Former state energy regulator vows to fight Clean Power Plan from inside Congress

By Emily Holden | 05/26/2015 07:57 AM EDT

While Republicans in Congress strategize about how to gut carbon regulations for power plants, at least one among them has had some direct exposure to the critical choices states will have to make if U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan moves forward.

While Republicans in Congress strategize about how to gut carbon regulations for power plants, at least one among them has had some direct exposure to the critical choices states will have to make if U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan moves forward.

Rep. Kevin Cramer, 54, was one of North Dakota’s electricity regulators for nine years before being elected to the state’s only House seat. His successors back home will have to help craft plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the state’s power sector while keeping electricity affordable and reliable.

The draft rule to cut U.S. power sector carbon emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 represents more than some "romantic notion over whether you have windmills or gas plants," Cramer said. "It has real consequences at the end of the line."

Rep. Kevin Cramer
Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), a former state electricity regulator, gets a close-up view of Congress’ struggle with U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan. | Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

As Cramer watches his colleagues react to the rule, he worries that intelligent debate about those consequences is giving way to ideological vitriol.

"What you see happens around here is we get very passionate, and then our passion becomes emotion, and then our logic is replaced by passion and emotion, and we don’t talk to each other very effectively or very convincingly," Cramer said.

On the other hand, he said that "it’s hard not to be cynical and think that [the administration’s] intent is to do what they’ve always said they want to do, and that’s bankrupt coal." He said the United States is getting "played" by countries like China when negotiating to curb climate change.

Others in his party question whether humans are responsible for global warming, but Cramer said he tries not to wade into that "futile fight."

"I don’t even participate in that ‘climate change is real, climate change isn’t real’ debate. It doesn’t matter to me whether it’s real or it isn’t real," the second-term GOP lawmaker said earlier this year. "We’re dealing with it in reality, and my concern is more on the solution to it than it is on the climate change issue itself. What I do reject is the notion that somehow the power sector in the United States of America is going to bear the burden and the responsibility for fixing the entire world."

However, in previous statements in 2013, Cramer reportedly called EPA’s climate science fraudulent and said CO2 does not have a warming effect on the planet. While Cramer may find it politically advantageous to avoid fights over climate change, a spokesman clarified this week in an email that "the congressman is a sceptic [sic] that humans are a major contributor to global warming."

Preparing to call Obama’s ‘bluff’

Republicans in the House and Senate have proposed allowing states to opt out of their EPA-assigned emissions goals, and Cramer supports that legislation. He also agrees with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that state officials should refuse to write plans to reach their required emissions levels, or "just say no" to EPA. North Dakota officials oppose the rule, but have nonetheless been engaged in discussions about the best compliance options as part of an effort by the Colorado-based Center for the New Energy Economy.

Cramer thinks the Clean Power Plan will ultimately cause more harm than doing nothing at all. In press statements, he has called the rule a "disastrous proposal which threatens the reliability of the electric grid."

In an interview with ClimateWire earlier this year, Cramer acknowledged that direct attacks on the regulation might not be effective, with a presidential veto likely. He said he would rather put up some "speed bumps" to delay implementation.

Cramer hopes opponents of the rule can use the appropriations process to delay the 2030 deadline for states to make cuts, lower the standard, or "collaborate more with the utilities and find more realistic options."

President Obama may veto those attempts, too, but Cramer says the battle would be worthwhile, even if it threatens a partial government shutdown.

"I’m prepared to call his bluff personally. Let him say whether he’s going to fund the EPA, the Department of Energy and water regulations," Cramer said. "They wouldn’t throw a ticker tape parade for me at home, but it wouldn’t cost me an election."

Cramer thinks energy companies will eventually cut back on carbon emissions on their own. But they need time to develop carbon-capturing technologies, he argues.

Coming to love the nitty-gritty

Cramer compares rhetoric over the proposed power plant regulations to the yearslong, bitter fights between industry groups, environmentalists, Republicans and Democrats over the Keystone XL pipeline that would move oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast. While Keystone XL has morphed into a touchstone political issue, the Clean Power Plan truly is one.

"The Keystone pipeline issue has become a larger symbol than reality," Cramer said. "It’s important, don’t get me wrong, it’s big, but it’s not nearly the magnitude of the clean power rule, it doesn’t have near the consequences."

He empathizes with environmental concerns over the pipeline, but he says people don’t understand the technical aspects of how a product moves to market or how much CO2 is emitted from a truck or train as opposed to a pipeline.

To Cramer, most of the emotion surrounding the Clean Power Plan originates with constituents, few of whom understand how the electric system works and remains reliable.

