Future of ND oil boom could hinge on ag commission race


By Rob Port | Watchdog.org North Dakota Bureau

OIL SHOWDOWN: Republican incumbent Doug Goehring, left, and Democrat challenger Ryan Taylor, right, will square off in a race for Commissioner of Agriculture that may turn out to be more about oil than agriculture.

MINOT, N.D. — After North Dakota Republicans endorsed their slate of statewide candidates at their convention in Minot this weekend, the stage appears set for the state’s 2014 election season, and an unlikely race has risen to the top as perhaps the most important competition this year. It features two candidates, with very different views on energy development, vying for one of the most powerful regulatory positions in a state where politics is dominated by energy issues.

The commissioner of agriculture has one of three seats on the state’s Industrial Commission, with the other two being held by the governor and attorney general. The commission oversees oil and gas development in the state. With the Bakken oil boom and its impacts, including debates over radioactive waste and rail safety, dominating state political discussions this year, there may be no race more worth watching.

Just over a week ago, Democrats endorsed former state legislator and 2012 gubernatorial candidate Ryan Taylor for the race, and Taylor was quick to take aim at oil issues. “You have me as an ally and a friend as agriculture commissioner,” he said during his acceptance speech of oil companies that follow the law. For those who break the law, “I will not ignore your crimes,” he said.

Republican incumbent Doug Goehring has held the ag seat since being appointed to the position by then Gov. John Hoeven. Goehring was elected to a term of his own in 2010 with nearly 70 percent of the vote, and has been protective of land use and energy development. Most recently Goehring was an outspoken opponent of proposed regulations, which would have subjected energy development near a list of “extraordinary places” to public comment and extra regulatory scrutiny.

Goehring argued that mineral owners have a constitutional right to develop their property. “Viewscapes are not constitutionally protected. They may be beautiful, we like them, but there’s still a right that exists with that property owner,” he said at the time.

The race between these two very different candidates is expected to be competitive.

THE CHALLENGER: Judy Estenson challenged Goehring for the NDGOP endorsement in Minot, campaigning on animal cruelty issues and Goehring’s management of staff. She was ultimately unsuccessful with delegates giving Goehring the endorsement by a nearly 2-1 margin.

Taylor ran unopposed for his party’s endorsement. Goehring, on the other hand, faced a challenge at the NDGOP convention this weekend from Judy Estenson, who was backed by the North Dakota Farm Bureau, an influential agriculture policy group. The Farm Bureau had backed Goehring in previous election cycles but switched its allegiance to Estenson, citing the incumbent’s track record on animal cruelty legislation and his administration of staff.

Watchdog was first to report on Goehring admitting to inappropriate behavior with staff in an email sent to Farm Bureau leaders ahead of Estenson’s entrance into the race. The incumbent admitted to referring to a group of female staff as his “harem,” and inviting one female staffer to his hotel room to walk on his back with a second male staffer present.

Goehring was ultimately successful in securing the NDGOP endorsement, winning delegate votes by a nearly 2-1 margin.

That sets up a race for agriculture commissioner in which oil, not agriculture, is the topic of discussion. This happens at a time when most state revenue is coming from oil development. In 2013, according to figures from the North Dakota Tax Commissioner’s office, more than 50 percent of all tax revenue collected came directly from taxes on oil and gas development.

With their respective party endorsements, Taylor and Goehring will run unopposed for nomination on the June primary ballot. No third-party candidates have filed to run.

Candidates for the primary ballot must have their paperwork in the secretary of state’s office by 4 p.m today.

You can contact Rob Port at rport@watchdog.org