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In April, I flew to Bismarck, North Dakota, and found a shiny white Audi Q3 waiting for me in the rental parking lot. I was there to find out how Americans living in communities that depend on the extraction and sale of fossil fuels are faring after last year’s brutal crash in oil prices. And to find out how they feel about their new president’s far-reaching, clean-energy revolution.
I wandered from shale oilfields in the Dakotas to Wyoming wind farms, from patches of desert earmarked for green mega-projects to skyscrapers in Houston, a city pumped through and through with oil profits. Two weeks of road from chilled northern prairies to the steamy Gulf Coast. Miles driven: 3,112. CO2 equivalent burnt: 1.24 tonnes.
Joe Biden won the US presidency after months of vowing to render the world’s largest economy emissions-free by 2050, to crack down on fossil fuel pollution, to eliminate carbon from the power sector in 15 years and to electrify the automotive fleet of the country that perfected the V8 engine and proselytised the SUV. Democrats say Biden’s plan can fight climate change and create a bounty of new jobs at the same time.
The plan also puts the US in the vanguard of a global energy transition many hope will sunset the petroleum era. From Wall Street to Frankfurt, investors are shunning oil and gas and favouring renewables. Goldman Sachs says spending on clean energy could amount to $16tn in the next 10 years, as much as the rising economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China together spent on infrastructure in the century’s first two decades. Forecasters, including the International Energy Agency, now say new fossil fuel projects aren’t necessary to meet the world’s energy needs.
Old energy: oil pump jacks dot the landscape across west Texas near Midland © Brandon Thibodeaux
New energy: wind turbines © Brandon Thibodeaux
All of which is a head-spinning reversal for anybody working in Odessa, Texas, Williston, North Dakota, or many of the other places I visited on a road trip across seven states dotted with decades of accumulated energy infrastructure. Former president Donald Trump’s proclaimed era of American “energy dominance” has given way to emboldened activists, investors, regulators and politicians.
Perhaps that’s why my voyage through these fossil fuel-dependent communities often felt like tracing a front. I met Americans fighting to hold back an energy transition, some fearing its impact, and others battling to speed its progress. Sometimes, all in the same place.
‘WE WENT FROM AN AGEING STATE TO ONE OF THE YOUNGEST’
The Fort Berthold Indian Reservation is no stranger to upheaval. Between 1947 and 1953, the US Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Missouri River that bisects this part of North Dakota, creating Lake Sakakawea and a hydropower plant and displacing some 90 per cent of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara (MHA) Nation, the native Americans who live here.
Today, another form of energy dominates Fort Berthold’s rolling prairie. The reservation sits atop the Bakken shale rock unit, one of the world’s most prolific oil-producing geological formations. It was here that drillers launched the American shale oil revolution just over a decade ago, making the US the world’s biggest crude producer and upending geopolitics. Before last year’s oil price crash, North Dakota was producing almost 1.5m barrels a day, more daily oil than the whole of the UK.
FT Weekend Magazine sent Brandon Thibodeaux to capture the Texas and New Mexico legs of Derek Brower’s road trip. Pictured: a mural in downtown Midland, west Texas © Brandon Thibodeaux
Mark Fox is the leader of the MHA Nation. The walls of his office in New Town, Fort Berthold’s administrative centre, are adorned by a framed bow and quiver, as well as memorabilia from Fox’s time in the US Marine Corps. We talk about the flood in 1953, the new US secretary of interior Deb Haaland — the first Native American appointed to a federal cabinet post — and oil, which has restored some of what was lost by the three tribes on Fort Berthold 70 years ago.
Before the drilling boom a decade ago, the reservation’s main source of income was its casino and federal payments. Annual oil revenue in the past few years has provided as much as 85 per cent of the tribal budget. “It’s buildings, schools . . . medical health insurance for the first time for our people,” says Fox. Oil money also helped when the coronavirus hit the 7,000-person reservation last year. Whatever their initial concerns, Fox says his people want shale development to continue. “My hope is that one day we no longer depend on the federal government ever again.”
For Fox, the challenge of a shifting national energy agenda has already arrived. In April the MHA Nation sided with an oil company in a thorny dispute with the Standing Rock tribe, which has been seeking to shut down a Bakken oil pipeline. The Standing Rock say the pipeline, which ships most of the MHA Nation’s oil, endangers its water. “We respect Standing Rock’s rights to say ‘we don’t want an oil pipeline . . . ’ That’s their right,” says Fox. “But we also have a right.”
A pump jack produces oil beneath power lines near Midland, west Texas © Brandon Thibodeaux
The dispute echoes the broader debate over America’s energy sector. Fossil fuels cause harm, but also pay for medical facilities in indigenous communities. North Dakota’s oil advocates make the argument for the rest of their state too. “The Bakken brought almost a rebirth,” says Ron Ness, head of the North Dakota Petroleum Council in Bismarck, the state capital. “We were closing schools. And for the last decade we’ve been building schools. We went from an ageing state to one of the youngest ones.”
The pandemic has complicated matters further. In 2019 the state’s oil revenue hit almost $4bn. Now, Ness reckons as many as a quarter of the 60,000 or so people working directly or indirectly in the shale patch have left following last year’s crash. Some analysts believe the Bakken is in terminal decline since it is cheaper to produce oil elsewhere and because of the reticence among investors to pay for new drilling.
In Bismarck, Ness blames Washington. Pictures of Donald Trump hang in his office as he tells me that Biden and his clean energy agenda have put a chill on his state’s oil business. “When you wake up every morning and you feel like the federal government is out to get you, there’s a significant impact,” he says. “Every conversation I have is ‘climate this, climate that’.”
‘THE PAST IS NOT OUR FUTURE’
From the heart of the Bakken in Williston, I head through Montana and into Wyoming, another emerging front in America’s energy transition. The state is famous for its huge skies, snow-capped peaks, deeply conservative politics and hydrocarbons, especially coal. But the Cheney dynasty’s adopted state also has wind — powerful, persistent and, for the right investors, profitable.
Standing on a ridge in the Sierra Madre range in Carbon County, I look out. In the valley to our north is Rawlins, a prison town, and just east of there is the hamlet of Sinclair, renamed after its almost 100-year-old refinery. I’m on ranchland belonging to the Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz, an investor in energy projects, newspapers and entertainment, including the Coachella festival.
Sometime in the middle of this decade, this land will host a thicket of wind turbines, as many as 900 in total, with enough capacity to power one million homes. Eventually, a planned high-voltage, direct-current transmission line will stretch to Nevada, California and Arizona. Including $3bn for the power lines, it will all cost $8bn.