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Cramer: Energy production a moral responsibility

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- 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.

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

The former chairman of the state Republican Party, who almost entered the ministry, says North Dakota has been successful in energy production because most of the resources were developed on private and state land, where the government couldn't over-regulate producers.

Cramer, 51, now plans to take his spiritually rooted support for domestic energy and hands-off federal approach to Capitol Hill as one of the two new members of the North Dakota delegation in January. He will replace Rep. Rick Berg, a Republican who lost a Senate bid to Democratic Sen.-elect Heidi Heitkamp.

He is angling to use his energy expertise from his time on the Public Service Commission as a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee or Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He says he'll push the Keystone XL pipeline and oppose production tax credits for wind and federal 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 earned a pre-seminary degree in social work from Concordia College 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 for his 1986 re-election bid, in which he was upset by the Democratic tax commissioner at the time, soon-to-retire Sen. Kent Conrad.

Cramer then went on to work for the state's Republican Party and was elected chairman in 1991. He was former Republican Gov. Ed Schafer's state tourism director from 1993 to 1997 and the state's economic development and finance director from 1997 to 2000. He was appointed to the PSC in 2003 and re-elected in 2004 and 2010.

He made failed House bids in 1996, 1998 and 2010 before his win over Pam Gulleson this fall 55 percent to 42 percent.

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

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 Bakken to market as well as Transcanada Corp.'s Keystone XL pipeline. The Canadian company said earlier this month that it would add a line from the Oil Patch to eastern refineries, a move that Cramer applauded.

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.

"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.

Donation lawsuits

Cramer is embroiled in a federal lawsuit along with PSC member - and House primary opponent - Brian Kalk and former PSC member Tony Clark, who is now 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.

Both Cramer and Kalk dismiss the lawsuit, which is still pending. 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 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 totaled more than $140,000.

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. "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."