Heidi Heitkamp
Former U.S. Senator, North Dakota

Heidi Heitkamp, former Senator of North Dakota, joins host Jason Bordoff at the 2019 Columbia Global Energy Summit to discuss the state’s oil and gas market growth that has made North Dakota the second leading oil-producing state behind Texas, how to create a friendly tax environment for more renewables, and the value of energy conservation for addressing climate change.

Heidi Heitkamp is a graduate of the University of North Dakota and Lewis & Clark College. She has held prominent positions in both the public and private sectors - first as an attorney for the Environmental Protection Agency, then as State Tax Commissioner of North Dakota, and as the state’s Attorney General in 1992. She also led the Dakota Gasification Company, a major private synthetic natural gas producer. In 2012, she was the first woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate in North Dakota. She is currently a visiting fellow at the Institute of Politics of the Harvard Kennedy School.

On April 10, the 2019 Columbia Global Energy Summit in New York City hosted top politicians, business leaders, and academics for a variety of lively discussions on what to expect in changes to the oil and gas landscape, the latest research on powering the low-carbon transition, navigating U.S. political fields to advance climate solutions, how to assess risk and build grid resilience, and much more.

View the transcript


Bill Loveless: Hello and welcome to the Columbia Energy Exchange. A podcast from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. I’m Bill Loveless. This week, we have a special series of episodes recorded live at the 2019 Columbia Global Energy Summit in New York City on April 10th. The gatherings are a variety of energy sector leaders with CEOs, politicians and researchers presenting and discussing cutting-edge research for climate solutions, emerging challenges in energy geopolitics, changes to the oil and gas landscape, the view on energy and climate from Washington and more. You can catch the recording of all these conversations by visiting Energypolicy.columbia.edu. At the summit Jason Bordoff talk to former North Dakota senator Heidi Heitkamp. They spoke about the grand bargain in North Dakota that delivered oil and gas export markets, creating a guide path for investment tax credits to build up renewables including 45Q on carbon capture and sequestration, development of renewable fuels and how to collaborate on climate change solutions in today’s political environment. Here is the conversation.


Jason Bordoff: This is a really fantastic way to conclude what’s been a tremendous day. Quite a broad sweeping view of all aspects of the energy sector. What’s happening with the U.S. shale revolution, what’s happening with activism on climate change, what’s happening in emerging markets, what’s happening with clean energy technologies. And I can’t think of a better way to try to bring all those things together than with our closing keynote conversation with senator Heidi Heitkamp who served from 2013 to 2019 as U.S. senator from North Dakota. Democrat in a red state and the first female senator from North Dakota. An important energy state as you all know. Again across the board of major wind energy producer. Obviously, the home of the _____ [00:02:06] shale formation and the second largest oil producing state in the country. Prior to serving in the senate, senator Heitkamp served as the attorney general of North Dakota and as the state’s tax commissioner. And she started her career working as an attorney for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She’s now visiting fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard. Senator Heitkamp, welcome to Columbia University.


Heidi Heitkamp: Yes. I have to give a shout out to one of my fellow, fellows.


Jason Bordoff: Yeah.


Heidi Heitkamp: Congressman _____ [00:02:38] who we spent quality time together in Harvard. Thank you so much for having me. One of the things that you didn’t hear on this resume that I think helps kind of inform my opinion is I spent the better part of a decade on the board of directors of a utility company. It was actually a large generation, transmission power cooperative that actually bought a Sinfield’s plant in Beulah, North Dakota. If you follow natural gas prices during the tumultuous and a post regulation world, you know that they went up, they went down. At one point, we didn’t think there was enough natural gas in the world. We wouldn’t even let you generate electricity with natural gas. And so, part of what was the old system and president Carter’s response to the oil embargo was to basically invest in coal to liquids or coal to gas technologies. We built a big plant in North Dakota using lignite coal and then pretty much the whole system collapsed. So, it was hard to make it profitable, except we started doing something nobody else was doing. We started compressing CO2 on the back-end of that process, that _____ [00:04:03] grass process. We were fortunate that we have a conventional oil field just to the North that would buy that CO2 and we started doing what was at the time, the largest carbon capture sequestration project probably in the world but certainly in the United States and Canada because the oil field was _____ [00:04:24] up in Canada, _____ [00:04:27] it keep changing their name. But so I spent a lot of time kind of appreciating and understanding some of the challenges of that technology. But I also during my time as attorney general was on the industrial commission which regulated oil and gas and promoted the lignite energy industry and I started my career in tax in severance tax as involving coal and oil. So, I had to quickly learn this industry not just from a public policy standpoint but this industry from a technological stand point. So it made me kind of uniquely qualified, I think to have a broader conversation about energy when I got to Washington.


