burgum taking a sharp tack to the right on energy issues and echoing the oil industry’s attacks on the Biden administration after he entered his second term in office and prepared for a presidential run.

“I don’t think it’s so much that he changed his views as he’s an opportunist,” Mr. Skokos said.

Governor Burgum’s office did not make him available for an interview. His spokesman, Mike Nowatzki, said in a statement that he has remained consistent in his positions. “The governor has always believed that the oil and gas industry is a critical component of an all-of-the-above energy strategy,” Mr. Nowatzki said.

In April, Governor Burgum helped to bring oil and gas executives to Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s private resort in Florida, for a now-infamous dinner during which Mr. Trump suggested that they raise $1 billion for his campaign. Mr. Trump told the executives they would save far more than that in tax breaks and legal fees after he repealed Mr. Biden’s climate agenda, according to several people who were present and who requested anonymity to discuss a private event.

One of the other organizers of the Mar-a-Lago event was Harold G. Hamm, the billionaire founder and chairman of Continental Resources, one of the country’s largest independent oil companies and the largest leaseholder in the Bakken oil field that straddles North Dakota and Montana.

Governor Burgum and Mr. Hamm were already well acquainted.

Mr. Hamm has contributed both to Governor Burgum’s campaigns for governor as well as to his presidential bid. His company has also invested $250 million in a proposed $5.2 billion pipeline project in North Dakota.

The project is a 2,000-mile network of several pipelines that would collect carbon emissions from 57 ethanol plants scattered across Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and South Dakota and store them in an underground facility in a deep rock formation in central North Dakota.

The governor has said he views the pipeline as a tool to help North Dakota achieve his goal of carbon neutrality, which relies almost entirely on expensive and nascent carbon capture technology.

The pipeline project could remove up to 18 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year and store it underground, according to Summit Carbon Solutions, the developer. That’s the equivalent of removing nearly four million cars from the road, according to the company’s website.

It would also mean about $1.5 billion annually in federal tax credits for Summit Carbon Solutions and the project’s investors, including Mr. Hamm, thanks to the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, which includes tax credits of $85 per ton for carbon dioxide captured from industrial facilities and stored underground.

Summit Carbon Solutions’ parent company, Summit Agriculture Group, is run by Bruce Rastetter, who has donated to Mr. Trump and the Republican Party for years.

Governor Burgum has said North Dakota’s geology is uniquely suited to store carbon dioxide in the deep rock below ground and that he wants the state to become a national leader in carbon storage. He celebrated a decision last year by the U.S. Department of Energy to give $350 million to a North Dakota utility to capture millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide from a coal-fired power plant and bury it underground.

But the pipeline project, which is still in the process of obtaining state permits, has drawn opposition from a collection of odd bedfellows.

Climate activists are opposed in large part because they say capturing and storing carbon emissions hands a lifeline to the fossil fuel industry at a time when scientists say nations must stop burning oil, gas and coal to avoid the worst effects of climate change. They also note that oil companies often take carbon dioxide that’s been captured and inject it into depleted oil fields to produce more oil.

Farmers in North Dakota are alarmed that the state may use eminent domain to bury the project’s many pipelines under their land. Conservatives, including those who dismiss climate science, have called the project a boondoggle.

“They say we need it to reduce emissions, but it’s the worst of the worst corporate enrichment,” said Mr. Gawrylow.

Joel Heitkamp, a popular radio host and the brother of former Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, agreed. He said that Governor Burgum’s support of the carbon pipeline championed by oil and agriculture billionaires helped solidify the governor’s standing with Mr. Trump.

“Doug isn’t loved by Donald Trump because of Doug,” Mr. Heitkamp said. “Doug is loved by Donald Trump because of Harold Hamm.”

Mr. Trump has praised Governor Burgum as “incredible” and hinted that the governor, a former software executive who sold his company to Microsoft and whose net worth has been estimated by Forbes at $1.1 billion, could expect a role in his administration.

“He made his money in technology, but he probably knows more about energy than anybody I know,” Mr. Trump told a crowd in Wildwood, N.J., in May. “So get ready for something, OK? Just get ready.”

Last week, Governor Burgum traveled to Louisiana to stand with several other Republican governors in front of a diesel refinery and make the case that President Biden was trying to “shut down liquid fuel.”

In fact, the United States is the world’s leading exporter of natural gas and is pumping more crude than any other country in history. In January, Mr. Biden paused permits for new liquefied natural gas export facilities while the Energy Department studies the impact of gas exports on climate, the economy and national security. Even with the pause, the United States is still on track to nearly double its export capacity by 2027 because of projects already permitted and under construction.

“Yes, we’re producing 13 million barrels a day,” said Governor Burgum, referring to the record amount as he was flanked by six other Republican governors at a refinery in Chalmette, La. “We ought to be producing 14, 15, 20 million barrels a day.”