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The divergent energy visions of Montana’s U.S. House candidates

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PHOTO-ILLUSTRATION BY STEPHANIE FARMER. ZINKE PHOTO COURTESY OF ZINKE CAMPAIGN. TRANEL PHOTO COURTESY OF TRANEL CAMPAIGN. POWER LINE PHOTO FROM ADOBE STOCK.

Both Ryan Zinke and Monica Tranel have extensive backgrounds in energy policy. That’s where the similarities end.

By Amanda Eggert MONTANA FREE PRESS

Regardless whether western Montanans vote for Ryan Zinke or Monica Tranel on Election Day, they’ll be sending someone with considerable energy policy experience to Washington, D.C. to represent Montana’s newly minted western congressional district. Both Zinke, a Republican, and Tranel, a Democrat, have shaped the region’s energy landscape through their work on public and private payrolls, and both have made energy issues focal points of their campaigns.

Beyond that, there are few overlaps between their energy priorities. The candidates described markedly different visions of the state’s — and country’s — energy future in recent interviews with Montana Free Press, and signaled divergent approaches to working with industry representatives to support those visions.

Zinke, a 60-year-old retired Navy SEAL, followed a four-year term as a state senator with a national post, serving as the state’s sole U.S. House representative from 2014 to 2017, when he relinquished the seat to join former President Donald Trump’s cabinet. As Secretary of the Interior with oversight of more than 500 million acres of federal land, Zinke played an important role in setting the tone for leasing oil and gas on federal lands and waters, which accounts for a significant portion of fossil fuel extraction nationally. 

He pointed to the expansion of U.S. drilling from 8.3 million barrels of oil per day to 12.5 million barrels of oil per day during his tenure as Interior Secretary as proof of his commitment to American energy independence. He also highlighted the department’s largest-to-date lease of offshore wind energy development while he was leading the agency.

In December 2019, Zinke resigned his post at Interior amid a cloud of ethics investigations, which he said were motivated by “meritless and false claims” — a line he’s echoed in remarks addressing a recently released report criticizing him for violating his “duty of candor” in a probe of his dealings regarding a tribal gaming compact in Connecticut. 

A self-described subscriber to an “all of the above” energy philosophy, Zinke told MTFP that carbon-based fuel sources such as coal, oil and gas should continue to be developed alongside cleaner energy sources including wind, nuclear and rooftop solar, which he described as the “best place for a solar cell.” 

According to financial disclosures, Zinke served as consultant for various companies and groups working in the energy space in the years between his resignation from Trump’s cabinet and his current bid for the western district House seat. Those include oil giant ConocoPhillips, Texas-based pipeline construction company U.S. Trinity, and Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm Keelen Group. Asked how he would separate his prior consulting work from his role as a congressional representative if elected, Zinke said his consulting background will serve him in D.C.

“The stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stones. … We put someone on the moon and we can solve the energy and climate issues before us.”

DEMOCRATIC U.S. HOUSE CANDIDATE MONICA TRANEL

“It included wind, it included advanced grid technology, it included UAV drone technology and design of plastics that would break down,” he said. “My background as a consultant was pretty broad, and I’ll use that experience in Congress. I’m not embedded on any energy except American energy.”

Zinke bills himself as someone who’s able to work alongside the energy industry to develop smart regulations — more ally to industry than antagonist. He says it’s important to “work with people,” rather than take an adversarial stance, so regulators and policymakers can keep abreast of private-sector innovation.

Tranel’s work on energy issues dates to the early 2000s, when she served as a staff attorney for Montana’s Public Service Commission, a quasi-judicial body that regulates monopoly utility companies like NorthWestern Energy, the state’s largest electricity provider. After four years with the PSC, Tranel served as legal counsel to Republican U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns and later worked as an attorney for the Montana Consumer Counsel, a constitutionally established office that advocates for consumer interests in utility rate cases.

More recently, Tranel, 56, has represented renewable energy developers, clean energy advocates and landowners in legal matters before Montana courts and the PSC. In 2020, she ran unsuccessfully for the PSC as a Democrat, a post she’d previously and unsuccessfully run for as a Republican 16 years earlier.

