Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg this week became the latest celebrity to turn up and talk oil in North Dakota. But unlike most celebrities making pilgrimages to fossil-fuel regions, he came not to protest oil production but to mingle with the local workforce.
Zuckerberg took to Facebook to describe his trip and record his observations of the “fascinating” community that has sprung up around the state’s hydraulic-fracturing, or fracking, industry, including its gender imbalance and population booms.
But mainly — and unsurprisingly — his top talking point was the state’s energy production. North Dakota sits on the Bakken oil field and can produce more than a million barrels of oil a day.
In his post, Zuckerberg reminded his 93 million followers that he believes climate change is “one of the most important challenges of our generation” and that Facebook has committed to powering its new data centers with 100 percent renewable energy. But he also encouraged them to “get out and learn about all perspectives.”
For this trip, Zuckerberg donned hard hat and overalls and beelined for a Williston, N.D., oil rig, where he spoke to workers about their pride in serving everyday needs and their dislike of being demonized for their role in fossil-fuel production. He describes their “hope” when President Trump approved the Dakota Access Pipeline, which transports oil from the Bakken region to Illinois.
The trip diverged from the usual tone of celebrity fossil-fuel tourism. North Dakota, one of the least populous states, has had more than its fair share of A-list visitors recently, thanks to the controversial pipeline.
Native American groups oppose the pipeline, saying it poses a danger to water supplies and sacred grounds, including Lake Oahe.
The cause has attracted celebrity support. Actor Mark Ruffalo joined the Standing Rock protest in October, arranging for solar panels to be mounted onto trucks to help bring power to the encampments.
His comments on North Dakota’s energy industry were less measured than Zuckerberg’s. “This pipeline is a black snake that traverses four states and 200 waterways with fracked Bakken oil,” he said in a statement. “We know from experience that pipelines leak, explode, pollute and poison land and water. But it doesn’t have to be that way.”
Actress Shailene Woodley also joined the protest. She was arrested for trespassing and led away in handcuffs. She struck a plea deal in March and avoided jail time.
North Dakota may be the newest hot spot for politically engaged celebrities, but it’s not the only oil sight to have witnessed a famous face or two in recent years.
Actor Leonardo DiCaprio, not one to shun a climate-change cause, visited the tar sands of Alberta in 2014, touring Suncor’s oil operations outside Fort McMurray, the center of the industry. Actress Jane Fonda, musician Neil Young and director James Cameron have also visited the industry, notorious for its carbon-intensive method of oil extraction.
Meanwhile, Yoko Ono led a tour to fracking sites at Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale formation as part of Artists Against Fracking, the group she formed with her son, Sean Lennon. She was joined by actress Susan Sarandon. The group has written an anti-fracking anthem that includes catchy lyrics such as “We can’t afford polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons in our water.”
The phenomenon is not restricted to North America. Last year, actress Emma Thompson was sprayed with manure by an irate farmer after taking part in a satirical baking show near a fracking site in the north of England.
Zuckerberg’s appearance in Williston appears to have received a warmer reception than most celebrity appearances. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reportedly scolded DiCaprio over his criticisms of Canada’s oil and gas sector.
“He came across as a very nice guy, very open to conversation,” Shawn Wenko, executive director of the Williston Economic Development office, told the Bismarck Tribune.
Zuckerberg’s trip to North Dakota was part of his New Year’s Resolution to travel and talk to people in every state by the end of the year. The effort has fueled speculation about a possible run for the White House in 2020. “Some people, including myself, believe that he could indeed win,” mused one writer, Nick Bilton, in Vanity Fair.