On the Climate Bill Fence: Senators in the Peace Garden State

by Bill Chameides | September 3rd, 2009
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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The U.S. senators from North Dakota (Byron Dorgan, left, and Kent Conrad) say they want to address climate change, but the big question for them is how.

The eighth in a series on what senators on the fence are thinking.

Quick. Which two states hold the largest single oil resource in the lower 48? If you’re thinking anywhere near Texas, you’re wrong.

Those clueing in to the headline might have gotten at least half the answer right with North Dakota. Montana is the other one. The two states’ Bakken formation holds an estimated 3-4.3 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable unconventional oil. (Of course, just because it might well be there doesn’t mean it’s easy to access, and then there’s the fossil fuel/global warming link.)

Why start with a statistic on oil? Because location and energy sources figure prominently in the legislative battle to address climate change. Today, I’m surveying the political landscape of North Dakota — a state that gets almost all of its electricity from coal, whose per capita energy consumption is among the nation’s highest, and it turns out, whose senators’ support of the climate bill under consideration is very much in question despite their affiliation to the Democratic Party. Energy and skepticism about cap and trade are a big part of their hesitation.

Dorgan: Energy First

“Let’s not bring up climate change first; let’s bring up energy first,” said Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan, as quoted in the Williston Herald. “I think that is the best way for us to proceed. I feel very strongly that we need to do energy policy that is smart, effective; that produces and conserves.”

Senators Sitting on the Climate Bill Fence Series
Lamar Alexander (R-TN) »
Evan Bayh (D-IN) »
Sherrod Brown (D-OH) »
Robert Casey (D-PA) »
Kent Conrad (D-ND)
Byron Dorgan (D-ND)
Russ Feingold (D-WI) »
Al Franken (D-MN) »
Lindsey Graham (R-SC) »
Tim Johnson (D-SD) »
Carl Levin (D-MI) »
Dick Lugar (R-IN) »
John McCain (R-AZ) »
Arlen Specter (D-PA) »
Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) »

Last month on the Senate floor Dorgan made pretty clear that the place to start is with the recent energy bill passed in June by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, on which Dorgan sits. That bill addresses climate change indirectly, through things like:

  • increasing development of domestic renewable, oil, and natural gas resources,
  • instituting a renewable electricity standard,
  • electrifying and diversifying America’s vehicle fleet, and
  • creating a smart grid.

After energy there appears to be room for climate legislation in Dorgan’s agenda. Here’s what he had to say in a floor speech in the Senate (watch clip):

“I support the goals of a low-carbon future in trying to decarbonize the use of certain energy that we have that puts greenhouse gases into the atmosphere which causes a scientific conclusion … that we are endangering our planet with respect to the potential of future warming of the planet. So i support the goal of trying to deal with this issue of climate change. The question is how do we address it?”

When it comes to how “we address it,” Dorgan definitely has a problem with the Waxman-Markey climate change bill.

Dorgan’s Problems With the Waxman-Markey Bill

Sen. Dorgan clearly stated his opposition on the Senate floor last month (see clip below):

“I do not support, however, a cap and trade system … in which some 400 pages of the House bill is about cap and trade and especially trade, establishing a new trading system of a carbon securities market … in which the biggest investment banks … and the biggest hedge funds in the country sink their teeth into these marketplaces and make massive amounts of money and my profound feeling about that is we have seen now a decade in which many of these markets have been manipulated, many of these markets have failed to work at all with respect to the market signals of supply and demand.”

He went on to use the spike in last summer’s  oil prices as a case in point about how speculation can manipulate a marketplace that should, as economics teach, react to supply and demand.

“Oil prices … went from down $60/barrel up to $147/barrels in day trading last July. Even as the price of oil was going like this, the best experts of supply and demand said here’s where the price of oil’s going to be.”

His chart of where the experts predicted the price of oil should go shows a relatively flat line, when in reality, of course, the price took a s
harp upward turn.

Snapshot of Conrad’s and Dorgan’s Voting Record on Climate-related Measures

2003: Both Conrad and Dorgan voted against the Climate Stewardship Act.

2005: Neither senator voted at all on the Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act.

While Dorgan did not vote at all on Sen. Hagel’s bill to reduce greenhouse gas intensity, Conrad voted for it.

And on Sen. Kerry’s nonbinding Sense of the Senate resolution recognizing that climate change is a problem that we need to address through “comprehensive and cost-effective national measures” and through international negotiations, neither Dorgan nor Conrad cast a vote for or against.

2008:both Conrad and Dorgan both signed a letter questioning the Senate’s climate bill.

Cap but No Trade?

So what does Dorgan favor? His recent editorial in the Bismarck Tribune supplies part of the answer: “I’m willing to cap carbon to address the threat to our environment. But it has to be done right. I will support a plan that establishes workable caps, invests in technology to decarbonize fossil fuels and sends the majority of the revenue raised to consumers to offset increases in the price of electricity resulting from the caps.”

In other words, he will support a cap, but the trade? Not looking likely.

Conrad Also Against Cap and Trade and Focused on Energy

Kent Conrad (D-ND) sits on the Senate’s agriculture and finance committees, and chairs the budget committee. Back in March, his budget proposal noticeably did not set aside money for a cap-and-trade system. The president’s budget did.

More recently in August, both U.S. senators from North Dakota joined Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) and Ben Nelson (D-NE) to “urge that the cap-and-trade provision be dropped.”

Conrad has recently expressed concerns over how a climate bill would “deal with several North Dakota-specific issues, including agriculture, oil and coal production.”

Conrad, the chair of the Subcommittee on Energy, Science, and Technology, emphasizes energy and technology, as ways to address climate. In addition to introducing energy legislation aimed at making the United States more energy independent, Conrad recently spoke to the need of finding solutions to cleaning up coal through technology like carbon capture and storage.

“We need to develop technology to use coal while lowering carbon emissions,” Conrad said in response to North Dakota’s receiving $100 million dollars to explore just such an opportunity.  “This grant will allow Basin Electric to do just that. It is a smart investment, one that will reduce our nation’s dependence on foreign oil. It is also a serious investment in North Dakota, one that will create jobs and strengthen our state’s economy.”

As for Conrad’s thoughts on the Waxman-Markey bill?

“They’ve certainly improved it substantially from where it was last year by what they did in the House, but it still has a ways to go before I can vote for it,” said Sen. Conrad.

If by “a ways to go,” Conrad means taking cap and trade out of the legislation and replacing it with who knows what, that will be a long way indeed. And that’s why the two Democratic senators from North Dakota are not found anywhere near the “yes” column in the vote count for that chamber’s climate bill.

filed under: climate bill fence, climate change, faculty, global warming, policy, politics
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