Port: Democrats may not believe it, but western North Dakota oil workers matter, too

It doesn't surprise me that North Dakota's Democrats, who hold not a single elected office west of Bismarck, would care very little about those living mostly in western North Dakota.

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Workers trip pipe on a rig near Stanley, N.D., in June 2010. Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald
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MINOT, N.D. — North Dakota's Democrats insist that they don't share the hatred of the oil and gas industry their national counterparts frequently espouse.

At times, from their words and deeds, it can be hard to tell.

A committee of North Dakota lawmakers has just approved a re-allocation of $212 million in federal coronavirus relief dollars.

This was money from the CARES Act, which was appropriated by Congress to the states this summer. State officials had allocated that money, which added up to $1.25 billion in total, earlier this year. The funds at hand are a portion of that original appropriation, which was turned back by state agencies unable to spend them.

The re-allocation was state officials finding new ways to make use of the money before the deadline for spending it is upon us.


One way they found was $16 million in grants for hydraulic fracturing work on 80 uncompleted wells in western North Dakota, an amount totaling just barely more than 1 percent of the original CARES Act appropriation.

Our Democratic friends, who are triggered by terms like "oil" and "fracking," have gone on the attack over this allocation, accusing Republicans, as they so often do, of giving a handout to the oil industry.

And, sure, it's a handout. One not at all unlike the gifts made by the government to all manner of businesses and industries, not to mention individual Americans, during the pandemic.

I'm not sure that the government catapulting money at people is sound policy, even in emergent situations, but that's a different debate. What North Dakota leaders have done with these specific grants isn't at all atypical of how CARES Act money has been spent.

But our friends in the Democratic-NPL aren't going to let reason get in the way of a good pre-election talking point.

“The worldwide price of gas and oil determines the activity in the industry and there are other ways to spend that $16 million that are directly related to the coronavirus pandemic," Sen. Tim Mathern (D-Fargo) said of the allocation in a press release. "The consequence of the pandemic will become much more dramatic as we go through this winter. Our first responsibility is to protect the lives and health of our citizens, and if we continue to have deaths and infections at the present rate, the entire economy across the North Dakota landscape is also going to struggle.”

To buy into this talking point, we have to pretend as though that $16 million was the only allocation made, which it wasn't. Again, we are talking about a tiny slice of North Dakota's CARES Act appropriation, the bulk of which went to public health initiatives, medical research and, yes, even other economic relief initiatives.

Which is what these allocations to the oil and gas industry were — economic relief.


Department of Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms "estimated that the program will employ 500 to 1,000 people in North Dakota between now and the end of the year," my colleague Adam Willis reports .

It doesn't surprise me that North Dakota's Democrats, who hold not a single elected office west of Bismarck, would care very little about those living mostly in western North Dakota.

Politically speaking, they have no reason to. They aren't about to start winning elections out there anyway.

Those of us who can see past the petty proclivities of partisan politics, though, can see that oil workers matter, too.

Their lives and their families matter.

Keeping them in their jobs, with paychecks and health benefits in place, helps not just them but also society.

What would we rather have? Those frackers on the job, working, or jobless and looking to move to find work while avoiding medical care amid a global pandemic because they no longer have their employer-backed insurance policies?

If this $16 million went to restaurants and bars and hotels to keep hospitality workers on the job or to grain elevators and equipment dealers and seed growers to keep the paychecks flowing for ag workers, the Democrats wouldn't be making a peep.


But oil workers?

For our Democratic friends, they're second-class citizens.

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Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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