With the Bakken boom fueling North Dakota’s economy, politicians and government officials are happy to be on good terms with the oil barons who bring jobs and revenue to the state.
Whether it’s at official government hearings or at social gatherings on the campaign trail, the amicable relationship is evident – although, some North Dakota politicians seem more closely connected to oil executives than others.
Political campaign contributions are one snapshot of that, and The Forum’s review of campaign finance reports shows oil companies haven’t been shy with their donations to North Dakota politicians, particularly to Republicans in power.
Since January 2011, employees and executives of oil companies have given nearly $1 million to North Dakota’s federal and gubernatorial candidates.
That’s only a fraction of the overall donations these politicians have received, but the contributions sometimes represent a significant portion of any single politician’s income.
For instance, House Republican candidate Kevin Cramer has received about 42 percent – or at least $129,000 – of his total contributions from donors in the oil and gas industry.
Harold Hamm, CEO and chairman for Continental Resources, and Armstrong Corp. President Michael J. Armstrong are both on Cramer’s finance team, charged with helping to raise funds for his 2012 U.S. House bid.
Cramer said he’s “proud of those relationships” he has with oil company executives, like Hamm, who also appeared personally at a campaign fundraiser for Cramer in May at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference.
Continental Resources is the largest oil producer and leaseholder in North Dakota. Hamm was unavailable for comment for this story.
“If you aspire to represent the state of North Dakota in the United States government and yet you don’t have a working knowledge or working relationships with people that are creating the wealth and the jobs in your state, I’m not sure you’re qualified to represent the state in Congress,” Cramer said.
“Those relationships demonstrate a working knowledge of the major issues of the day, and they’re illustrative of the work I’ve done to position myself to be a person of influence,” he added.
His opponent disagrees.
Democratic House candidate Pam Gulleson has received more campaign donations overall than Cramer, but of those, just $100 was tied to an oil and gas investor, as of May 23.
“The oil industry has made a determination to put their money behind Republicans, and I think that’s unfortunate when I look at my own background in energy,” Gulleson said, adding that she’s “concerned overall with the amount of money in politics.”
“You shouldn’t be able to buy seats in Congress,” Gulleson added. “When you think about why people run for office, it should be based on your interest in advancing policy for all people, not for certain interest groups, not for big oil.”
Democrats have criticized Cramer for accepting political donations from the coal industry, which he regulates as a Public Service commissioner. He and fellow Commissioner Brian Kalk are being sued over allegations of a conflict of interest.
Cramer said he doesn’t see it in that case or in this one.
“It implies that the oil executive gives to the candidate in the hopes of influencing that candidate. They give to a candidate in the hopes of influencing the outcome of the election,” Cramer said. “They’re not buying access. It’s not quid-pro-quo. They’re not paying for position; they’re paying for victory for someone whose position is more in sync with theirs.”
In contrast to Cramer, Republican U.S. Senate candidate and Rep. Rick Berg and Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple are more reserved when speaking about their personal and political relationships with oil companies.
Dalrymple, who’s seeking a full term as governor this fall, has received at least $356,000 donations from employees and executives in the oil and gas sector since January 2011. That represents about 25 percent of all his donations.
When asked if the oil industry had influence on politicians, Dalrymple said: “I don’t think they do to any degree that’s any different from any other industry or any other interest group.”
Dalrymple said donors from the oil and gas industry are “just like any of my other contributors.”
“I’ve never had any direct discussions with any of them about what their expectations are,” Dalrymple said, adding of his relationship with oil executives: “I wouldn’t call it close. They have been supporting my campaign for governor, and I assume it’s because they think I’m doing a good job.”
Federal campaign finance laws restrict any single donor from giving more than $2,500 per election to any congressional candidate, but state laws are more relaxed, allowing statewide candidates like Dalrymple to accept checks for larger amounts.
Among his oil and gas contributions, Dalrymple received $20,000 from Hamm and another $25,000 from John B. Hess, the CEO of Hess Corp., another huge stakeholder in the Oil Patch.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ryan Taylor said Dalrymple’s governmental responsibilities make the contributions from oil companies a conflict of interest. Taylor asked Dalrymple to return the donations.
As governor, Dalrymple sits on the state Industrial Commission, which oversees oil and gas permits.
“There are serious ethical questions,” Taylor said, pledging not to accept similar contributions if he were elected governor. “By removing the cloud of enormous campaign contributions at this critical crossroads in our state’s history, I affirm what I have long stated: North Dakota is not for sale.”
Dalrymple denounced Taylor’s accusations, reiterating in an interview with The Forum on Friday that his record of service as governor demonstrates more scrutiny over oil development.
