Mark Zuckerberg visits North Dakota, learns about fracking

When last we checked in with Mark Zuckerberg he was visiting the state of Alaska and writing about the need for a national basic income. Yesterday, he spent the day in North Dakota talking with people employed by the oil and gas industry about fracking. From WDAY 6:

Zuckerberg visited a drilling rig before participating in a roundtable discussion with people involved in the oil and gas industry, said Shawn Wenko, executive director of the Williston Economic Development office. He said the visit came on very short notice.

“He came across as a very nice guy, very open to conversation,” Wenko said. “We were excited that, of all the places in the world he could choose to go, he chose to come here and understand the oil and gas industry.”

Zuckerberg published a post on Facebook describing his three takeaways from the visit. The first two had to do with the dynamics of living in a an energy boom town. The last had to do with fracking itself:

Third, the energy industry is at the center of politics here. When the Dakota Access Pipeline was approved, that removed $6-7 per barrel of cost from producing oil in the region, which brought more investment and jobs here. A number of people told me they had felt their livelihood was blocked by the government, but when Trump approved the pipeline they felt a sense of hope again. That word “hope” came up many times around this. One person told me the night the pipeline was approved, people lit fireworks and rode trucks with American flags down Main Street to celebrate.

It’s interesting to see this perspective when science overwhelmingly suggests fossil fuels contribute to climate change, which is one of the great challenges our generation will have to deal with.

Many people I talked to here acknowledged this, but also feel a sense of pride that their work contributes to serving real needs we all have every day — keeping our homes warm, getting to work, feeding us, and more. They believe competition from new sources of energy is good, but from their perspective, until renewables can provide most of our energy at scale, they are providing an important service we all rely on, and they wish they’d stop being demonized for it.

Zuckerberg is obviously concerned that his liberal/progressive readers are aware that he knows the “right” answer here. He says a renewable energy future is just around the corner and points out that his company is already committed to 100% renewable energy. But to his credit, he manages to humanize the people on the other side of the argument. The detail about people celebrating the approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline is a nice touch and a story I’d not heard before. Even more striking is his statement about not demonizing people who are providing the energy the country currently needs.

Don’t get me wrong, I suspect Zuckerberg is a big fan of the Sierra Club and believes, like they do, that fossils fuels should be left in the ground. What’s impressive here is that, despite that and the pressure that comes with being a multi-billionaire with a big megaphone, he doesn’t throw everyone on the other side under the bus. That’s an improvement over his recent visit to a truck stop in Iowa where he wanted to talk about self-driving trucks.

Is all of this part of a plan to run for office? It certainly looks that way, but Zuckerberg seems determined to deny it. The Wall Street Journal published an interesting story today on the mechanics of Zuckerberg’s tour. While he’s bringing along a photographer to document the trip, he’s also taking steps to make sure no one knows where he’ll be in advance. Partly, I’m sure, that’s about his own security but the article suggests it’s also about giving him a chance to meet people without the glare of the media and hundreds of curiosity seekers making that all but impossible. The story ends with this vingette about Zuckerberg’s visit to the home of Dan Moore, a union steelworker who volunteered for the Trump campaign:

Mr. Moore and his family enjoyed a dinner of chicken Francaise and baked whitefish Mr. Zuckerberg’s staff had catered from a nearby restaurant. As Mr. Zuckerberg was leaving, he made one request, Mr. Moore said.

“He said, ‘If there are any news reporters that call you, just make sure you tell them I’m not running for president.’

Maybe it’s true but the political overtones of these visits are impossible to ignore.