Photograph: Bloomberg News

Heidi Heitkamp: How she sold Democrats on oil exports

December 18, 2015 Catherine Traywick

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As she worked, senator by senator, to build support among Democrats for ending the ban on U.S. crude-oil exports, North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said she had one main goal: not to let this issue turn into a litmus-test on the environment.

“My goal all along was to avoid this turning into Keystone,” Heitkamp said in an interview, referring to the pipeline project that polarized supporters and opponents and was rejected by President Barack Obama. “I thought that we can’t let this issue get Keystone-d. We worked very, very hard to make sure that didn’t happen by leading with facts. ”

For the past year, the pro-oil Democrat from the state home to the Bakken Shale has worked alongside Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to gin up support for lifting the export ban. It’s a simple enough prospect among Republicans but was a non-starter for most Democrats. Heitkamp is now on the cusp of achieving her goal, with a deal in place that swaps ending the ban for an extension in solar and wind tax credits and some other environmental measures. A vote on the package is set for Friday.

Without her, “I don’t know that it would have happened,” said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, whose own repeal legislation passed the House in October. “She represented her constituencies — the state of North Dakota, the heart of the Bakken — and took a lot of heat in her caucus. But she stood her ground.”

Heitkamp often speaks of how the oil export ban hampers North Dakota, which was the nation’s second-largest onshore producer of crude in 2014 as the boom in shale-oil production transformed the state. “Fundamentally, North Dakota is a commodity-driven economy and we depend on exports, whether it’s corn, whether it’s soybeans,” she said. Oil “is the only commodity that you can’t export.”

Framing exports as an economic, rather than environmental issue was key, she said. So, she concentrated on the details: Differentiating “light sweet” crude from “heavy sour,” highlighting changing market conditions, providing studies that showed gasoline prices wouldn’t increase. The steep decline in oil prices helped the cause, as did congressional furor over Iranian oil exports.

With policy arguments laid out, Heitkamp’s next step was to make a list. “We sat down and said ‘Who do we think will at least listen and not lock us out?’ And I think it surprised folks when I put names on the list.” The list grew to include 20 names, and meetings began: Some large, some one-on-one. Oil industry executives — includingContinental Resources Inc.’s Harold Hamm and ConocoPhillips ’Ryan Lance — joined Heitkamp for some of them. She also set up individual meetings for them.

By mid-summer, she says, the mood among Democrats was changing. “That’s the point at which they said they get it. They wanted to know what they can get for it.”

In June, Heitkamp met with a group of Senate Democrats to discuss what a deal might look like. “The idea, already, was there would have to be offsets — especially the linchpin of the renewable offsets, because that would respond to climate concerns,” she said.

At caucus meetings, only one senator staunchly opposed the idea of making a deal, according to Heitkamp. “The rest said ‘Lets see what kind of deal you can get.’”

Heitkamp also stayed in close communication with her allies across the aisle. She and Murkowski both introduced legislation to lift the ban, and made press appearances together. Heitkamp was “just dogged in her efforts to help educate her party,” Murkowski said in an interview. “And she was able to.”

In August, Heitkamp met with President Obama and White House officials to discuss lifting the ban. She said she walked away from it confident that Obama wouldn’t veto a solid, bipartisan deal to repeal the ban. Around the same time, Minority Leader Harry Reid said publicly he was open to “some sort of compromise” on oil exports. It was clear what that meant.

“You have to know who the leader is and what he cares about,” Heitkamp said. Reid “cares deeply about solar.”

This week, congressional leaders finally struck a deal: The crude export ban would be repealed in exchange for a five-year extension of wind and solar tax credits, a three-year renewal of the Land and Water Conversation Fund, and a tax break to refiners. By making it a part of a broader tax and omnibus package, it gets on the fast track to the White House, which has said Obama won’t veto it.

Heitkamp concedes that the majority of her Democratic colleagues don’t actually back exports. A stand-alone bill, she jokes, would have earned just two Democratic votes: her own, and that of her friend, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V. The deal provided necessary cover to the Democrats who were on the fence, and to the few who made the deal. Of the latter group, Heitkamp says, “I think we’re about as small as we could be to get this deal done.”

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