NEW MEMBER PROFILE:

Cheerleader for domestic energy production says 'it would be immoral to leave it there'

North Dakota Republican Kevin Cramer not only supports the production of domestic coal, oil and natural gas; the incoming freshman House member believes it's a moral responsibility.

"In my view, it would be immoral to leave it there," Cramer told the Lignite Energy Council at an October event in Bismarck, N.D.

"God put it there for us," he said.

Cramer, a former chairman of the North Dakota Republican Party who almost entered the ministry, has overseen an energy boom that has made the state a leading lignite coal, oil and wind energy producer. Currently an elected member of the North Dakota Public Service Commission, Cramer says the state has been so successful because most of the resources were developed on private and state land, where the government couldn't over-regulate producers.

"We've seen in North Dakota how it's been more unleashed as a result of being under state and mostly private lands," he said.

Cramer, 51, now plans to take his spiritually rooted support for domestic energy production and hands-off federal approach to Capitol Hill as one of the newest members of the North Dakota delegation in January. He will replace Rep. Rick Berg (R), who lost his Senate race to former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp (D).

After failing in three previous House runs during the past 16 years, Cramer beat out PSC Chairman Brian Kalk (R) in a tough primary this summer. The race was considered an upset because Kalk enjoyed the backing of the party establishment.

This month, Cramer went on to defeat Democrat Pam Gulleson -- a farmer, former state legislator and one-time top aide to former Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan. She received about 42 percent of the vote compared with Cramer's 55 percent.

Cramer said he is now angling to use his energy expertise as a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee or Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, where he will push the Keystone XL pipeline and oppose production tax credits for wind and U.S. EPA clean air regulations that threaten North Dakota's lignite coal industry.

Cramer, who has enjoyed tea party support, has been an outspoken opponent of regulating greenhouse gases and in 2010 signed onto the "No Climate Tax" petition circulated by the Washington, D.C., group Americans for Prosperity.

"Certainly I'll leverage whatever muscle I get as an at-large freshman member from North Dakota in the legislative process to make sure North Dakota producers and domestic producers in general are treated fairly," he said. "Certainly Canadian crude is more secure than, say, Middle Eastern or Venezuelan crude."

'Compelled' to politics

Cramer wasn't always headed for a political career.

The native of Kindred, N.D, earned a pre-seminary degree in social work from Concordia College in Minnesota in 1983 when he decided to jump into politics.

"I saw my ministry going a different direction," he said. "I just felt more compelled to other areas of service in politics and government."

Cramer joined Republican Sen. Mark Andrews' 1986 bid for re-election, but Andrews lost in an upset to Democratic Tax Commissioner Kent Conrad. Cramer then went on to work for the state's Republican Party and was elected chairman in 1991.

He then served as former Republican Gov. Ed Schafer's state tourism director from 1993 to 1997 and as the state's economic development and finance director from 1997 to 2000.

There, Cramer made his first run for the at-large House seat in 1996 but lost to incumbent Democrat Rep. Earl Pomeroy. He was drafted to run for Congress again in 1998 but lost again to Pomeroy.

In 2003, then-Gov. John Hoeven (R) -- now a senator -- appointed Cramer to the Public Service Commission. He was elected to the position in 2004 with 65 percent of the vote and re-elected in 2010 with 61.5 percent of the vote.

Even though he entered the world of politics, Cramer said he is still very much involved in church and plays various roles at the University of Mary, a Catholic university in Bismarck.

He also hopes to find like-minded religious lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

"I hope to find others that share that and have that fellowship," he said. "It's important for lots of reasons ... [including] the accountability that comes in this heady place."

'Walt Disney' of energy boom

The development of North Dakota's energy markets has also elevated the celebrity of regulators, Cramer said.

"Being an energy regulator in North Dakota the last few years has been like being Walt Disney in the tourism business; it's been very exciting," he said.

Cramer has backed millions of dollars' worth of pipeline construction to ship oil from the state's Bakken Shale play to market and has consistently backed Transcanada Corp.'s Keystone XL pipeline.

The Canadian company said earlier this month that it would add a line from the oil-rich Bakken Shale in North Dakota, Montana and southern Saskatchewan to eastern refineries, a move that Cramer applauded (EnergyWire, Nov. 1). He also suggested earlier this year that Transcanada build the pipeline in the heart of North Dakota's booming Bakken oil fields to the Gulf Coast.

In all, Cramer said he has overseen more than $20 billion of energy infrastructure development, including more than $1.3 billion to expand Canadian pipeline operator Enbridge's system. In comparison, Cramer said North Dakota's gross state product was $13 billion when he was serving as tourism director in the 1990s.

"As regulators, we've tried to expedite the siting of the pipelines," he said. "I always tell our staff, 'Don't let us be the reason the pipeline doesn't get built unless there's a good, strong environmental or citizen concern.'"

Although Cramer said he has supported wind development and tax incentives for the industry in past years, he now believes those subsidies should be allowed to expire next month. Demand has waned, and wind producers are now paying utilities to take their power in exchange for the tax incentives, he said.

"That kind of economics is just folly, especially in the context of a $16 trillion debt and a fragile economy," he said. "We need to make some very difficult decisions in spending, and that's one area that seems very logical to me."

Kalk, Cramer's colleague on the PSC, said in an interview that he shares the congressman-elect's support for the Keystone XL pipeline and his opposition to new federal clean air rules.

U.S. EPA is "one of the biggest threats we have in North Dakota because of the uncertainty of regulations," Kalk said. "Let the states regulate what we need to do out here."

Campaign contributions and litigation

Cramer is embroiled in a federal lawsuit along with Kalk and former PSC member Tony Clark, who is now serving on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Activists with the Dakota Resource Council and the Dacotah Chapter of the Sierra Club say the three Republicans took thousands of dollars from coal companies they regulated. In May, the groups sued the Obama administration to force federal intervention (Greenwire, June 1).

Both Cramer and Kalk dismiss the lawsuit, which is still pending in North Dakota U.S. District Court. Kalk said the contributions were received before he was a commissioner and were "100 percent reported and legal." Cramer doesn't think it will ever go to trial and has called the suit "frivolous."

"There's nothing illegal about it; there's nothing unethical about it," he said. "The backstop is full disclosure and accountability through that disclosure. I think it's fair game."

Energy industry leaders and executives showered Cramer with campaign contributions during his congressional run. The Center for Responsive Politics lists oil and gas and mining interests as among his top campaign contributors.

Cramer received $5,000 from the National Mining Association in the weeks before Election Day. He received $5,000 each from Exxon Mobil Corp. and Koch Industries Inc. in September. Total donations connected to oil and gas amounted to more than $140,000.

Gulleson, on the other hand, received significant donations from Democratic interests, unions, farm groups and the sugar industry. Sugarbeet cooperative American Crystal Sugar Co. gave her at least $10,000.

Lignite Energy Council communications Vice President Steve Van Dyke said Cramer focused on mine reclamation issues at the PSC.

"I would think that his background, coming from North Dakota, will lend itself to energy issues," Van Dyke said in an interview. "And I think he will be able to put a stamp on energy legislation because of his background -- not only with coal but also with oil and gas."

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