Heitkamp finds identity as Obama energy critic

By Henry C. Jackson

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, April 13 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this March 25, 2014, file photo, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., speaks at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. 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.

Manuel Balce Ceneta, File, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

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.

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