BISMARCK — North Dakota's fossil fuel industries have a problem: Attracting capital is difficult in an age when investors are increasingly mindful of how their money could be contributing to climate change.
“To this point, Wall Street doesn’t focus on North Dakota," Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford said, noting that oil, gas and coal companies need more financial partners to grow.
Sen. Kevin Cramer, a North Dakota Republican and one of Congress' staunchest fossil fuel defenders, believes he can play the role of facilitator in luring investors to local energy firms with the connections he has made in Washington. The way Cramer tells it, the industries need to tell "a good story" to the right people.
With that idea in mind, Cramer hosted Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon and a few dozen energy executives at a town-hall-style discussion in Bismarck on Thursday, Sept. 9, where the bank boss fielded questions about how to get financial institutions interested in North Dakota's fossil fuel sector.
Leaders in the coal and oil industries bemoaned that investors keep turning away their attempts to gain financial backing because of environmental and social reasons despite the financial viability of their businesses and ideas.
Solomon acknowledged that money lenders and other investors are becoming more concerned with the hit their reputation could suffer by investing in fossil fuels, but he said Goldman Sachs will continue investing in oil, gas and coal companies for a long time because the industry is an undeniable part of the nation's economic engine.
But Solomon remarked that devising and implementing innovative technology is the best way energy companies can attract investment amid growing concern for the environment. Addressing climate change is "a long-term game" and a transition for the economy, but investors are willing to put "risk capital" into firms and ideas that have a real chance to change the way the world works, he said.
"We have to get out of ‘check-the-box’ templates, and we’ve got to think about how we’re going to be part of an innovation revolution,” Solomon said.
Carbon capture — the process of extracting carbon dioxide molecules from emissions to mitigate their warming effect on the atmosphere — is one burgeoning but still relatively unproven technology that has investors across the country buzzing, Cramer said.
“They’re looking for opportunities that make economic sense and projects that meet their requirements for a cleaner, greener future.”
Several projects in the works, most notably Minnkota Power Cooperative's Project Tundra, aim to utilize the technology in North Dakota.
Solomon seemed enthused by the concept of carbon capture, even telling one Minnkota executive he would put her in touch with representatives at his bank, but he said money lenders' appetite for backing the technology isn't black and white. Investors will have to evaluate the projects individually before committing to them, he noted.
Sanford, a passionate promoter of carbon capture and "clean coal," sees the potential of green-minded initiatives within North Dakota's fossil fuel industries, saying the state could be "the crucible of innovation that changes energy technology for the entire world.”
Cramer said getting powerful finance figures like Solomon to come to North Dakota gives the energy sector an opportunity to tell the world about how environmentally sound and efficient its processes are. Once investors see that, the state can act as "a hub of solutions" going forward, he said.