Jason Bordoff: Absolutely. And I don’t know, if you heard the end of the last panel. I’ll start with that question, we talked about which is the possibility of what someone called the grand bargain. But really a bipartisan. You spent a lot of time finding ways to build consensus across the political aisle. You do see movement. You called out one of our distinguished visiting fellows at Columbia Congressman _____ [00:05:29] who introduced carbon pricing legislation and some signs of increased attention being paid to this issue on the republican side of the aisle. But still it seems to be getting harder and harder and that’s true on the left too. I think parts we’ll see in the democratic primary, how that plays out. But maybe some increasing challenges to try to find common ground on issues of U.S. energy production and how to combine that with stronger action on climate change. Is there hope for getting stuff done in Washington in building bipartisan consensus?


Heidi Heitkamp: Well, if I can kind of raise two examples and maybe it’s just, you know, looking at wounds, if you lose an election but you know, we had some incredible success in Washington. I came there with as I said a broad kind of energy policy but also an appreciation for the challenges of CO2 as a pollutant, recognizing that U.S. versus Massachusetts wasn’t gonna go away any time soon. And when the coal industry would come in which, you know, I’m very supportive, still am of their industry and their innovation. I would say, you know, you can always have my vote but if you want my leadership, you can’t be hell no. I don’t care if fighting carbon is against your religion. You will be an endangered species unless you get in the dialogue. You know, and I would use the often quoted phrase, Texas phrase, you know, if you’re not at the table, you’re for lunch. You know, and so, what we started doing is trying to figure out how we could message what we wanted to do and probably the first big success was opening up oil exports. That was something no one thought we could do. We actually got it done in a year, right. Pretty incredible work and we really formed a coalition and didn’t leave anyone behind. The oil industry came in and was very honest about what the stranded resource would be if we couldn’t find a market for it. How important it was to the allies. We engaged everybody. No one thought we could get it done but at the end, the grand bargain was we were able to open up export markets for the oil industry, the domestic oil industry in the lower 48. But in exchange for that we stabilized production tax credits. We didn’t do what we called tax extenders. We are at the end of the year. We said, yeah, yes, we’ll give them to you. We provided a predictable guide path for investment tax credits and production tax credits. And as a result of that work, that’s probably one of the most significant things that happened for the development of the renewable energy industry is to provide that stability. That’s where you see this huge amping up of investment right now in renewables. Not only as the mandate that states are imposing but it also is a pretty good time to capture those credits because they are gonna go away. And so, we are really proud of that work. I’m really proud of that work. But take a look at 45Q which I am sure you guys have talked about. That’s the tax credit for carbon capture sequestration and utilization. We’ve got some challenges in terms of getting a regulatory environment that will make that tax credit work. Vicki of Occidental Petroleum is proving that you can use this kind of CO2 flood in a shale plate, which is really important in states like North Dakota. But if you look at that work, think about this. You know, people always say, how did you get that done? I said because I didn’t call it a climate bill. Shale didn’t even call it a climate bill. He knew why he was doing it.


Jason Bordoff: Senator White House.


Heidi Heitkamp: Yeah, Senator White House. He knew why he was doing it, right because he knew how critical development of this technology was to achieving climate goals. And so, when you can get Mitch McConnell and Sheldon White House on a piece of legislation that everybody is gung ho on, then you know, you’ve found the sweet legislative spot, right. And so we were able to get that across the finish line. I jokingly say that, one of my visits to the White House, the president told me about how he had gotten that done and I was trying to think when I saw the president engage on the carbon capture credit but you know, everybody, the old thing of you know, failure has is an orphan and success has many fathers. But it is, I think a way of thinking about how we can advance ideas in this really polarized world. The other thing that I would tell you that’s gonna drive this is I am convinced that carbon and climate are gonna be huge voting issues. The congressman just missed that window of opportunity, right. And…


Jason Bordoff: For North Dakota.