THE FUTURE OF FOSSIL FUELS

Both Zinke and Tranel acknowledge the role of fossil fuels in contributing to climate change, which has warmed Montana by 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit between 1950 and 2015, contributing to shrinking snowpacks, reduced late-summer and fall streamflows, and longer and more intense wildfire seasons. 

Zinke emphasized the importance of developing “affordable, reliable and abundant” sources of energy and said he anticipates oil and gas will continue to be part of the country’s energy mix for another 50 years. He said natural gas can serve as a bridge fuel to replace higher-emission sources of energy and underscored his interest in finding ways to make oil and gas production cleaner and more efficient by examining practices like methane flaring. 

That approach, he said, is part of his Boy Scout-informed ethos of leaving things better than he found them and minimizing waste. He also said he supports coal-fired generation, which is the most CO2-heavy form of electricity generation in the U.S., and in a state of decline as power companies pursue cheaper alternatives in natural gas plants and wind farms.

“First and foremost it has to be made in America, but the hydrocarbon element is an important part of that energy package,” he said. “I’m an advocate for doing it right, but not killing the hydrocarbons with the idea that you can replace American energy with pixie dust and hope,” he said — an apparent reference to the federal Inflation Reduction Act and other Democrat-endorsed energy priorities, which he described as lacking a clear, executable path forward. He’s also said he spent too much time in the armed forces fighting for “someone else’s energy” to support acquiring energy from other countries when the U.S. can develop its own.

In a three-way debate last month between Tranel, Zinke and Bozeman-area farmer and Libertarian candidate John Lamb, Zinke told Missoula residents in attendance that he wants no part of the energy economy forwarded by President Joe Biden and the Democrat-controlled Congress. He described the Inflation Reduction Act as a “wish list for the climate change people” and called for policymakers to rein in government spending to curb inflation.

Speaking to MTFP on Sept. 17  via phone en route to a car show in Ronan, Zinke also said he’d rather see greenhouse gas-emitting projects developed under America’s regulatory framework than in poorer countries with laxer standards, and said he’s more concerned about the environmental impacts associated with poverty and plastics pollution in oceans than carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere from American energy production.

Zinke also foregrounded the environmental impacts associated with renewable energy projects, including the mined material that’s used in solar panels, batteries and wind farms.

“Wind’s not free. An enormous amount of mining material costs up front goes into a wind farm. It also chops up at least 750,000 birds a year, and if you add bats, which are an important part of the environment, that’s a consequence [too],” Zinke said. “There’s a consequence for coal, there’s a consequence for hydrocarbons, there’s a consequence for nuclear. Every type of energy has a consequence.”

Also speaking to MTFP by phone from the road — she noted a wind turbine along her route — Tranel called for a more aggressive timeline to transition away from fossil fuels during a Sept. 15 conversation. She said renewable energy will define the U.S. economy for the next 20 years, bringing investment to rural communities in Montana.

“What I’ve heard and read that seems realistic is a 10-year glide path,” she said. “It has to start quickly and accelerate.”

Asked about missteps or missed opportunities in the state’s recent energy history, Tranel reframed the question and said she sees a lot that Montana and the U.S. are getting right. That includes federal investment in electric vehicle charging stations and the development of utility-scale projects using wind, pumped hydropower storage and solar arrays paired with battery storage, she said.

“I’m an advocate for doing it right, but not killing the hydrocarbons with the idea that you can replace American energy with pixie dust and hope.”

REPUBLICAN U.S. HOUSE CANDIDATE RYAN ZINKE

Tranel added that she’s excited about the possibility of an investment in a Butte-based green hydrogen plant, a project Mitsubishi is exploring. She said she’s open to the idea of small modular nuclear reactors to help the country reach its carbon-emissions-reduction goals, but said she has yet to see a replicable model of that technology. (Though other countries have experience with small modular reactors and the U.S. government has invested billions of dollars in advanced nuclear reactor development, none are currently operational here.)

Tranel said the Inflation Reduction Act Congress passed last month includes plenty of incentives to accelerate investment in the energy sources of the future at both the individual — rooftop solar, for example — and utility scale, and that what’s needed now is someone to “bring dollars to the ground.”

“I know where these projects are, I know what they look like, I know how they operate,” she said. “I’m in a perfect position to talk about bringing [Inflation Reduction Act] resources to Montana.”

“The stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stones,” she added. “We put someone on the moon and we can solve the energy and climate issues before us. … This is an incredible opportunity.”

