BISMARCK – Gov. Doug Burgum accepted more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from oil company executives last fall, despite comments he made as a candidate that accepting donations from the oil industry would be a conflict of interest.
Burgum did not accept contributions from oil company political action committees, but he did receive contributions of up to $25,000 from individual oil industry executives.
North Dakota’s governor regulates the oil industry as chairman of the state Industrial Commission.
Ahead of the June 2016 primary, Burgum received no apparent contributions from the oil industry while his opponent Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, also a member of the Industrial Commission, received at least $50,000 in donations tied to the oil industry, according to campaign disclosures filed with the Secretary of State.
At the time, Burgum told Forum News Service he believed a conflict of interest exists when candidates accept donations from industries they regulate.
“If you’re a member of the NDIC and you’re asking for someone’s support and you regulate that industry and they know you’re going to continue to regulate them, think about the power dynamic,” Burgum said in a May 2016 interview.
After Burgum defeated Stenehjem in the primary, money from oil company executives started flowing into Burgum’s campaign last fall, including:
- A $25,000 gift from John Hess, the CEO of Hess Corp.
- Separate donations from the president and CEO of Oasis Petroleum that total $25,000.
- Two donations that total $24,900 from the CEO and president of Select Energy Services.
- A $21,500 donation from the family trust of James J. Volker, CEO of Whiting Petroleum.
- A gift of $5,500 from a Creek Oilfield Services administrator, $5,000 donations from Petro-Hunt, QEP Resources and Slawson Exploration executives and $3,000 from True Companies executives.
Burgum declined an interview request but issued this statement:
“As a candidate, I made it clear I would not accept campaign contributions from entities I would directly regulate if elected governor. I honored that pledge. Individuals are free to express their preference and participate in the political process no matter where they work. As chairman of the Industrial Commission, I am committed to fair and unbiased oversight, regardless of campaign contributions.”
Democrat Marvin Nelson, who ran against Burgum last November, said his “heart kind of sank” when he first saw oil executive donations show up in Burgum’s campaign disclosures last fall.
“I was really kind of hoping for a change in administration about those sorts of things,” Nelson said. “How do we actually expect these people to be truly unbiased when they’re receiving significant money from the people they’re supposed to be regulating?”
Don Morton, who worked as chief of staff for Burgum at Microsoft in Fargo, said he doesn’t expect the contributions to influence Burgum’s decision-making.
“Doug’s a person of the highest integrity. We want good people running for office and unfortunately you have to spend money to get elected,” Morton said. “He has an established track record of integrity and high values and he’s going to do what’s best for the state of North Dakota.”
One example of the types of decisions the state’s Industrial Commission makes is a matter involving Oasis Petroleum that came before the three-person board last month.
More than 30 residents of McKenzie County petitioned for the Industrial Commission to deny a saltwater disposal well from Oasis, citing concerns about its proximity to a residential area. Burgum, Stenehjem and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring unanimously approved the disposal well with additional stipulations aimed at enhancing the safety and security of the site.
The Industrial Commission also makes the final decision related to fines for oil companies that break the rules.
Stenehjem did not respond to a request for comment.
Former Gov. Jack Dalrymple at times faced criticism for accepting campaign contributions from oil companies.
In late 2012, residents of Dunn County signed a petition seeking a grand jury investigation of Dalrymple, who received more than $80,000 in oil company campaign contributions around the same time the Industrial Commission was considering a controversial drilling unit. A judge later dismissed the petition.
Dalrymple also owned stock in several energy companies, including ExxonMobil, the parent company of XTO Energy that operates in North Dakota. Dalrymple sold the Exxon stock during his time in office.
Burgum does not list any direct ownership of energy stocks on his statement of interest filed with the Secretary of State, which lists a candidate’s business interests.
In all, Burgum received more than $1.8 million in campaign contributions last year, including more than $106,000 from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, $100,000 from Robert Kagle, general partner of San Francisco-based Benchmark Capital, and $50,000 from Miles White, chairman and CEO of Illinois health care company Abbott.
Burgum’s campaign disclosures show that he did not receive any contributions directly tied to North Dakota’s most controversial energy project, the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The political action committee for Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, the builder of the pipeline, contributed $6,300 to North Dakota campaigns in 2016, including $2,000 to Stenehjem’s campaign for governor, $2,000 to the North Dakota Republican Party and $1,000 to the House Republican Leadership Fund.
The ND Oil PAC, organized by the North Dakota Petroleum Council, contributed more than $37,000 to North Dakota campaigns in 2016, including $5,000 to Stenehjem for governor. The PAC did not contribute to Burgum.
“Individuals can support who they want. That’s the beauty of the American system,” Petroleum Council President Ron Ness said. “It’s all within the campaign laws and contribution laws.”