Heidi Heitkamp: Right, right. I don’t think it’s true in North Dakota. I don’t think, it’s gonna be one thing that drives that tips the scales. But it could be true in Florida. It could be true in Florida that it in fact, and the president is gonna pay really, really close attention to Florida because guess what, you can’t, he can’t win the presidency without Florida. I guarantee you that. If Florida goes for the democratic nominee, the president will not be reelected. And as you see the red algae problem as you see more and more high tide taking out passageways. As they actually see the consequence of climate, there is going to be more and more attention to this issue and it’s going to become a voting issue. And the fourth thing I would say is the insurance industry needs to engage. Is there any insurance industry executives here? They should be. What risks are they willing to take or not take? What’s gonna happen when you look at models of sea levels rising? Mean, there is a reason why you call Rhode Island, Rhode Island. You know, we used to say this in the flood, in 2011, the Missouri river flooded and it was interesting because every place that was named island, fox island, you know, they all flooded and they flood for a reason. I mean, because at one point in their history, they were surrounded by water. And so, my point would be the insurance industry needs to engage. We need to see engagement politically in a way that actually has consequences for people who deny this problem and we need to look at ways to talk to each other like we did in the oil export challenge and the way we did with 45Q.


Jason Bordoff: They are trying to find in Washington in this polarizing environment a path forward, to be able to pass legislation that moves the ball forward in addressing the problem of climate change. Is the green new deal helpful?


Heidi Heitkamp: I don’t know what the green new deal is. Does anyone know what it is here? No. And I get people, students and I know that the congressmen gets them too. Who come in, who want to tell me that I’m evil because I come from a fossil state and a fossil fuel state and here I need to support the green new deal and the last young woman who was in, who was pretty aggressive with me. I kind of said, name me five things that are in the green new deal. Was about stopping carbon emissions. I said, I know that. What’s your strategy? What’s your tactic? And I think that it’s great that there is a lot of energy around an aspirational goal but you have to put pen to paper and where the rubber meets the road for me on actual meaningful broad based strategies is what are you gonna do with nuclear power? And if they can’t answer that question or if they answer that they can’t continue to provide reliable redundant base load power and not address that concern, I think it’s not a serious proposal. So, this is one thing I know from working in the utility industry. I understand the intermittent source on a power grid and I understand the reliable redundant, you know, their every day source. As long as we don’t have massive storage for renewables, we are gonna need base load power. We are seeing this transition from base load power being coal generation to natural gas in part and I think largely driven by stability in natural gas prices. But I think that when you look in the natural gas industry, knows and there is probably some folks out there that you need to not be the coal industry. You need to be on the forefront of tackling climate and CO2 emissions challenges. But I need you to be there if I’m serious about climate. I need you to be there because right now, you are the source that seems to be the most politically acceptable for redundant, reliable energy on the power grid.


Jason Bordoff: That point you made to that student saying, we want zero carbon energy is not enough. You need a policy. You need to implement something to do it. What would your answer to that be? You had concerns with the clean power plant, so what would you propose?


Heidi Heitkamp: I just like that there was way too much political capital invested on trying to look at a ten year plan on clean power plant when you’re looking at facilities that are 40 years old. Think about that. I mean, you know, so you’re spending all these political capital on a strategy that if you just give it ten years, you know, kind of, I mean, you already see it. There is no clean power plant and you’re seeing every day or at least every month, coal generation being taken out. Either by a choice of utilities who are being pressured by consumer groups or shareholder groups to look for a different source or they just are old facilities that they are not going to reinvest in. And so, I think that there was a lot more innovative things that you could have done than what Gina did there but I also understand. She had a mandate under U.S. versus Massachusetts and she had to meet it. I just thought that she wasn’t listening. We sat down with some energy, in North Dakota most of the generation that is coal generation is delivered by a generation transmission co-op. Excel energy is our major supplier of along with _____ [00:16:42] that’s investor owned. And so, a lot of what we would want to tackle in North Dakota is done in that co-op world. They are huge in wind. They have a lot of wind generation that’s combined with coal generation. They kind of said, look this is what we can do and we can meet those targets if you give us the flexibility. And they were just rigid about how they wanted to apply it and I think, I think that, if we really want to solve this problem as quickly what we can, we need to find the path of least resistance and when you engage in a confrontational battle with everybody. You know, you could find maybe one or two but when you’re engaged in a battle against everybody, that’s not a winning strategy in Washington DC. That’s a strategy for gridlock and it’s really, really great for one group of professionals called lawyers. They make a lot of money when things are litigated at every turn. And this is an illustration that, it seems to have found its way to the courts in record numbers. And I think it’s inefficient and it doesn’t on a host of issues including immigration, it’s not particularly smart strategy.


