The difficulty of deconstructing Donald Trump’s views on energy can be boiled down to the case of the dead ducks.
About six minutes into a May 26 energy address he gave in North Dakota, Trump condemned the Environmental Protection Agency’s “use of totalitarian taxes” to force the state’s energy companies “to pay multibillion-dollar fines before a penalty is even confirmed, which is actually rather hard to believe.”
“The Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against seven companies for the death of 28 birds while the administration fast-tracked wind projects that kill more than a million birds a year — far more than a million birds, I have to tell you, far more,” he said.
There are good reasons Trump may think the situation is hard to believe: It isn’t entirely true.
Those two statements contain two errors and one questionable assertion. Trump named the wrong agency, inflated the amount of the fine at least 133,333 times over and used the highest end of estimates about the number of bird deaths from wind turbines. Moreover, a federal judge tossed the duck case out of court in early 2012. No fine was paid.
How did this mashup happen? It was a product of the way Trump gets and absorbs advice. In this case, as in others, he relied on the contentions of other tycoons and then weaved them into his own mixture of ideas, anecdotes and figures. (Trump’s campaign did not reply to a request for comment.)
The dead duck story starts with oil billionaire Harold Hamm, whom Donald Trump has hailed as the “king of energy” and who helped introduce Trump at the North Dakota event at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference. The youngest of 13 children of an Oklahoma sharecropper, Hamm, 70, made much of his fortune in North Dakota’s Bakken shale oil region. He is the chief executive of Continental Resources and owns $12 billion of the company’s stock.
Trump said that Hamm has “been amazing right from the beginning” in his assessment of the market — and may have been on more magazine covers than the presumptive Republican nominee himself.
Hamm has been telling the story about dead ducks for years. In 2011, the U.S. attorney in North Dakota brought criminal misdemeanor charges against seven oil companies, including Hamm’s, for failing to prevent 28 migratory birds, mostly ducks, from dying in the companies’ waste ponds. (In Continental’s case, the feathered victim was a Say’s phoebe, a type of rusty-bellied flycatcher.) The companies faced maximum fines of $15,000 per bird.
Rather than try to settle the case, Hamm decided to fight the charges.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, part of the Interior Department, said the oil-waste pits in question were supposed to be fenced and covered with nets to minimize bird deaths. The U.S. attorney said at the time that all seven companies, including Hamm’s, had been cited for similar violations without taking action. With the rate of shale oil drilling soaring, the state was considering whether to ban the waste pits and insist that the companies recycle liquid drilling waste.
But U.S. District Court Judge Daniel L. Hovland, a President George W. Bush appointee, in 2012 dismissed the government’s case, declaring that oil drilling was a “legal, commercially-useful activity” that had resulted in purely accidental bird deaths and that there was nothing criminal about it. He said charges of criminal “taking” under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act should be directed at hunters and poachers.
It was a victory for Hamm, who later that year dabbled in politics. He was on an energy advisory committee for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, hosted a Romney fundraiser and donated $985,000 to Restore Our Future, a super PAC supporting Romney. Hamm did not comment for this article, but a company spokesman said she thinks that he and Trump met for the first time that year.
Other Trump positions in the North Dakota speech mirrored Hamm’s views, such as giving oil drillers greater access to federal lands and shelving protections for endangered species that lie in the path of drilling.
Hamm’s overarching vision appears to fit neatly with Trump’s pledge to “make America great again.” In an interview in 2012, Hamm said there were two views of oil in the United States: one that oil and gas are scarce, and the other that they are abundant. He put himself in the latter camp.
Yet Hamm, like Trump, may be relying on overly optimistic numbers. In the 2012 interview, Hamm said he thought that U.S. Geological Survey estimates of U.S. shale oil reserves were wrong and that the Bakken field alone held 24 billion barrels, seven times the USGS reckoning at that time. The following year, the USGS approximately doubled its estimate to 3.65 billion barrels, still about a seventh of Hamm’s assessment.
Trump, too, used inflated numbers last month. He said the United States has 1.5 times as much oil as the combined proven resources of all OPEC countries. Yet according to the federal Energy Information Administration, the United States had proven oil reserves of 39.9 billion barrels as of Dec. 31, 2014. Saudi Arabia has proven reserves of about 268 billion barrels, and four other members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries have greater reserves than the United States.
Buoyed by these numbers, Trump promised “complete American energy independence,” a goal that has eluded presidents since the Arab oil embargo of 1973. The United States imports about half the oil it needs.
The biggest source of U.S. imports is Canada. Trump said that he, unlike President Obama, would approve a construction permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would secure nearly 800,000 barrels a day of crude-oil supplies from Alberta’s oil sands.
Trump said the project would create 42,000 jobs, a figure commonly cited by oil industry groups. In fact, according to pipeline owner TransCanada’s original estimates, the project would create 6,500 direct construction jobs over two years and 7,000 indirect supply-chain jobs. After construction, the pipeline would require fewer than 100 people to monitor pumping stations.
Trump also said he would use his bargaining skills to persuade TransCanada, which has filed suit over Obama’s rejection of a construction permit, to give the American people “a significant piece of the profits” from the pipeline.
TransCanada spokesman James Millar said in an email to The Washington Post that the pipeline wasn’t a matter for U.S. government ownership. He said it was “a business deal between American and Canadian companies and it is those U.S. firms who have negotiated contracts with us to either ship their oil to U.S. refineries or refineries who want to access American and Canadian crude through KXL to process it.”
Millar said that “they are profiting from this business deal and those profits benefit U.S. workers and the American economy. The U.S. Government’s role is that of a regulator.”
In addition to Hamm, Trump has talked about energy policy with Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee who has been a blunt critic of Obama. A former member of North Dakota’s Public Service Commission, he was elected as the state’s sole House member in 2012.
Cramer has joined other lawmakers in an amicus brief in the case seeking to overturn the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan to reduce greenhouse gases. He has denounced Obama’s “war on coal that seeks to put all coal mines out of business” and said on his website that “when this administration isn’t creating solutions in search of problems, it is apparently destroying private industry solely for political objectives.”
He supported the lifting of export restrictions on crude oil, giving North Dakota producers badly needed access to foreign markets where they can get higher prices.
Cramer, who declined to comment for this article, also has criticized Obama’s proposal to hand an additional $12 million to the Justice Department’s environment and natural resources division.
“The President should not regulate and litigate just because he cannot legislate,” Cramer said in a news release on his website. “The Congress will not allow him to borrow millions so the federal government can lawyer up in order to push an anti-jobs, extreme environmental agenda.”
Trump seems to be listening. He pledged in his first 100 days to rescind “job-destroying” Obama executive actions on the environment.
“In a Trump administration, political activists with extreme agendas will no longer write the rules,” he declared in his energy address. “Instead, we will work with conservationists whose only agenda is protecting nature.”