Joe Biden was elected promising to remake —
and decarbonise — US energy. Derek Brower
reports from the communities that have long
lived on the profits of fossil fuel extraction.
T o write a story about the political, cultural and economic upheavals that might result from America’s quest to burn less fossil fuel, I had to burn a lot of it myself. In April, I flew to Bismarck, North Dakota, and found a shiny white Audi Q3 waiting for me in the rental parking lot. I was there to find out how Americans living in communities that depend on the extraction and sale of fossil fuels are faring after last year’s brutal crash in oil prices. And to find out how they feel about their new president’s far-reaching clean energy revolution. I wandered from shale oilfields in both the Dakotas to wind farms in Wyoming, from patches of desert earmarked for green mega-projects to skyscrapers in Houston, a city pumped through and through with oil profits. Two weeks of road from chilled northern prairies to the steamy Gulf Coast. Miles driven: 3,112. CO2 equivalent burnt: 1.24 tonnes. Joe Biden won the US presidency after months of vowing to render the world’s largest economy emissions-free by 2050, to crack down on fossil fuel pollution, to eliminate carbon from the power sector in 15 years and to electrify the automotive fleet of the country that perfected the V8 engine and proselytised the SUV. Democrats say Biden’s plan can fight climate change and create a bounty of new jobs at the same time. The plan also puts the US in the vanguard of a global energy transition many hope will sunset the petroleum era. From Wall Street to Frankfurt, investors are shunning oil and gas and favouring renewables. Goldman Sachs says spending on clean energy could amount to $16tn in the next 10 years, as much as the rising economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China together spent on infrastructure in the century’s first two decades. Forecasters, including the International Energy Agency, now say new fossil fuel projects aren’t necessary to meet the world’s energy needs. All of which is a head-spinning reversal for anybody working in Odessa, Texas, Williston, North Dakota, or many of the other places I visited on a road trip across seven states dotted with decades of accumulated energy infrastructure. Former president Donald Trump’s proclaimed era of American “energy dominance” has given way to emboldened activists, investors, regulators and politicians. Perhaps that’s why my voyage through these fossil fuel-dependent communities often felt like tracing a front. I met Americans fighting to hold back an energy transition, some fearing its impact, and others battling to speed its progress. Sometimes, all in the same place. NORTH DAKOTA ‘We went from an ageing state to one of the younger ones’ The Fort Berthold Indian Reservation is no stranger to upheaval. Between 1947 and 1953, the US Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Missouri River that bisects this part of North Dakota, creating Lake Sakakawea and a hydropower plant and displacing some 90 per cent of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara (MHA) Nation, the native Americans who live here. Today, another form of energy dominates Fort Berthold’s rolling prairie. The reservation sits atop the Bakken shale rock unit, one of the world’s most prolific oil-producing geological formations. It was here that drillers launched the American shale oil revolution just over a decade ago, making the US the world’s biggest crude producer and upending geopolitics. Before last year’s oil price crash, North Dakota was producing almost 1.5m barrels a day, more daily oil than the whole of the UK. Mark Fox is the leader of the MHA Nation. The walls of his office in New Town, Fort Berthold’s administrative centre, are adorned by a framed bow and quiver, as well as memorabilia from Fox’s time in the US Marine Corps. We talk about the flood in 1953, the new US secretary of interior Deb Haaland — the first Native American appointed to a federal cabinet post — and oil, which has restored some of what was lost by the tribes on Fort Berthold 70 years ago. Before the drilling boom a decade ago, the reservation’s main source of income was its casino and federal payments. Annual oil revenue in the past few years has provided as much as 85 per cent of the tribal budget. “It’s buildings, schools . . . medical health insurance for the first time for our people,” says Fox. Oil money also helped when the coronavirus hit the 7,000-person reservation last year. Whatever their initial concerns, Fox says his people want shale development to continue. “My hope is that one day we no longer depend on the federal government ever again.” For Fox, the challenge of a shifting national energy agenda has already arrived. In April the MHA Nation sided with an oil company in a thorny dispute with the Standing Rock tribe, which has been seeking to shut down a Bakken oil pipeline. The Standing Rock say the pipeline, which ships most of the MHA Nation’s oil, is endangering its water. “We respect Standing Rock’s rights to say ‘we don’t want an oil pipeline . . . ’ That’s their right,” says Fox. “But we also have a right.” The dispute echoes the broader debate over America’s energy sector. Fossil fuels cause harm, but also pay for medical facilities in indigenous communities. North Dakota’s oil advocates make the argument for the rest of their state too. “The Bakken brought almost a rebirth,” says Ron Ness, head of the North Dakota Petroleum Council in Bismarck, the state capital. “We were closing schools. And for the last decade we’ve been building schools. We went from an ageing state to one of the youngest ones.” The pandemic has complicated matters further. In 2019 the state’s oil