Jason Bordoff: And presumably one of the concerns, I would suspect with the clean power plant was that it would have impacts on coal communities and North Dakota has a lot of people who work in that sector. What, even with important progress and we’re investing a lot on that here at Columbia on issues of carbon capture. Even with that technology, making, achieving anything close to our climate targets means less coal use over time. What can the federal government do or state government that we haven’t been able to do well enough so far to help give communities confidence that there is a path forward and a plan to help people transition?


Heidi Heitkamp: Well, you know, I have some pretty clear thoughts on this. So, in the 1940s, when the coal miners went on strike and _____ [00:18:55] told them to get back to work, they had working conditions and the federal government said don’t worry, we got your back on your healthcare. We got your back on your pensions and we are gonna be in this partnership and we are gonna mandate and take care of you. Guess what they are not doing right now. We had the fight, almost shut down government over healthcare and they still haven’t had their pensions guaranteed. So, when you go to a coal mining community, especially in West Virginia, and you say, trust us the federal government has a plan to help you transition. They kind of see what that plan looks like as it relates to healthcare and their pensions. And so, you know, it was interesting. I was with mayor Mitchell Andrew yesterday and he has been all over _____ [00:19:47]. He’s been all over and he’s going to coal communities and basically, he said, you know don’t think that they’re blind to what their economic challenges are going forward. And I talked to Joe mansion recently and because I said, well, you know, they’ve got to get out of that. What do you want to do? I want to mine coal. No, really, what do you want to do? I want to mine coal. I want to mine coal. I want to mine coal. Well, that’s not, you know, maybe, you know, in your future and maybe we ought to be have strategies for transitions of workforce but this workforce transitional issue is so much bigger than just mining. You know, when you look at AI, when you look at displacement from automation, if you look at the charts on automation and on displacement, what you’re gonna see is the lower your educational attainment, the more likely you can be replaced by a machine. And so, so many of these that the people, you know, whether it’s for talking trade policy, globalization, whether we are talking automation, so many workers are out there have a lot of stress in their life because they don’t know what that future looks like.


Jason Bordoff: We heard from governor Jay Inslee this morning and he expressed a huge amount of concern with the idea of approving new hydrocarbon infrastructure like pipelines. He was pretty negative on the role carbon capture might play and this is a debate playing out within the democratic party. We are gonna see it, I think in the 2020 primary. How do you see, how do you balance the role of the energy we’re using today and U.S. energy production with the need to make more progress on climate change?


