WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's energy policies lack "consistency." His rhetoric may be all-of-the-above but that is "not what we see."
These are critiques not from a Republican lawmaker or an outside pundit but from Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. The freshman from North Dakota fashioned herself as an independent-minded candidate as she won an upset victory in 2012. And she has carried that ethos into her second year in office, emerging as perhaps the White House's most consistent Democratic critic on energy policy.
"I would tell you his energy policy — for lack of a better word — it lacks consistency," Heitkamp said in an interview with The Associated Press. "What he says is not what we see in policy."
Navigating a polarized Congress, where precious little is getting done before midterm elections, Heitkamp has largely let her energy politics define her time in office. As a Democrat elected from a largely conservative state, Heitkamp has dealt with several politically hazardous issues that have left her subject to criticism from the right and the left. She came under sharp liberal criticism for comments about changes to gun laws, which she did not support. Republicans have hit her for her continued support of Obama's health care overhaul and a vote to change filibuster rules that allowed most of Obama's nominees to sail to confirmation.
That's generally not been the case with energy issues. While some environmental groups have criticized her, energy policy is a space where Heitkamp feels comfortable as something of an expert and where her stances are good politics back home.
Heitkamp came directly to the Senate from the energy industry, where she worked for 12 years, including as a director of Dakota Gasification Company, a coal and natural gas company. Before that, as a state attorney general, she fought increased regulation of the state's coal industry. She's been "molded by my experience," she said.
People who worked with her in North Dakota's energy industry say that they are not surprised she has emerged as a critic of Obama.
"She definitely has her own mind," said Mike Eggl, a vice president at Basin Electric Power Cooperative, which owns Dakota Gasfication. "She has a strong handle on the issues. When we had tours with a number of people there, she would usually jump in and help with the tour."
Mac McLennan, the president and CEO of Minnkota Power Cooperative in Grand Forks, worked with Heitkamp during her time at Dakota Gasification. He said few people understand the challenges of coal energy as well as Heitkamp.
"I look at what her passions are, and I look at where she comes from and none of this is a surprise to me," McLennan said.
As she sat in the House chamber earlier this year, watching Obama deliver his State of the Union address, Heitkamp recalled that she grew increasingly frustrated. Obama sounded great at first, she said, talking broadly about energy issues. But then he seemed dismissive of natural gas, referring to it as a "bridge fuel." She said it showed he was not fully committed to an all-of-the-above approach he has talked about.
Obama is "not getting that done. Hopefully, maybe, he still will," she said.
The administration has generally taken Heitkamp's criticisms seriously.
After she criticized the Environmental Protection Agency for not coming to North Dakota for a listening tour, Heitkamp convinced EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to visit in February. As Heitkamp and her Republican counterpart, Sen. John Hoeven, asked for federal help in dealing with issues surrounding the transportation of oil in the state they quickly received responses from Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and other federal officials. Heitkamp said she never has trouble reaching officials in the administration.
North Dakota continues to reap the benefits of a more than decade-long energy boom, with rapid growth largely shielding the state from a laggard national economy. The state's population grew about 7.6 percent from April 2010 to July 2013, more than 5 percent more than the national average. At the same time, the state's unemployment has remained historically low. It's currently 2.7 percent, 4 points lower than the national average.
Virtually all of the growth can be attributed to the state's various energy interests. North Dakota is now the country's second-largest provider of oil, and its natural gas and coal industries have had booms of their own.
Heitkamp does not sit on the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee, but she has still spent much of her time on the issues.
Last month she introduced a bill that would encourage investment in clean coal technologies. That came after she held a symposium with experts and academics in Washington to talk about the future of coal. She has hosted the Canadian ambassador to the United States in her office to press for approval of the Canada-to-Texas Keystone XL oil pipeline and worked with fellow Hoeven to quicken the process for oil and gas permits.
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Like the rest of the delegation, Heitkamp has vocally opposed proposed changes to a renewable energy policy that would reduce the amount of ethanol blended into gasoline.
Heitkamp has also peppered the Obama administration and the EPA with criticism, saying many of its proposals are unrealistic and don't take into account the realities of energy-producing states like North Dakota.
McCarthy, the EPA administrator, said she was glad her visit gave her a chance to observe "intended and unintended consequences" of EPA actions. Then she echoed Obama, saying the administration was committed to an all-of-the-above energy policy.