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North Dakota Senate Race Could Come Down to Fossil Fuels

The problem? Heitkamp and Cramer have strikingly similar stances on energy

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Rep. Kevin Cramer are vying for North Dakota’s Senate seat. They’re also racing to show off their energy chops. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Rep. Kevin Cramer are vying for North Dakota’s Senate seat. They’re also racing to show off their energy chops. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The two candidates in the North Dakota Senate race — a tight matchup with massive implications for control of the chamber next Congress — are touting their Capitol Hill energy policy chops to gain an edge in one of the closest contests of the midterms. 

The race has triggered an escalating argument between vulnerable Democratic incumbent Heidi Heitkamp and her GOP challenger, Rep. Kevin Cramer, over which one is the best champion of the state’s fossil fuel industries that rank among the most productive in the nation.

The irony is that the two have strikingly similar stances on energy and agriculture issues, said Robert Wood, a political science professor at the University of North Dakota. That has led to a policy debate with a “type of nuance that is going to get lost on the average voter.”

But with an “unprecedented” volume of attack ads from outside groups, Wood said, the candidates are trying to secure their energy bona fides.

“Heidi has to demonstrate she won’t do anything to upset the development going on in the Bakken,” Wood said, referring to the oil- and gas-rich shale formation beneath North Dakota, Montana and parts of Canada.

The Peace Garden State ranks second in the country for production of crude oil, producing 392 million barrels in 2017, according to the Energy Information Administration. The state ranked 11th in natural gas production and ninth for production of coal in 2016, according to EIA statistics.

Watch: ‘North Dakota Nice’ Takes a Backseat in Senate Race

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Who loves energy?

So it’s no surprise that the debate over which candidate better supports policies in Washington that are friendly to fossil-energy production has taken on a central place in the campaign. In just the past week, both sides have tried to claim credit for a recent EIA report showing the United States has surpassed Russia and Saudi Arabia as the world’s top crude oil producer for the first time since 1973.

Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, of which Cramer is a member, touted the victory as a response to their efforts in 2015, led by Rep. Joe L. Barton of Texas, a former panel chairman, to end the a decadeslong ban on the export of crude oil as part of a broader fiscal 2016 omnibus deal. The agreement with Democrats also extended a pair of investment tax credits for wind and solar technologies by five years.

[Personality and Party Clash as Senate’s Most Vulnerable Democrat Fights to Survive]

Cramer, a co-sponsor of the House legislation to lift the ban, released a video touting his involvement in the effort. But from comments of those involved in the negotiations, including Barton and Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Heitkamp was the key to ensuring Democratic support for lifting the ban. She and Murkowski were widely cited as drivers of the Senate push to move the legislation, according to news reports at the time.

“The idea that Kevin Cramer has led a meaningful effort in Congress — much less the effort to lift the ban on crude oil exports — is laughable,” Heitkamp campaign spokesman Sean Higgins said in an email blast to reporters. “All Kevin Cramer did was co-sponsor a bill — that’s not leadership, that’s doing the bare minimum.”

While Heitkamp has focused her energy on touting her role in lifting the crude oil export ban, Cramer worked hard to remind voters that Heitkamp voted against a resolution to nullify an Obama-era Interior Department regulation, opposed by the energy industry, to limit venting and flaring of methane from oil and gas operations on federal land.

Republicans tried to invoke the Congressional Review Act to overturn the rule in 2017, but after the House passed the resolution, the Senate effort fell short with a 49-51 vote that saw GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Susan Collins of Maine join with Democrats to block the resolution.

Nuanced vote

Heitkamp said she voted against the measure because of the blunt nature of a CRA nullification, which could prevent the federal government from placing any regulations on methane emissions. Instead, the department should have reworked the regulation, she argued, writing in a letter to Secretary Ryan Zinke to do so almost immediately after the vote.

Cramer at one point was on the shortlist to lead the Energy Department along with oil and gas tycoon Harold Hamm, CEO of the Oklahoma City-based Continental Resources, before former Texas Gov. Rick Perry accepted the position. From 2003 to 2012, he served as a member of the North Dakota Public Service Commission.

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The Interior Department unveiled a final version of its reworked methane regulation earlier this week. The new rule wipes away most of the new methane accounting and equipment upgrade requirements put in place by the Obama rule — a change that could save the industry an estimated $1 billion in compliance costs over 10 years, according to the department’s estimates.

“Representing the second ranking oil and gas producing state in the country, I take seriously protecting jobs and investment in North Dakota, as well as the energy security of the nation,” Cramer said in a statement in response to the Interior announcement. “Only those who care about wasting taxpayer dollars, enriching lawyers, and furthering regulatory burden would have voted against decisively striking down this rule.”

Both candidates have raised substantial campaign contributions from the oil and gas lobby. Heitkamp has raised $327,000 from the oil and gas industry so far this year compared to $228,000 for Cramer, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the North Dakota Senate race Tilts Republican

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