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GOP North Dakota senator says he wants to tackle climate change

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Two facts make it hard for the Senate to pass much of President Biden's domestic agenda. One is that Democrats do not all agree on the giant measure. The other is that Republicans have been unanimously opposed. We're going to explore why that might be by focusing on one of the big issues addressed in the bill, climate change. We talked with a Republican senator who has worked with Democrats on other bills, like a big infrastructure bill. Kevin Cramer represents North Dakota, one of the nation's leading producers of oil and gas.

How much do you think of your state's oil workers when you think about your positions on these issues? And how much should you?

KEVIN CRAMER: Yeah. I think about them a lot. And you should because we are a representative republic.

INSKEEP: Unlike some Republicans, Senator Cramer says he is willing to address climate change by reducing carbon emissions. But he always keeps fossil fuels in mind.

CRAMER: The vast majority of people that we work for, that would be our constituents, believe that there is climate change, that it is going the wrong direction in terms of the temperature of the Earth and that they want us to do something about it. My starting point is that it's not near the crisis that the alarmists have made it out to be. But at the same time, nobody is going to solve the problem except humans. Other than God Himself, we're the only ones in a position to contribute or to lower our contribution, whatever that might be. And our constituents expect us to do that.

INSKEEP: What do you say to people who - young people, particularly, who see a dark future because of the possibility of things like the melting of the polar ice caps...

CRAMER: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Which would be a tremendous calamity?

CRAMER: Sure. So what I would tell them is that the Earth has gone through cycles for as long as there's been creation. What I would also tell them is what we can't do is we can't destroy ourselves in the process of trying to save the Earth.

INSKEEP: Before we go on, just to establish where you're at - I think you know that a lot of scientists, the overwhelming majority of scientists, find something real going on here...

CRAMER: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...And observe something that is a lot worse than it was just 10 or 20 years ago and is accelerating. And you said that one phrase, which makes a lot of sense - we don't want to destroy ourselves in an effort to address this problem. But I do wonder about that as a citizen. Why would we ever have to destroy ourselves just because we're getting our electricity from a different source? I don't understand why that would alter our civilization all that much.

CRAMER: Well, because, Steve, even if I adhere to that point, I reject the notion that you have to stop all fossil fuel production and fossil fuel use for electricity in the United States of America to solve climate change. Let's not be so focused on, I hate coal, and more focused on, let's reduce emissions. We need to be, I think, in a transition. And I think people feel that. What fuels should we reject as part of that transition? And I don't think we need to reject any of them if we have the technology that can clean them all up. And then secondly, how fast does the transition have to take?

INSKEEP: When you talk about cleaning them up, of course, you're talking about carbon capture, which we could have a whole different discussion about.

CRAMER: Right.

INSKEEP: But let's focus, for a moment, on the remnants, I guess, of this Build Back Better bill.

CRAMER: Sure.

INSKEEP: Democrats are now talking of breaking this gigantic legislation into parts. And one of them would focus on climate. There would be some clean-energy incentives, money on the table to lean toward clean energy. There would be money for electric vehicle chargers across the country. There would also be other provisions like fees on methane emissions, which come from natural gas. But there's not an energy source that's taken off the table. President Biden seems to be at the same place you are, that he thinks at the moment that all kinds of energy are needed, and that's fine. Is that a measure you might be able to support?

CRAMER: Well, probably not in its current form, you know? Some of the things you talked about, like paying for charging stations, I think this is more of a private sector issue. If the public demands more electric vehicles - and they seem to be - then the rest of it should take care of itself. I think the starting point for this chunk or this piece of Build Back Better really has to be a white sheet of paper. But we won't ever meet it if we don't try.

INSKEEP: The president argues that we have a chance to seize the economic future rather than drag on the economic future. The United States can and should, he would say, lead industries like better electric car batteries, which is a field that China really, really wants to dominate...

CRAMER: Sure.

INSKEEP: ...And is spending a lot of money to dominate. Why leave the field to China?

CRAMER: So I don't think we should yield to China. And this is why I think part of a geopolitical climate agenda that would be promoted by the United States of America has to include getting much of our supply chain back as possible. And that includes, certainly, things like uranium, which China also has a big chunk of - Russia and Kazakhstan more so, uranium for nuclear - as well as lithium and other mining of critical minerals for batteries. I think we are the leader already, but maintain that leadership in new innovations that will be good for climate and for cleaning up the environment. We do actually mine things like even natural gas and oil in a much cleaner way than most of our competitors around the world.

INSKEEP: I think I hear you saying that if somebody came to you with a proposal that was about electric car batteries and got into questions like sources of lithium and there needed to be some government money on the table, you'd look seriously at that.

CRAMER: I never start at no, Steve, except on a very, very few things. I just think there's a solution to be had. If we start with the things that we already have some bipartisan agreement on - and by the way, a couple of those things are in the BBB, in the Build Back Better climate package. And they include carbon capture utilization and storage, bringing back more of nuclear power into the United States. Yeah. I'm always going to be interested in being at the table until it gets ridiculous.

INSKEEP: Carbon capture, which of course, would be very good for the coal industry, very good for the oil industry, as you know very well, Senator, is a technology in progress. It can be very expensive. And at the same time, other sources, like solar and wind, seem to get cheaper and cheaper all the time. Would you be willing, for Americans, to pay more for energy so that the oil industry could stay in business or the coal industry could stay in business?

CRAMER: Well, let's not forget we...

INSKEEP: That might be the choice in 10 or 20 years.

CRAMER: Yeah.

INSKEEP: You don't know.

CRAMER: It may be the choice in 10 or 20 months. But the reality is that the American public has been paying for this advancement in solar and wind for decades. We need greater resiliency. And that, of course, includes things like a steady, reliable, 24-hour, seven-day-a-week energy source on the grid. And there are very few of those. Coal and nuclear are what will allow the innovations to continue and what will allow the American economy to continue. And by the way, we do it pretty well in the United States.

INSKEEP: Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, it's a pleasure talking with you. Thank you, sir.

CRAMER: Steve, it's my pleasure. And thanks for helping me drill so deep. You almost got in over my head, I got to tell you.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Drilling deep. That's a good metaphor for this. Thank you.

CRAMER: That's a good metaphor (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF NEIL COWLEY'S "SHE LIVES IN GOLDEN SANDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.