THE QUESTION OF REPRESENTATION

Another aspect of having two energy insiders in the political fray is that both candidates have found rhetorical ammunition in their opponent’s record on energy issues.

Tranel’s campaign points to Zinke’s vote to lift a 40-year-old crude oil export ban when he was in Congress in 2015 as evidence that he’s looking out for energy corporations rather than constituents. (At the time, Zinke touted his vote as an effort to spur job creation in Montana.) Tranel’s campaign has also centered the ethics investigations that plagued Zinke while he was Interior Secretary, describing him in one campaign ad as a “real poisonous” “snake” who leveraged his position for personal financial gain on a land deal. (Earlier this year, an Interior Department inspector general found that Zinke did not comply with obligations in his ethics agreement and made “inaccurate and incomplete statements” about his interactions with developers who owned a lot adjacent to property controlled by a Zinke family nonprofit foundation. The investigation did not find that he violated formal conflict of interest laws or bestowed specific favors to developers.)

According to a July story in E&E News, Tranel wrote a public letter to ConocoPhillips CEO Ryan Lance asking the company to stop paying Zinke and saying she was “disappointed” that the company paid him at least $460,000 for consulting services in 2020 and 2021, when high fuel prices were squeezing so many Montanans’ pocketbooks.

For his part, Zinke and his staff have described Tranel as “an energy-killing expert” with “fringe environmental views.” He’s criticized a lawsuit she filed on behalf of three Missoulians and climate change advocacy group 350 Montana that prevented NorthWestern Energy from baking the costs of a new gas plant into customer rates before the facility had been built.

“Suing NorthWestern Energy to make sure that they can’t build a natural gas facility to make up for when the wind doesn’t blow is short-sighted and flat wrong,” he told MTFP, evoking a common Republican criticism of renewable energy projects: that their generation capacity is subject to the vagaries of weather.

The May ruling in favor of Tranel’s clients didn’t kill the utility’s project, but a Missoula County District Court’s finding that a law passed by the Legislature had bestowed an “exclusive and lucrative financial benefit” solely to NorthWestern Energy in violation of the Montana Constitution has driven the shareholder-owned company to shoulder the risk associated with financing the plant on its own. It had been pursuing a guaranteed rate of return from ratepayers through a pre-approval process overseen by the Public Service Commission, but abandoned that effort four months after Judge Jason Marks’ order, citing the sluggish timeline associated with securing preapproval and escalating material and labor costs.

Tranel has also foregrounded the lawsuit in her campaign, saying it demonstrates her willingness to go toe-to-toe with corporate interests and her commitment to serving everyday Montanans by working to lower their energy bills.

In the absence of polling data, how these messages are resonating with the approximately 401,000 registered voters in Montana’s western congressional district remains to be seen. But balloting in recent races, primary results and the candidates’ fundraising tallies provide some clues.

If recent voting patterns and the total amount of money that’s been raised in the race are indicative of the electorate’s leanings, it’s Zinke’s race to lose. Zinke has amassed a campaign fund nearly three times the size of Tranel’s. As of the last filing deadline at the end of June, his campaign had collected $3.1 million from individual supporters, including $563,000 from Montanans, $337,000 from Texans, $222,000 from Californians and $153,000 from Floridians. Tranel’s total for individual contributions nationwide is $1.2 million.

Tranel has a couple of things working in her favor, too.

She roundly defeated Cora Neumann on June 7, claiming a 38-point victory over her closest primary rival. In contrast, the GOP primary results were so close — within two points — that staunch conservative Al Olszewski didn’t concede the race to Zinke until nearly two days after polls closed. During the weeks leading to the primary, Olszewski, a former state lawmaker and Flathead Valley physician, questioned Zinke’s record and priorities, depicting him in campaign mailers as a “California resident with a liberal agenda” — a reference to Zinke’s frequent stays in Santa Barbara, where his wife Lolita owns property and claims primary residence.

Tranel has also out-fundraised Zinke in Montana, pulling in $125,000 more in in-state contributions than her competitor.

The candidates are scheduled to square off again ahead of Election Day in two more debates: a Sept. 29 debate hosted by Lee newspapers and Montana Public Radio, and an Oct. 1 debate that will be broadcast by MTN News. Election Day is Nov. 8.

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