revenue hit almost $4bn. Now, Ness reckons as many as a quarter of the 60,000 or so people working directly or indirectly in the shale patch have left following last year’s crash. Some analysts believe the Bakken is in terminal decline since it is cheaper to produce oil elsewhere and because of the reticence among investors to pay for new drilling. In Bismarck, Ness blames Washington. Pictures of Donald Trump hang in his office as he tells me that Biden and his clean energy agenda have put a chill on his state’s oil business. “When you wake up every morning and you feel like the federal government is out to get you, there’s a significant impact,” he says. “Every conversation I have is ‘climate this, climate that’.” WYOMING Down in the canyons cottonwoods whisper From the heart of the Bakken in Williston, I head through Montana and into Wyoming, another emerging front in America’s energy transition. The state is famous for its huge skies, snow-capped peaks, deeply conservative politics and hydrocarbons, especially coal. But the Cheney dynasty’s adopted state also has wind — powerful, persistent and, for the right investors, profitable. Standing on a ridge in the Sierra Madre range in Carbon County, I look out. In the valley to our north is Rawlins, a prison town; just east of there is the hamlet of Sinclair, renamed after its almost 100- year-old refinery. I’m on ranchland belonging to the Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz, an investor in energy projects, newspapers and entertainment, including the Coachella festival. Some time in the middle of this decade, this land will host a thicket of wind turbines, as many as 900 in total, with enough capacity to power one million homes. Eventually, a planned highvoltage, direct-current transmission line will stretch to Nevada, California and Arizona. Including $3bn for the power lines, it will all cost $8bn. Bill Miller, who runs the Anschutz Corporation’s Power Company of Wyoming, is an oilman and rancher and Anschutz, his deep-pocketed boss, is no tree-hugger. But both are on board with Biden’s climate plan. “Society has spoken,” Miller tells me. “Society has said, ‘I want to stick with renewable ‘My hope is that one day we no longer depend on the federal government ever again’ Mark Fox, leader of the MHA nation, North Dakota energy’. You may not agree with everything that society is saying but they’ve spoken in a big way.” Wyoming, which provides two-fifths of the coal mined in American power plants, is uniquely exposed to the federal government’s plan to eliminate carbon from the electricity sector. Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel, emitting twice as much CO2 when burnt as natural gas and enormously more than renewable sources of electricity. The state’s bounty, mostly found in the prolific mines of the Powder River Basin, is in peril. The decline has been under way for a while, another outcome of the shale revolution that unleashed a surge of cheap natural gas production that has steadily eaten into coal’s share of power generation in the US. Wyoming’s coal output last year was just 218m short tons, about half the level of a decade ago. Employment in the sector has fallen by about 30 per cent in the past five years. But taxes on coal, oil and gas still supply about half Wyoming’s general spending fund and entire communities rely on coal income. It’s hard to imagine Gillette’s well-appointed town centre, with its chic pizzeria and hipster brewery, without considering the money indirectly poured into the local economy by mining a few miles down the road. Coal also has a cultural grip on Wyoming. “Coal is as much an identity for a community as it is an economy,” says Shannon Anderson, a staff attorney at the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a pressure group that has advocated for responsible mining for about as long as Wyoming has been plundering its coal seams. “But the past is not our future,” she says. “We have a carbon problem. We have to get on it. If we don’t, we’re going to be in big trouble.” In Wyoming’s capital Cheyenne, authorities are trying to prop up the sector. Governor Mark Gordon has created a fund to fight lawsuits against other states seen as standing in the way of Wyoming’s attempts to export the fuel. The state also funds research into other uses for coal, from carbon-fibre to graphene. “We’re in for a bumpy ride,” Gordon tells me. “This [presidential] administration really is dedicated to trying to figure out ways to limit the production everywhere of fossil fuels.” But wind power isn’t the answer, he says. “I think most people look at wind as if it’s benign.” But it can destroy pristine landscapes and the process to make the turbines is itself energy intensive, he argues. “None of this is fuzzy, warm butterflies stuff.” Along with coal, Wyoming is blessed with some of the best windpower potential in the US. Developers have already pounced. West of Cheyenne, a thicket of turbines has sprouted on the high plains. The Biden administration argues that a renewable electricity revolution is not just necessary to avert global warming, but good for the economy. “When I hear the words ‘climate change’ I hear the word jobs,” the president is fond of saying. But in rural Wyoming, some people I speak to are not worried about climate change and are downright sceptical of the jobs claims. A comment made by John Kerry, Biden’s climate envoy, crops up in conversation repeatedly during my trip. Trying to assuage fossil fuel workers’ fears earlier this year, Kerry suggested that those losing jobs in coal and oil “can be the people who go to work to make the solar panels”. Terry Weickum, mayor of Rawlins, the town near the big new wind project in the Sierra Madre range, sums up the views