North Dakota Democrats Have A Keystone Problem


Last week came news of yet another delay in the Obama administration’s interminable regulatory dithering on the Keystone XL pipeline project.

This latest punt will, conveniently, take the decision date for the pipeline beyond the 2014 midterm elections.

Republicans were quick to point to the news as yet more evidence of President Obama abusing his executive powers for political ends. Democrats suggested the President was looking to rally his progressive base in advance of what is shaping up to be a rough election cycle for the left.

Both of these scenarios have elements of the truth in them, but here in North Dakota the impact of the Obama administration’s endless regulatory delays for Keystone may be much more palpable, and not in a positive way for the state’s Democrats.

Consider this unlikely reality: The race for the next Commissioner of Agriculture between Republican incumbent Doug Goehring and Democrat challenger Ryan Taylor is quickly shaping up to be the hottest race in the state.

Who would of thunk it?

That’s because the office those two gentlemen are competing for, one that comes with a seat on the state’s Industrial Commission which oversees oil development, is at the nexus of what will be the most important political debate of 2014. Namely, North Dakota’s booming oil production and its impact on agriculture.

Already we can feel the tremors of the debate.

The sugar beet industry can’t move their product for want of access to rail cars, a complaint shared by grain elevators in the region. With the spring planting season nearly upon us, there are questions about whether or not growers will be able to get timely shipments of fertilizer. This winter saw a propane shortage that was exacerbated by a chronic inability to move propane by rail.

Democrats are hoping to capitalize on these understandable frustrations by accusing Republicans of allowing oil development in the western part of the state to have grown too far and too fast.

“You can’t unleash all that oil and then wonder why the train tracks are full of oil tankers and you can’t get grain on from the elevators in North Dakota and get that product to market,” Taylor said while announcing his campaign last month, signaling his intent to make oil development a wedge issue with ag interests. “I will not be a rubber stamp for out-of-state oil barons. I’ll stand up for North Dakota.”

This is a sound strategy for Democrats, who are trying to convince Republican voters in a state consistently ranked the best-run and most content in the nation to vote for someone else for a change. These are real concerns, posing real problems for what is historically North Dakota’s top industry.

But President Obama just threw that strategy a curve ball. Because while Democrats can accuse Republicans of allowing too much oil development, Republicans can point to our nation’s top Democrat’s incessant sandbagging of energy infrastructure that would have a direct impact on North Dakota.

That’s no doubt why Senator Heidi Heitkamp rushed to call President Obama’s latest delay “ridiculous.” It is ridiculous, and the further North Dakota liberals can run from it the better for them.

The Keystone pipeline itself could take as much as 100,000 barrels per day off of North Dakota roads and rails, a little more than 10 percent of the state’s current output.

That’s significant, but let’s not pretend as though the Obama administration’s pipeline obstinance is only having an impact on the Keystone project. The Sandpiper Pipeline, which would run from Tioga, North Dakota, all the way to Superior, Wisconsin, could take as much as 250,000 barrels per day off of North Dakota roads and rails, more than 25 percent of the state’s current oil output.

Yet, the Sandpiper line is facing heavy opposition from anti-pipeline, anti-oil activists who want it stopped.

The dilemma North Dakota Democrats face is how to credibly blame Republicans for infrastructure congestion caused by oil development while sharing a partisan affiliation with a President who is not just blocking a pipeline with a direct impact on the state’s transportation situation but emboldening activists across the country to attack similar projects.

That’s going to be a tough sell.