MINOT, N.D. — North Dakota leaders hosted the U.S. Secretary of Energy for a medley of energy events in Minot on Tuesday, Sept. 1, where coal and oil industry voices discussed moves to deregulate their industries.

Gov. Doug Burgum, Sen. John Hoeven, and Sen. Kevin Cramer were among the North Dakota lawmakers who convened in Minot for a series of roundtable energy discussions, taking U.S. energy secretary Dan Brouillette through a tour of North Dakota's energy sectors.

The day began with a classified tour of the Minot Air Force Base, a nuclear-armed base just north of Minot. The United States' nuclear missile silo falls under the jurisdiction of the department of energy, rather than the Pentagon, and Brouillette's visit to Minot marked the first appearance of the country's nuclear leadership on base.

The bulk of Brouillette's visit consisted of roundtable discussions at the Grand Hotel in Minot with a who's-who of government and industry voices from North Dakota's oil and coal sectors. Both pillars of North Dakota energy have suffered huge losses during the pandemic, and Brouillette addressed how both industries can begin steps in a long recovery from the pandemic.

Brouillette, who was nominated for energy secretary by President Donald Trump last October and confirmed in December, outlined his broad philosophy for American energy as "all of the above," explaining that he supports deregulation of the nuclear, coal, and oil industries with the singular aim of producing as much American energy as possible.

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"Innovation, not regulation," was the banner cry for many in attendance, from Burgum to both senators, and Brouillette focused much of his discussion around strategies for deregulating coal, oil and natural gas.

Coal looks for sustainability

While conversation centered on deregulation, coal representatives expressed urgency at the need to make North Dakota coal more efficient and financially sustainable. They raised concerns to Brouillette about the proposed shutdown of Coal Creek Station, the Underwood plant slated for closure in 2022, while dedicating substantial time to discussing carbon capture techniques that could make the coal industry more financially sustainable.

"We can't regulate whole industries out of existence," Burgum said, agreeing both with his fellow North Dakota leaders and with Brouillette on the importance of keeping North Dakota coal alive to help maintain baseload power, the minimum amount of electricity needed to keep the state's electricity grid running.

In particular, Brouillette cited the importance of keeping North Dakota running to the country's national security, citing the morning's visit to the nuclear silo at Minot Air Force Base.

"Imagine for a second if the lights go out at the Minot Air Force Base for an extended period of time," he said Brouillette. "It's important that we develop baseload electricity. It's important that we have grid resiliency. It's important that we focus on things like grid reliability so that power never goes off for these important institutions like Minot Airforce Base."

Coal industry representatives also pitched Brouillette on Project Tundra, the billion dollar project to build the world's largest carbon capture facility at North Dakota's Young Station in Oliver County. Earlier this year, Brouillette and the department of energy approved at $17 million federal investment in the project, but it has so far raised only a fraction of the cost needed to move forward.

Oil, gas seek efficiency

Tuesday's oil and gas roundtables centered around the one-two punch that the industry has shouldered over the last year, between pandemic travel restrictions and a price war between Russian and Saudi Arabian oil producers. This year, Brouillette has been instrumental in negotiations between the United States and Saudi Arabia as tensions between the two countries have continued through the pandemic.

"The real battle is beyond our borders," Burgum said, outlining the path ahead for North Dakota oil.

While all leadership present acknowledged the long road ahead in the oil industry's recovery from the pandemic, Burgum praised the Trump administration for pre-pandemic gains in American oil production.

"We’re finally in a place where we’re able to sell energy to our friends versus buy it from our enemies," he said. "That’s the biggest geopolitical shift in our lifetime."

The oil industry panel was more militant on environmental regulation than the coal panel, and Brouillette took the opportunity to highlight the Trump Administration's recent rollbacks to the decades-old NEPA laws, which impose environmental regulations on new infrastructure projects like pipelines and power plants.

He also conveyed confidence on the long term future of North Dakota oil and its pandemic recovery.

Speaking to the economic disadvantages to producing oil in the Bakken compared to other parts of the country, Brouillette said he believes North Dakota is closing the gap with other American producers.

"As this industry here in North Dakota becomes even more efficient and even better at what it does already, I think you're going to see that those spreads tighten up," he said. "I think they probably have tightened up as we've developed pipeline projects not only in North Dakota, but also across the country."

Readers can reach reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@gmail.com.