Heidi Heitkamp: Well, I think you need to quit talking to the idea and start talking to the professionals. What do I mean by that, when everybody says, oh, well, you know, the Trump administration is gonna walk over everybody and signing executive orders isn’t the way that have a track, you know, have a track record of collaboration and solving problems. I get that. But one thing, I will tell you is if you look at _____ [00:21:54] energy analysis. When he looked at what the challenges are in energy. You know, what his total focus was? On aging and failing energy infrastructure. You know, we, it’s all fine and good until, you can’t get gasoline from the refinery to New York City. It’s all fine and good if you want to put all of these on trains, I guess part of the strategy in Washington is to stop any train from going on the rails that has a rail car that has crude oil on it. Mean, you know, I think that the one entity in all of these that gets left behind in the discussion because you mentioned coal miners and we talk about the energy industry and we talk about, you know, interest groups who are concerned and challenged by climate. What about consumers? Where are they in this discussion? And aren’t they entitled to a seat at the table to talk about hey, I don’t want a pay on extra, you know, 50 cents a gallon on gasoline because you don’t want a pipeline that’s gonna move gasoline. Mean, here is a great example. The North, I mean, sure you guys know about this. In Maine, Maine is locked in. They generate a lot of electricity with diesel, right. With old dirty, sorry guys, the oil and gas guys. But old technology. There is, you know, three dollar on MCF natural gas and even less on variable rate that’s been produced not very far from Maine. 22 miles of pipe to cut across Massachusetts is what’s stops those consumers from getting lower cost electricity and cleaner electricity. So, I think we’ve got to have a real already cushion about if, you know, pipelines used to be the discussion was about the damage you do or a high voltage power line, what did that mean in terms of the health of people who lived around it. You know, what it mean if you’re gonna leak into water. No, it’s opposite, if it’s moving fossil fuel. If that power line has any electrons that were generated by coal, then take it down. And you know, I think it’s, you know, I hate to be the evil person up here who, I mean, I care deeply about climate but I care deeply about getting stuff done. And those kind of hardened positions on either side means we don’t get things done. If we have sat down 15 years ago and actually had a conversation that we are willing to compromise, we would have had 15 years of maybe modest and moderate proposals that would have achieved a whole lot more for climate in the last 15 years than what we got.


Jason Bordoff: You see, nuclear plants closing, the administration had to step in to support for the local plant. What do you see as the future of nuclear power?


Heidi Heitkamp: I think, it’s an innovation just like I think that’s the future for call, it’s the future for natural gas. I think it’s gonna be in technology which is why I’m so heavily invested in the 45Q kind of method. You know, I was listening to your conversation earlier where you’re talking about a carrot versus a stick, you know, what can you do to incentivize and to assist in these transitions. I met young people from MIT who are working in this industry of looking at using spent fuel to generate electricity, talking about half-lifes that are, you know, at ten years. I don’t know this stuff. I mean, Ernie, if you’re out there, you know, you need to educate me on this. But I think that there is a whole technological opportunity here on nuclear that we are not addressing because we’re stuck. Because we’re stuck in a political ideology that it can’t be part of the solution. And to me, you know, we can learn a lot by just having conversations about how these technologies have changed in nuclear, I think.


Jason Bordoff: And you talked about the growing level of concern among voters on climate change and maybe not as much in North Dakota. North Dakota, it does have a lot of clean energy, lot of wind power in the state. Do the economic benefits of that do you see as a path forward to build work for that?


Heidi Heitkamp: It’s interesting, you know, at a time when I like to think that I worked really hard to stablize tax credits for production tax credits, North Dakota was introducing and the legislature bill that would prohibit citing any wind turbine. You know, and so there is this kind of going backlash. Some people would say and I think legitimately fueled and financed by not major industry, oil and gas industries but perhaps some of the independents who don’t like this movement. I want to just give you a number. The rural electric co-ops, every year when I was in public life would do a public opinion poll in North Dakota. And they would ask how concerned are you about climate? The number of people concerned and therefore among their membership was 65%. So, don’t think people aren’t concerned. My point is they are concerned but when they hear radical, you know, we are gonna shut down a pipeline, then that completely turns off their willingness to have a conversation about climate. And so, anyway, I’m the _____ [00:27:59], I guess or the compromiser. I think that’s how you get things done. I like to believe that what we did with oil exports actually had a, had one of the most significant climate outcomes in terms of development of renewable fuels. Right, but you know, if you’re gonna be hard line and never do anything in a compromised way, you wouldn’t have gotten that done.


Jason Bordoff: Now closing minutes, I’m just gonna ask you to put your political observer hat on. Who are you excited about in the 2020 democratic field?