"You can’t expect the public to know about a regional transmission organization," he said. "You can’t expect the public to know about reliability margins and what’s required and why."

And you can’t expect lawmakers to be experts on every subject either, he said. He hopes to share his expertise from his seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which he joined in November.

"When I have a health care question, I go to the doctors. I go to Ami Berra, who is a Democrat from California, or Tom Price, who is a Republican from Georgia," he said. "We need to listen more to people and look to experts within our ranks." At least one other U.S. congressman is a former electric regulator — Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), who also has a spot on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Cramer sympathizes with legislators learning about the electric industry through the lens of the Clean Power Plan. His father was an electric lineman, and as a child, he sometimes accompanied him on service calls. But otherwise, he didn’t have a ton of technical experience with the energy world before becoming a state regulator.

He recalled when he first joined the North Dakota Public Service Commission and attended a meeting of the regional grid organization — the Midcontinent Independent System Operator — he went to fellow Commissioner Tony Clark — now a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — and said, "I think I’ve made a mistake. I think I’m drowning."

But Cramer asked an engineer from the meeting to sit down with pen and paper and explain locational marginal pricing, a way of determining the value of energy at the specific destination and time it is delivered.

Years later, he’s learned to love the nitty-gritty details. He now warmly recalls first bonding with Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) over a mutual interest in the trade publication Public Utilities Fortnightly, which was bedside reading for her late husband when he was a regulatory attorney.

An evangelical Christian, Cramer considered attending a seminary but chose to pursue politics after studying social work in college. He said religious faith should inform a person’s work and does affect his own.

"The wind only blows when God chooses, or nature," Cramer said. "Not when the electric utility wants it to." He picks his words carefully. In the past, he’s styled himself as an "articulate bomb-thrower," but now he also sees a role for him in offering electric industry expertise as Congress examines the impacts of the Clean Power Plan.

Fighting for a state with lowest national EPA target

Cramer became North Dakota’s GOP party chairman at age 30. Before then, he was state tourism director and economic development director — then-Gov. John Hoeven (R) appointed him to the state Public Service Commission in 2003. The next year, voters elected him to the position.

Having worked in those jobs, Cramer admitted he can have a parochial approach to energy policy. At his first MISO meetings, he disliked the whole concept of a Midwest regional operator dispatching power.

"I’m a states’ rights guy, and I felt like we were submitting too much of our business culture and fuel source to the region. I always felt like we were going to get gobbled up," he said. "Yet, as a practical matter, clearly, you’ve got to have partnerships. … I get the concept of regulation, but it was counterintuitive to me to support this kind of notion."

North Dakota is a net exporter of electricity, almost 80 percent of which comes from coal, and Cramer doesn’t like that the Clean Power Plan asks the state to reduce emissions from plants that are serving users in other states.

"We generate a lot of electricity for companies that aren’t even going to have customers in North Dakota," Cramer said.

Sometimes, state regulators have to deal with culture clashes with their neighbors. Those squabbles could happen more and more under EPA’s draft rule — which will require states to collaborate or hash out disputes over who gets credit for carbon-cutting measures, like renewable energy projects in one state that send power to another.

Cramer talks about the late 1990s, when Xcel Energy bought a Minneapolis-based utility, Northern States Power Co.

"There’s a lot of benefit, obviously to aggregation and consolidation, but you also lose some things," Cramer said. "We started seeing more and more … resource planning, even by the utility itself, giving greater weight to a place like Minneapolis than a place like Fargo or Grand Forks. Even that was a little bit uncomfortable for me, representing the 700,000 people who live in North Dakota, compared to the million people who live in Minneapolis."

Cramer said Xcel started converting coal plants to natural gas and building more wind power. He doesn’t oppose wind power but sometimes voted against it because companies couldn’t "adequately demonstrate that it was going to be good for the consumer, the ratepayer in North Dakota."

States will face more of those decisions under the Clean Power Plan as they seek carbon-cutting options. Differing philosophies about energy policy in North Dakota and neighboring Minnesota have been a source of tension for years, and EPA’s disparate goals for states may exacerbate that pressure.

North Dakota’s target under the draft rule is the lowest in the country — an 11 percent reduction in the emissions rate between 2012 and 2030. Minnesota must cut its rate nearly 40 percent.

State officials note North Dakota is at the center of an energy hub that serves Minnesota, as well as South Dakota and Iowa. And North Dakota has massive generation and transmission and mining industries, Cramer said, and "it’s as much about them as it is about North Dakota meeting their 11 percent mandate."

At the end of the day, he said the regulation is giving states "the responsibility and the burden of meeting an arbitrary, in my view, standard that’s set in Washington without the level of collaboration [needed]."