'The last place on earth': North Dakota oil workers fear Biden's climate plan
Joe Biden entered the White House with the most aggressive climate platform of any president before him, and he has sent warning shots to the oil industry in just his first few days in office. In western North Dakota, where allegiance to Trump remains strong, many fear what the new presidency could mean for their jobs.
WATFORD CITY, N.D. — When the dust settled around Joe Biden's presidential victory last November, the shockwaves were quick to reach Watford City.
"I think everybody up here feels like we’re absolutely screwed," said Tara Paul, a Denver native who followed her sons to western North Dakota oil country just months before the pandemic hit. "But that's North Dakota."
For some of the Pauls' neighbors in their affordable RV park on the north side of Watford City, the responses to Donald Trump's loss have been immediate and drastic. One couple in a neighboring trailer packed up and moved to Texas immediately after Trump lost, interpreting the election result as a nail in the coffin for their prospects in western North Dakota.
Two months later, after Democrats notched major wins more than 1,500 miles away in Georgia's Senate runoffs, Tara said she watched two more neighboring trailers pack up and leave town. Word around the RV park was that they both left for the same reason.
The Pauls have thought about leaving, too. One of Tara’s sons moved to Arkansas not long after being laid off early in the pandemic, and her other son, Shawn, has been working a lower-rung job for a fifth of his old welding income, a gig that brought in a quarter million dollars a year.
"The juice is worth the squeeze for us," said Mike, Shawn's father, who explained that the boom-and-bust living and the hard, subzero winters of the Bakken have paid off for them before.
But with the election of Biden, quickly followed by the pair of Senate victories in Georgia that delivered a Democratic trifecta in Washington, the Pauls worry that their way of living may have an expiration date. Like many other Trump supporters around the country, the Pauls took the former president's position that the election was stolen from him, and that the pandemic had served as a kind of liberal kneecap to his reelection campaign. For them, Democratic aims to restrict businesses as a protection against COVID-19 goes hand-in-hand with Biden's anti-oil rhetoric.
"We're waiting for either the shoe to drop, or for them just to admit that all of their gimmicky crap that they put out there — of we’re gonna shut down all of fracking, we’re gonna shut down the oil industry, we’re gonna go all green — was that just a campaign thing, or was that reality?" Tara said.
When it comes to Biden's plans for the oil industry, early signs suggest the Pauls may be right to worry.
A self-styled political moderate, Biden nonetheless entered the White House with the most aggressive climate platform of any administration in history. He has called for a national “transition away from the oil industry.” On the campaign trail, he flirted with a fracking ban and his wavering on that potentially monumental move has only left residents in western North Dakota to wonder how far he'd really go.
And in his first few days in office, Biden has sent two warning shots through the oil industry, signing an executive order for a 60-day moratorium on new drilling on federal lands and canceling the permit on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, a statement move that many environmentalists have taken as a signal of his openness to shutting down the Dakota Access Pipeline as well.
For Shawn, 23, even if oil prices rebound in the next few years, the Biden climate agenda and the newly secured Democratic control in Washington look like writing on the wall for his long-term hopes in the oil business.
"You build your lifestyle on these things, and you have to change your whole life up because of politics," Shawn said. Biden's administration, he predicted, will be a time to eke out a few more years of good work, save money and then get out of Dodge.
"It’s gonna be a political thing for the rest of our lives," he said.
Anxiety and uncertainty
Located in some of the deepest crimson territory of a Republican-dominated state, Watford City is the very heart of Trump country. North Dakota voted for Trump by the second widest margin of any state, and most of its Oil Patch counties supported the former president with more than 80% of their votes.
While many Watford City residents hold dear the core values that Trump championed in office — his proudly anti-abortion, anti-woke and "America first" agenda — western North Dakota’s undying allegiance to him is also invariably tied up in his support for oil.
And some of North Dakota's top oil industry regulators have said there is good reason to worry about how the new president will deploy his climate plan.
"These people are not friendly to oil and gas," Lynn Helms, director of the state Department of Mineral Resources, told lawmakers earlier this month, warning of potential anti-oil actions to come under the Biden presidency.
