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Energy & Environment

Inside Energy: Oil money and ND politics

Politics in North Dakota have historically been decidedly low-key--and low-budget. But the oil boom has changed that. Political spending in the state is up, way up-- $17 million so far this year. That's more than double what was spent in 2010, and in a few key races, the oil and gas industry is a major donor.  From our Inside Energy team at Prairie Public, Emily Guerin reports on why the stakes have gotten so high so suddenly.

GUERIN: In the basement of the Burleigh County Courthouse in Bismarck, North Dakota, county auditor Kevin Glatt is getting poll volunteers pumped for election day.

KEVIN GLATT: Smile! If you’re gonna be crabby on election day, stay in bed.

GUERIN: Voting in North Dakota feels friendly. It’s the last state in the entire nation where you don’t even have to register to vote. Precincts are small, and volunteers like Bonnie Fix often recognize a lot of the voters who come through.

BONNIE FIX: It’s kinda like a reunion. Kinda like a family picnic, type thing.

GUERIN: But it feels a little different this time around
.
JIM FUGLIE: North Dakota is indeed a warm, friendly, open state in terms of elections, but it’s gotten ugly.

GUERIN: Jim Fuglie is the former head of the Democratic Party in North Dakota. He says the cost and tone of politics here have changed since the oil boom began in 2008. He points to political ads like this one as evidence.

POLITICAL AD: RYAN TAYLOR CALLS HIMSELF A TREE-HUGGER... (duck under)

GUERIN: That ad is attacking the Democratic candidate for Agriculture Commissioner.

POLITICAL AD: …. TAYLOR STRAYS FROM SENSIBLE REGULATION OF A VITAL INDUSTRY TO ANTI OIL RHETORIC.

GUERIN: This ad was paid for by a local political action committee who got its money from the national Republican State Leadership Committee. And some of their top donors are oil and gas companies like Devon Energy and ExxonMobil. Here’s Jim Fuglie again.

FUGLIE: We’ve never had an industry this big, with this much money, have this much influence on an election.

GUERIN: Between PACs, trade groups and corporations, the oil and gas industry has so far spent $1.3 million on the 2014 election in North Dakota. There’s the Ag Commissioner race - because that person is one of 3 who regulate oil and gas. But industry money has gone to every single Republican candidate running for statewide office. And to defeat a ballot measure - measure 5….

POLITICAL AD: WE ALL WANT TO KEEP NORTH DAKOTA’S OUTDOORS GREAT, BUT MEASURE 5 IS A BAD IDEA…(duck under)

GUERIN: Measure 5 would set aside 5% of the oil extraction tax for conservation projects. It doesn’t raise taxes, but the oil and gas industry is against it. Ron Ness is the president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, and he says that’s because oil companies want to see as much money as possible go directly to the boomtowns - fixing roads and building schools and housing.

RON NESS: The more oil tax money going back to those communities helps to attract and retain workforce.

GUERIN: The American Petroleum Institute alone has spent over a million dollars. They've bought yard signs and a slick website opposing the measure. And it’s sponsoring a phone bank…Carmen Miller is the director of public policy for Ducks Unlimited, a conservation group backing Measure 5. She said they even called her office:

CARMEN MILLER: ...and if you’re calling the proponents of the measure, you must be calling just about every phone number in the state.

GUERIN: All that money means everyone else has to up their spending. Conservation groups backing Measure 5 - like the Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited - have combined spent nearly four times more than API.

ROBERT HARMS: We have more money to fight over, and we have more money to fight with.

GUERIN: Robert Harms is the chairman of the Republican Party in North Dakota. The state takes in over $9 million a day in oil tax revenue, and Harms says everyone wants a say in how that money is spent. That’s thrust the state into the political spending spotlight.

KUSNETZ: This was a very quiet agricultural state that wasn’t really on the national radar.

GUERIN: Nicholas Kusnetz (CUZ-NITZ) is a reporter with the Center for Public Integrity who’s written extensively on the influence of oil money in politics in North Dakota.

KUSNETZ: Now suddenly it’s national news and it’s really all because of one industry.

GUERIN: The oil boom has already transformed North Dakota’s landscape and economy. Now, it’s doing the same with its politics.

For Inside Energy, I'm Emily Guerin.

Inside Energy is a public media collaboration focusing on America’s energy issues.

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