Heidi Heitkamp: I’m excited about the competition. Right, you know, North Dakota didn’t have a team in the NCAA tournament but every week, I picked a new one. So, you know, and it wasn’t for _____ [00:28:45] and it certainly wasn’t Duke. You know, I kind of became a big fan of Michigan state and had my heart broken in the final four. But I think that the competition is so important. And people forget that. When people say, who’s is gonna win, I say, you got to see them play. You got to see them compete. You got to see what that ideas are and I think that I’m very excited because I think when people like Michael Bennett get in and when people like maybe Terry _____ [00:29:11] get in, when there is people from a broader spectrum. Right now, it seems like we’re kind of huddled over here to the left. I think, we are gonna see a lot of people broadening the discussion. And what I would tell you is you’ve got almost complete consensus on what the problems are. Almost complete consensus. Maybe not in terms in of prioritization of problems but you have a consensus. Now, we are gonna hear what the solutions are for each one of these problems. And it’s gonna be, I think great to watch and I like most democrats have one major over riding concern and goal. And that is to win the presidency. And I won’t say that as a partisan. I think that we have wasted two years. We will waste six more in getting stuff done in this country. If we continue to elect people who don’t know how to govern. And so, it is time to make America work again whether that is in infrastructure, whether that is… I have a saying, I tell people. You know, my goal, if I had a theme in this race, make government boring again, right. You know, take all of the angst out of what we are doing. Make it boring again. Make it work again. And make it so that when you talk about adjusted _____ [00:30:42] people’s eyes glaze over. But you actually have a meaningful discussion, right. So, I’m really looking forward to the marketplace of ideas that is the democratic primary and hopefully at the end we will emerge with a candidate and a set of principles and policies that will capture the imagination and the goals and the hearts and minds of the American public.


Jason Bordoff: Given your political philosophy and a little bit of what we just heard with respect to climate change and from the stand point of policy and electability, are you concerned about the democrats kind of getting pulled to the left?


Heidi Heitkamp: I’m concerned about them having a plan that’s meaningless. So, again, I go back to, if you throw an aspiration that’s good, where is the strategy behind that and I look behind that and I say, I don’t see any real there there. I mean, you know, when somebody decides that carbon pricing is too, you know, moderate of an idea to deal with climate, maybe I’ll rethink that plan. Because it would be really hard to pass carbon pricing right now in this congress. But can you do things like build technologies? Can you do things like convene ideas, _____ [00:32:05] standards and the one thing I see over there, so you know, get all wrapped up in this. But the one thing that we forget about when we talk about carbon capture, carbon capture sequestration is credits. We think that one of the places where they are going to be deployed first in North Dakota is in ethanol. And it just so happens that we can use those for oil, enhanced oil recovery. So the credit adds value. But in a place to go, the carbon does. But think about the value of putting, using them in cement. You see LA has a huge research project on how carbon can be used in cement to actually improve the quality of the cement and reduce emissions. Well, about 20% of all industrial emissions come from cement plants. Ethanol is up there as well. So, you know, if we can find a profit motive and get on my soapbox. You think about what Wal-Mart did, right. Nobody is talking about conservation. We’re all talking about sticking to the fossil industry. But conservation is a low hanging fruit. Energy conservation is the low hanging fruit. And think about what Wal-Mart did and someone was talking about, oh, that was, you know, out of concern for climate, I said,, it was out of concern for the profit. Their bottomline, they’re huge energy consumers and when they reduce their energy consumption, they increase their profitability dramatically. Good for them. The profit motive can work, right. But you can’t have a climate strategy without conservation. And I would argue, you know, where is the geothermal discussion? Where is all of the things that we should be, you know, looking at in the range of ideas and how do we deploy them? And to me, the democratic candidate that’s going to come up with the most believable climate plan that people see has a future in terms of potentially getting enacted, I think we’ll capture the imagination of the American voters and the democratic voters.


Jason Bordoff: Thank you senator Heitkamp. No, this has been a tremendous panel. This has been a tremendous day. Again, sweeping the landscape, covering the gamut of energy issues, the urgency of climate change, the rapidly shifting role of the U.S. as a major producer and export of the geopolitical implications of that. The view of some of these issues from emerging market, countries, just how to think about a world of enormous uncertainty and change in the energy sector. Policy uncertainty, geopolitical risks, technological disruption and these are the issues we work on every day at the center on global energy policy and we appreciate all of you spending a full day with us. We hope, you’ll continue to follow our research, our events, our podcasts, our convenings and I especially want to thank our distinguished keynote closing speaker senator Heidi Heitkamp. Thank you.


Heidi Heitkamp: Thank you.


Bill Loveless: For more information about the Columbia Energy Exchange and the Center on Global Energy Policy, visit us online at Energypolicy.columbia.edu or follow us on social media at Columbiauenergy. I’m Bill Loveless. We’ll see you tomorrow.