In an interview ahead of Biden's inauguration, Helms urged a little more patience. He noted that the president doesn't have the authority to ban fracking outright, and the most drastic threats to the industry will require rule changes at the U.S. Department of Interior or the Environmental Protection Agency, moves that are sure to draw challenges in court. Even a moratorium on new drilling on federal lands, Helms noted at the time, only applies to about a third of the oil territory in North Dakota and can't touch projects that had secured drilling permits ahead of Inauguration Day.
"I would say the anxiety is way overblown. This is all going to take time," Helms assured. "We shouldn't be so anxious that we're packing our bags."
Still, Helms said the long-term ramifications of fracking restrictions on federal lands could be severe, and he highlighted a handful of other moves that Biden could make with sharper and more sudden consequences for North Dakota oil, a shutdown of Dakota Access among them. "Some of those things that are very partisan and controversial and still in play, those are things we should be anxious about," he said.
And like many residents in western North Dakota, Helms said he watched Georgia's Senate elections play out with trepidation, noting that a Democratically controlled Congress could make much more sweeping changes to the legality of fracking on state and private lands. "That shift in the Senate majority was equally important to the shift in the presidential administration," he said.
For some longtime residents of the Oil Patch, this sort of uncertainty—both political and economic—is nothing new.
Dennis Johnson, a mineral rights and personal injury attorney who has been practicing in Watford City since 1980, was skeptical that Biden could practically take the extreme steps against the oil industry that he has touted. Success in the oil business requires patience, regardless of who is in office, he said.
Still, Johnson acknowledged that the expansion of Democratic control in Washington could make things different this time.
"I think there's a lot of stupid things that come out of Washington regardless of any administration," he said. "But when you have one political party controlling the Congress and the presidency, the stupidity can be stupendous."
Oil Patch veterans like Johnson are optimistic, though they acknowledged that a rosy outlook also requires patience.
“Anyone that I know who has had the ability to wait it out in oil has never failed economically," he said. "But, how long is that wait?”
Stitching the social fabric
The long view is getting a serious test in Watford City, where many workers are coming off a historically bad year. After suffering the one-two punch of an international oil price war, which started driving down Bakken crude prices in late 2019, and then the coronavirus pandemic, which pushed prices into the negatives for the first time in history, the Pauls and others in Watford City have felt the recent Democratic gains as a third, potentially painful blow to their way of life in the oil fields.
In the economic fallout of the last year, Tara and Mike have taken it upon themselves to support their new community, almost as a full-time job. Not long after the bottom fell out on oil prices last year, Tara started cooking tamales out of her trailer to help feed neighbors, a project that grew so large that she now splits kitchen space with a local bakery to accommodate the bulk cooking. She offers what she calls her "spiritual special," a code word that allows patrons to order free meals without saying out loud that they can't pay.
And prodigiously active on social media, Tara started a local "Pay it Forward" Facebook group a few weeks after Biden's win in November, offering a safe space for down-on-their-luck neighbors to ask for help, food or everyday needs. "Just a place of giving and a place to be blessed," reads the description on a page that now has more than 1,000 followers.
"There's such a need here, that I'm so totally overwhelmed," Tara said.
The time Tara has invested in supporting her neighbors has also tied her and her family closer into the transient Watford City community. In a town where many residents live in mobile RVs — where friends and neighbors are liable to leave on a dime — the hardships of the last year, Tara said, have forced people to rely on one another to get by.
"It kind of took people from being self-sufficient to being community sufficient," she said, marveling at how her Facebook group has restored "old trading values" that have helped bind neighbors together in hard times.
For the Pauls, this intimacy has become both a blessing and a curse. It has made them fixtures of a tightly knit and like-minded community, but also made it harder to leave.
In part, they all testified, that's because Watford City has come to feel like a political haven.
For Tara, Mike and Shawn, COVID-19, the election and the fate of their industry are all tied together. These are political stances that they said would leave them ostracized in many other parts of the country, but in Watford City, where those beliefs are commonplace, they've found a spot where they want to stay.
“I feel like this is the last place on earth,” Tara said. “Watford is like the last place on earth that has freedom of speech.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.