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Jacobs: An apt venue for N.D. two-step

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp shakes the hand of President Donald Trump with other state leaders Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017, at the Tesoro Refinery in Mandan, N.D. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

The political two-step returned to North Dakota last week. As expected, the partners were Donald Trump and Heidi Heitkamp.

Trump came to Mandan last week, and used quite a lot of his speech to extol North Dakota's economic record, saying he wants the whole country to know what's been accomplished here. Maybe the president hadn't checked the price of oil. On the day of Trump's visit, the Texas price hovered around $49 a barrel. That's about $70 a barrel less than the price in September 2014, just before the oil boom busted. The price paid for North Dakota crude oil is discounted due to transportation costs.

The venue, an oil refinery near Mandan, was apt. Much of the nation's crude oil refining capacity is offline as the result of another hurricane on the Texas Coast. Gasoline prices are up.

Not oil prices though. With refineries out of commission, there's less need for oil and much of what's coming out of the ground is going into storage, stretching capacity.

This raises an important question about the nation's industrial infrastructure. Does it make sense to locate refining capacity in areas vulnerable to long disruptions in service?

Refining on the Gulf Coast made sense when Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana were near monopoly producers of crude oil among the states, and the country relied on imported oil. A drive to energy independence requires a different refining strategy though, one away from weather's wrath.

The Northern Plains experience harsh weather, that's true enough, but no blizzard has ever shut down economic activity in North Dakota for more than a day or two at a stretch — a far lesser interruption than the fortnight of idled production and economic disruption that will follow Hurricane Harvey.

Maybe a policy aimed at energy independence should include refining capacity across the country.

The president brought Sen. Heitkamp with him on Air Force One. That gesture got more media attention nationally than what he had to say. Heitkamp was with Trump on the platform. The president called her out during his speech. He's looking for her support in reworking the tax system.

Although she's a Democrat, Heitkamp has been friendly to Trump, and she issued a statement welcoming him to North Dakota.

On the Republican side speculation continues about a candidate to oppose Heitkamp. The latest name on the "how-about- this-one" list is Tammy Miller, chief executive of Border States Electric and Fargo's chair of something called the Valley Prosperity Project. The project is meant to protect the valley's economic and political pre-eminence in North Dakota as development continues in the oil counties in the west.

It may be that none of the names being floated will become serious candidates, but the lengthening list is evidence that some Republicans somewhere are uncomfortable with the field thus far. The list also suggests that some think chromosomes might be a factor in the election campaign.

The campaign is clearly under way. Candidates showed up for last weekend's Potato Bowl Parade in Grand Forks. This is a frequent venue for politicians — but usually not in off-years.

State Sen. Tom Campbell of Grafton, an announced candidate for the Senate, was there. So was Ben Hanson of Fargo, a former member of the state House of Representatives. He's announced he's running for the U.S. House.

In a brief conversation over pancakes served by the Grand Forks Rotary Club, Hanson made clear that he thinks Rep. Kevin Cramer will be a candidate for re-election. His potential vulnerabilities, Hanson said, include Cramer's alleged indifference to farm issues, especially the crop insurance program, and his support for the president.

Campbell has made clear his commitment to the president in other ways, including a barrage of television ads appearing around the state.

The 2018 election isn't likely to be a referendum on Trump's popularity, however. His approval rating is higher in North Dakota than in any other state except West Virginia. The two states have something else in common: U.S. Senate races in 2018.

In other news of the week, a federal judge stopped construction of a project designed to reduce flooding in the Fargo-Moorhead metro. Work can't proceed without permits from Minnesota agencies, the judge said, urging parties to get back to negotiations.

The judge in question is John Tunheim. He grew up in Thief River Falls, Minn., and attended Concordia College in Moorhead and the University of Minnesota Law School. President Clinton appointed him to the bench. He's now the chief U.S. judge for the district of Minnesota.

Disagreements about water projects have recurred between these states across the last half century, at least. There doesn't seem to be much appetite for negotiation on either side.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald. Email him at mjacobs@gfherald.com.

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