Energy becomes a big issue in Senate race

Al Franken
Al Franken lays out a three-point plan to reduce the cost of gas at the Super Day Gas Station on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul on July 28, 2008.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Norm Coleman and Al Franken both say the U.S. needs to take the development of alternative energy as seriously as it took the race to the moon in the 1960s.

"Energy is crushing folks today," Coleman told reporters at a news conference in early July. "It's moms and dads. It's producers. It's retail, and what it deserves is a response that really is a Marshall Plan or an Apollo project or whatever you want to call it."

Franken too is calling for an Apollo program for renewable energy. Franken told delegates to the state DFL convention this spring that the high cost of energy represents more of an opportunity than a crisis.

Coleman at debate
U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman and several of his challengers debated recently at Farmfest in Redwood Falls. It was the first faceoff between Coleman, a Republican, and his main DFL challenger Al Franken.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

"It's an opportunity to preserve our environment," Franken said. "It's an opportunity to create jobs here in Minnesota. It's an opportunity for our farmers. It's an opportunity to end our dependence on foreign oil. Let's go to electric cars, shall we?"

Franken and Coleman's energy plans break down roughly along party lines. Both say alternative energy is the key to the nation's future prosperity. Both agree the U.S. can create jobs and improve national security by moving forward with alternatives to oil like solar power, wind and biofuels.

In late July Franken proposed selling 50 million barrels of oil from the strategic petroleum reserve in hopes of bringing down gas prices.

At a news conference outside a St. Paul gas station Franken ripped Coleman for a recent vote against a measure intended to combat oil market speculation. And, as Franken often does, he accused Coleman of being in the pocket of the oil industry.

"We need Norm Coleman to stop playing special interest politics and standing with Bush and big oil and immediately support these measures," Franken said.

Franken blames Republicans, from President Bush down to Norm Coleman, for the country's continued dependence on foreign oil.

"I think there's been a tremendous lack of vision and a tremendous amount of tying our energy policy to the oil companies, and that's what Norm Coleman has been doing," Franken said.

"They don't give money to people for no reason."

Franken said in exchange for nearly a quarter million dollars in campaign contributions from energy companies, Coleman has voted to shower the industry with taxpayer subsidies at the expense of alternative energy.

"They don't give money to people for no reason," Franken said.

The billions of dollars of tax breaks for energy companies Franken criticizes Coleman for supporting were part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Many Democrats also voted for the bill, including Sens. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Minnesota's Mark Dayton.

Coleman vehemently denies he's a shill for the oil industry.

DFL candidate Al Franken
DFL Senate candidate Al Franken disagrees with Republican incumbent Norm Coleman about the value of opening more U.S. territory to offshore oil drilling. He says it would have no impact on current high gas prices.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

"The renewable industry is still more fragile," said Coleman. "We still need to have tax credits to produce wind energy. We still need to figure out a way to move from corn-based ethanol to cellulosic. I'm for moving incentives over. So it's hard to make the argument you're the tool of big oil when you're one of those folks that are actually voting too move incentives from oil to somewhere else."

But Franken insists Coleman's support for sustainable energy is politically motivated. He cites the position Coleman held on renewable energy standards six years ago when Coleman was campaigning for his first term.

"He called Paul Wellstone extreme during the 2002 Farmfest debate because he wanted 20 percent renewables," Franken said.

At the 2002 FarmFest debate Coleman did caution about taking the extreme approach on renewable fuels.

"If you take the senator's approach, he wanted to require 20 percent renewables by 2010," Coleman said then. "That's going to cost!"

Six years later, Coleman's work to increase renewable fuel production tops his own list of accomplishments. At this year's Farmfest Coleman strongly touted renewables.

Wind turbine
Small-scale wind turbines, suitable for an individual home or farm, were being sold at Farmfest.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

"The answer is in this room. The corn growers, soybean growers. The energy bill that I get blasted for voting for by one of my folks on the stand here, is a bill that, by the way created the first RFS," Coleman said.

The RFS or Renewable Fuel Standard now mandates that by 2022 about 40 percent of fuel in the U.S. come from renewable sources. That calculation is based on the energy department's fuel use model for this year. It is twice what Coleman six years ago called impossible by 2010.

"Norm has a way of trying to find out what people want to hear and then saying it," said Al Franken.

But Coleman says, from the beginning, he opposed drilling for oil in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge, known as ANWR, in favor of expanding renewable energy.

"One of the reasons that I took a stand against ANWR six years ago is because we didn't have a policy in this country about developing renewable fuels," Coleman said. "There's ethanol in Minnesota; it's wind energy; it's bio-diesel, and I was at the forefront of the energy act that did that."

Coleman has remained steadfast in his opposition to drilling in ANWR. But recently Coleman has become a vocal supporter of granting energy companies permission to drill in vast off-shore areas that are currently off-limits.

Coleman concedes it would be years before fuel could flow from those areas, but he said giving energy companies the go-ahead to drill would bring down gas prices.

Franken disagrees and cites a Bush administration report that concludes expanding off-shore drilling would not have a significant impact on crude oil and natural gas prices for more than two decades.

Nuclear Power
Norm Coleman supports expanded nuclear energy. Al Franken says new plants should wait until nuclear waste issues are resolved.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

"We have a real choice here which way to go," Franken said. "Do we go with fossil fuels? Do we go with the oil industry, and continuing that which has gotten us where we are today or do we change direction? And I think that is really what this election is about, is a change. A change in direction on everything."

But Coleman said increased domestic oil production needs to be part of the mix to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil. Franken said energy companies should exercise drilling rights in areas where they already have leases.

"We share common ground on the belief that we need to really have a full-fledged commitment to renewables, a full-fledged commitment to alternative energy and I've been a champion on that," Coleman said. "But you can't talk about a Marshall project or an Apollo project to end dependency on foreign oil simply cut out any kind of increased production."

Coleman also believes the U.S. needs to build more nuclear power plants. Coleman criticized Franken for saying nuclear expansion should remain an option, but not until waste storage issues are resolved.

Expect the energy issue to become even more important to Minnesotans in the weeks leading up to the November election. That's when furnaces will begin kicking in. Projections suggest the cost of natural gas and heating oil will be up significantly from last year.