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Wind up in the air: U.S. House candidates Cramer, Sinner differ on tax credit

FNS Photo by Eric Hylden Wind turbine blades from LM Windpower await shipping from a yard along Interstate 29 near Thompson.

GRAND FORKS — The two candidates for North Dakota’s lone U.S. House seat disagree on the federal government’s role in spurring the wind energy industry, which accounts for hundreds of jobs in the state.

George Sinner, a Democratic state Senator who is challenging incumbent Republican Kevin Cramer in November’s election, toured the LM Wind Power plant in Grand Forks Tuesday. In a news conference afterward, he called on Congress to extend the Production Tax Credit, which Cramer opposes.

“We need to support ethanol, we need to support coal, we need to support oil, and we also need to support wind,” Sinner said. He added that promoting diverse energy sources can boost the economy by reducing reliance on foreign energy. “If we want to get to energy independence, we have to have an all-of-the-above approach.”

The Production Tax Credit, or PTC, provides 2.3 cents per kilowatt hour of electricity produced. It expired at the end of 2013, but projects that were under construction by then are still eligible for the credit.

Sinner said he was in favor of extending the tax credit, but phasing it out over five years, which Cramer said would be “more palatable” than a flat five-year extension.

“This industry needs only a few more years to be highly competitive,” Sinner said.

Jobs at stake?

Failure to extend the credit could mean job losses and plant closures, Sinner said, although a company official said LM isn’t closing the Grand Forks plant. LM was one of several companies to shed jobs in 2012 due to the uncertainty over the tax credit, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

Congress extended the PTC for one year through 2013.

LM has about 600 full-time employees in Grand Forks, hundreds more than a couple of years ago, according to Dan Gordon, LM’s senior manager of human resources and training.

While LM itself does not receive the tax credit, its customers do. The Denmark-based company makes wind turbine blades in Grand Forks.

Gordon said sales are strong through most of 2015, but the company could use more certainty going forward to invest in their facility.

Cramer said the wind industry had certainty in 2009 when the tax credit was extended for a few years.

“I don’t understand why the industry and the supporting industries were surprised on Dec. 31, 2013, because that was the certainty they sought in 2008 and 2009,” Cramer said in a phone interview. He said he was supportive of the extension at that time to break the cycle of short-term extensions, which made things difficult for the industry.

“I supported the certainty that a long-term extension created, but I also supported the end of it,” Cramer said.

Cramer was one of 54 members of Congress to sign a letter to House Speaker John Boehner last month arguing that a one-year extension of the tax credit would cost taxpayers more than $13 billion, and that it has caused “significant price distortions in the wholesale electricity markets.”

Cramer acknowledged that the tax credit’s expiration could mean fewer projects under development right away, but he said the wind industry can “stand on its own.”

“I think it should have to work on its own, not with continued subsidy from the American taxpayer,” Cramer said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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