Donald Trump at a campaign stop at the Oklahoma State Fair in September 2015.

Brian Hardzinski / KGOU

The Oklahoma Oil Billionaire Shaping Donald Trump’s Bid to Win on Energy Issues

  • Joe Wertz
Donald Trump at a campaign stop at the Oklahoma State Fair in September 2015.

Brian Hardzinski / KGOU

Donald Trump at a campaign stop at the Oklahoma State Fair in September 2015.

Donald Trump is wooing energy-state voters by promising a presidency that will champion coal, promote drilling and free frackers from federal regulations limiting oil and gas development.

If the Republican candidate’s energy platform sounds like it was written specifically for fossil fuel companies, that’s because an Oklahoma oil billionaire helped craft it.

Donald Trump delivered his first major speech on U.S. energy policy at a petroleum conference in the capital city of one the country’s most oil-rich states, Bismark, North Dakota.

Trump’s May 2016 stop in Bismarck, when he was still campaigning in the Republican primary, had a purpose: To get people pumped up about pumping oil and natural gas. Trump promised, if elected, he’d undo environmental and climate regulations that expanded under the Obama administration. The arena crowd of about 7,000 responded with protracted applause and standing ovations.

“We’re going to revoke policies that impose unwarranted restrictions on new drilling technologies. These technologies create millions of jobs,” he said.

That, Trump told the audience, would free-up the market, bringing profits to energy companies, jobs to communities and personal wealth to individuals.

“This is your treasure,” he said. “And you, the American people, are entitled to share in the riches.”

Fueling Communities

Trump’s stop at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference was arranged with the help of two men playing an instrumental role in helping shape Trump’s energy policy. First is North Dakota Congressman Kevin Cramer.

“Probably the thing that resonates with me the most with these energy-savvy constituents of mine is his talk about regulation and the reining in of regulations,” Cramer said in an interview with StateImpact.

Cramer says energy policy offers a simple way for the public to measure the effectiveness of the federal government. Much of the Mountain West is rich in minerals, but a lot of the land and wealth is controlled by the feds. Cramer says that’s not the case in states like North Dakota, Texas and Oklahoma, where fossil fuel development fuels local prosperity.

“And that differentiation is really stark,” he said. “It makes obvious that it’s not government that creates the jobs, it’s the government that gets in the way of the jobs.”

Oklahoma’s ‘King of Energy’

Trump is also taking energy cues from Oklahoma oilman Harold Hamm, a godfather of fracking. Or, as Trump referred to him in a press conference after the speech, “the King of Energy.”

Hamm is the founder and CEO of Continental Resources, a pioneering producer in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale. Hamm is the son of Oklahoma sharecroppers, and his hard-scrabble personal journey from gas station laborer, to wildcatter, to billionaire energy boss has given him hero status among oil-field workers and corporate executives.

Trump officials and Hamm didn’t respond to interview requests, but the oil and gas magnate was tapped to speak at the 2016 Republican National Convention in July.

Hamm is a vocal Trump supporter and he advises the candidate on energy and economic issues. The fracking mogul has been named as a possible energy secretary if Trump wins in November. Previously, in 2012, Hamm served as an energy advisor to Mitt Romney. He also supported Romney’s campaign with nearly a million dollars in donations. Hamm’s 2016 convention speech drove home two big themes: First: U.S. reliance on foreign oil is a national security threat, but the environment isn’t.

“Every time we can’t drill a well in America, terrorism is being funded,” Hamm said, also noting, “Climate change isn’t our biggest problem. It’s Islamic terrorism.

The second point driven home in Hamm’s remarks: Drilling is the best way to reduce the foreign energy-security threat.

“President Trump will fuel America’s future and become the first president to achieve American energy independence,” Hamm remarked.

Continental Resources founder and CEO Harold Hamm, second to the left, at the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association office in Oklahoma City.

Continental Resources founder and CEO Harold Hamm, second to the left, at the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association office in Oklahoma City.

Independence, Incoherence

Roger Stern, an energy economist and faculty fellow at the University of Tulsa’s School of Energy Economics, Policy and Commerce says total energy independence would be bad for U.S. consumers because global energy markets mean cheaper gasoline and utility bills.

“‘Energy independence’ is just as ridiculous now as when President Nixon introduced it,” Stern says. “Trump isn’t using that idea any more or less coherently than any other president or presidential hopeful.”

Stern sees contradictions in other aspects of Trump’s energy plan. A big one is the GOP candidate’s pledge to restore coal jobs while simultaneously promoting natural gas development, since increased supplies of the environmentally cleaner gas are a major factor fueling the decline of coal.

“The idea that the oil and natural gas producers are on the same side of this thing as the coal producers is just wrong,” Stern said.

More recently, in an interview with Colorado television station 9News, Trump said he’d support local bans on fracking, a controversial issue in many states, including Oklahoma, where lawmakers passed a state law preventing towns and cities from enacting such restrictions.

Hamm hurried to play down Trump’s comments and reassure the press and public that the GOP candidate mis-heard the interviewer.

“Donald Trump did not understand that concept at the time in my opinion,” Hamm told the Wall Street Journal’s Amy Harder. “He does now.”

Muddled messages

Stern says Trump and the GOP aren’t the only ones sending muddled messages when it it comes to energy policy; Hillary Clinton struggles to make a clear case, too. One example, Stern says, is the Democratic candidate’s unwillingness to champion natural gas production and acknowledge that fracking is cleaner and environmentally better than its predecessor.

“Fracking is not environmentally neutral, of course, but it’s unquestionably better,” he says. “It’s not the clean energy end-game, but it’s progress and a clear improvement. It’s misguided to ignore that just because it’s a fossil fuel.”

Stern says neither Republicans nor Democrats seem interested in tackling many key energy policy issues that could have a big effect on companies and everyday Americans, such as the public health consequences of energy production and taxpayer subsidies of energy industries.