He also noted that there’s no way to isolate particular cases that come before the Industrial Commission, calling his work there “just a verification process of our laws and regulations.”
Meanwhile, The Forum’s analysis of campaign contributions found that Congressman Berg has received the most dollars – $447,000 – from employees and executives in the oil and gas industry.
However, in context, that represents barely 14 percent of the $3.2 million he’d raised for his Senate campaign before the June primary.
Berg emphasized that his pro-energy background and stuck to partisan talking points when discussing whether oil influences politics in North Dakota.
“President Obama and his administrative policies have the potential to stop the development we have in North Dakota,” Berg said, adding that North Dakota’s approach to energy has made it so “all components that support energy growth are working with each other, not against each other.”
Berg said he’s known some oil company executives for nearly 20 years, such as John Stark, Continental Resources’ senior vice president for exploration.
Berg said he worked with Stark on oil issues during Berg’s time in the North Dakota Legislature when technologies like hydraulic fracturing were in their infancy.
The pair were brought together again most recently on Saturday, when Stark testified before a U.S. House committee field hearing on oil issues, at which Berg praised the success of North Dakota’s oil development.
Berg said everyone wins from the good relationship between North Dakota’s government and the oil industry.
“When we develop our own energy, we create American jobs, increase our energy supply and lower costs,” he said.
Energy development seems to be one area in which Berg and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp are in agreement.
However, Heitkamp’s political donations from oil and gas are minimal in comparison to Berg.
The Forum found that Heitkamp received $24,100 donations tied to oil and gas, and even then, much of those were tied to companies or utilities that transmit – not produce – energy from oil and gas.
Attempts to arrange an interview with Heitkamp last week for this story were unsuccessful.
POLITICS MEETS OIL
All figures represent minimum amounts, based on The Forum’s investigation of known political contributions tied to the oil and gas sector since January 2011.
RICK BERG (R)
Total raised, as of May 23: $3.2 million
Contributions from oil and gas interests: $446,800
- Missouri Basin Well Service: $27,000
- Hess Corp.: $22,500
- Mewbourne Oil Co.: $20,000
- Continental Resources: $14,050
- Marathon Oil: $13,500
JACK DALRYMPLE (R)
Total raised, as of May 23: $1.4 million
Contributions from oil interests: $355,785
- International Western Co.: $35,000
- Eagle Operating: $26,050
- Hess Corp.: $25,000
- Continental Resources: $25,000
- FAB Industries: $25,000
- Quintana Minerals Corp.: $25,000
KEVIN CRAMER (R)
Total raised, as of May 23: $311,000
Contributions from oil and gas interests: $129,350
- Armstrong Corp.: $15,000
- Missouri Basin Well Service: $12,500
- Select Energy Services: $11,000
- Continental Resources: $9,000
- International Western Co.: $6,500
HEIDI HEITKAMP (D)
Total raised, as of May 23: $1.7 million
Contributions from oil and gas interests: $24,100
- Basin Electric Power Cooperative+: $6,600
- Quintana Capital Group: $5,000
- Great River Energy+: $4,000
- Exelon Corp.+: $3,000
- Bonanza Oil Co.: $2,500
JOHN HOEVEN (R)
Total raised as of March 31: $160,300
Contributions from oil and gas interests: $22,000
- Eagle Operating Co.: $5,000
- Missouri Basin Well Service: $5,000
- Sinclair Oil: $4,000
- Occidental Petroleum: $2,500
- Tesoro Petroleum Corp.: $2,000
RYAN TAYLOR (D)
Total raised, as of May 31: $305,000
Contributions from oil and gas interests: $2,000 (from individual investors)
PAM GULLESON (D)
Total raised, as of May 23: $504,000
Contributions from oil and gas interests: $100 (from an individual investor)
KENT CONRAD (D)
Total raised as of March 31: $28,400
Contributions from oil and gas interests: $0
TOP 20 COMPANIES BY POLITICAL CONTRIBUTIONS
The Forum’s analysis found employees and executives from at least 187 oil and gas companies have contributed at least $993,100 to North Dakota’s top politicians since January 2011.
Those companies who gave the most in donations were:
1. Missouri Basin Well Service: $61,140
2. Continental Resources: $48,050
3. Hess Corp.: $48,000
4. Eagle Operating Inc.: $43,550
5. International Western Co.: $41,500
6. Armstrong Corp.: $34,000
7. Select Energy Services: $31,000
8. Quintana Minerals Corp.: $30,000
9. FAB Industries Inc.: $25,000
10. Marathon Oil: $23,500
+ = utility, energy provider or transmission company that relies on oil and gas sources.