Plain Talk With Rob Port

Plain Talk is a podcast hosted by blogger and columnist Rob Port focusing on political news and current events in North Dakota. Host Rob Port writes, North Dakota’s most popular and influential political blog, and is a columnist for the Forum News Service published in papers including the Fargo Forum, Grand Forks Herald, Jamestown Sun, Minot Daily News, and the Dickinson Press.

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Latest Episodes
354: PACT Act, Kansas abortion vote, and more
Wed Aug 03 12:05:49 EDT 2022
Kansas, a very red, very Republican state, just voted, in a landslide, to maintain status quo protections for abortion.

Meanwhile, in Congress, there was a vicious debate over the last week over who hates veterans.

In Michigan, Democrats backed a pro-Trump, election conspiracy Republican in a primary against a GOP incumbent that voted to impeach Trump.

Wednesday co-host Chad Oban and I discuss these topics, and more, on this episode of Plain Talk.

353: ESG could downgrade North Dakota's credit rating
Mon Aug 01 12:40:05 EDT 2022
The ESG movement in venture capitalism - the acronym stands for "environment, social, and governance" - is a threat to North Dakota's economic well-being, but not just in the way you might be imagining.

Our state's primary industries - energy and agriculture - are also carbon-heavy industries, which is why our state runs afoul of the "environment" part of ESG. Our state is investing big money into improving the environmental impact of our industries - we created, for example, the clean and sustainable energy fund which is driving money into things like carbon capture projects - but the ESG movement isn't terribly pragmatic.

It's very ideological, viewing only certain types of renewable energy as satisfying the "environmental" component of it the platform.

Which is why the credit rating energy Standard & Poor just gave North Dakota a "moderately negative" (their term) rating, tabbing our state as a "climate transaction risk."

That's bad for North Dakota, and in more ways than one, as Treasurer Thomas Beadle explained on this episode of Plain Talk. He points out that this sort of rating doesn't just deter capital investment into our biggest and most important industries, it can also drive up the cost of bonding for the state.

It works like this: since our primary industries are rated a risk, and our state government gets most of its revenues, directly or indirectly, from those industries, then our bonds to build things like highways are seen as a riskier investment. Thus, we have to pay more to borrow that money.

What can our state do about it? Beadle points to things like the state-owned Bank of North Dakota, and the aforementioned sustainable energy fund (other states are calling this sort of thing a "green bank"), as factors that help, but until national, and international, banks and governments come to realize that market manipulations do not obviate our need for baseload energy, we're stuck with things as they are.

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352: Sen. Cramer talks PACT Act, same sex marriage, and more
Fri Jul 29 13:38:34 EDT 2022
As the controversy over a corn milling plant near Grand Forks, and the Grand Forks Air Force Base, to be built by a Chinese company whose leader is a member of the Chinese Communist Party, continues to unfold, Sen. Kevin Cramer sees the need for legislation to address the matter.

Federal officials are in the process of reviewing the land purchase and potential development for national security threats, but on this episode of Plain Talk, Cramer said more needs to be done. "Agricultural investments are largely exempt. That needs to change," he said.

Cramer also addressed the controversy over the PACT Act, which would provide medical benefits for soldiers exposed to toxic burn pits while deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Supporters of the bill, including comedian Jon Stewart, ripped Republican Senators who changed their vote from "yes" to "no" after the bill came back from the House. Cramer says the reason he changed his vote is because House Democrats added a "technical glitch" that turns almost a half-trillion dollars of spending into non-discretionary spending. "Democrats have played politics with the lives of veterans, Cramer says.

"At the end of the day, the bill will pass," he said, calling his "no" vote "procedural."

Cramer also addressed the Respect for Marriage Act, which would codify same-sex marriage in federal law. He says he doesn't begrudge his colleague, Republican Congressman Kelly Armstrong, for voting for the bill in the House, but he doesn't believe it goes far enough to protect religious liberty. And even if it's tweaked, Cramer said it would be unlikely he'd vote for it.

As for the Inflation Reduction Act, which just came out of negotiations between Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, Cramer called it "a disaster." He said the permitting reforms that Manchin won as a concession from Schumer are unlikely to accomplish much.

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351: Democratic-NPL Patrick Hart talks about pro-life candidate controversy, 2022 cycle
Wed Jul 27 12:22:36 EDT 2022
Minot, N.D. — Last week the North Dakota Democratic-NPL saw some internecine conflict over their U.S. House candidate, Mark Haugen, who is pro-life and supports the overturn of Roe v. Wade.

Patrick Hart, the chairman of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL, joined this episode of Plain Talk to discuss the challenges of managing the disparate points of view in his party. We also spoke about what his party is do to find its way in a state where Republicans are seeing historic levels of dominance, and where he sees some opportunities for Democratic-NPL candidates in the 2022 election and beyond.

Also on this episode, Wednesday co-host Chad Oban and I discuss the strategy of Democrats promoting extreme Republican candidates in primaries with the hope of defeating that candidate in the general. Given the fraught times we're living in, should anyone be supporting extremism, even if the calculation is to defeat it?

We also discussed Congressman Kelly Armstrong's vote to codify same-sex marriage in federal law, and Attorney General Drew Wrigley's decision not to seek an external investigation of a scandal over deleted email accounts in his office.

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350: North Dakota has slashed the time it takes to permit a carbon capture project
Wed Jul 20 11:42:37 EDT 2022
I suspect that many in the general public, when they hear about carbon capture, think of it as some pie-in-the-sky thing. Something that's being developed. That's in the work. Not really something that is, as yet, a practical part of modern industry.

Except, the State of North Dakota just permitted its first carbon capture project under state primacy. Which is to say, that state officials reviewed and permitted the project, not the feds.

It's the first time that's ever happened in the United States.

That state control made all the difference.

That's what Gerald Bachmeier, the chief executive officer of Red Trail Energy, said on this episode of Plain Talk. His company just added carbon capture to their ethanol facility near Richardton, North Dakota. It officially began capturing carbon on June 16, 2022, and they expect to store underground 100 percent of the 180,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted annually from its fermentation process.

That's a big deal, but the regulatory process leading up to it may be the bigger deal. According to Bachmeier, it took North Dakota officials less than a year to permit their project. He compared that to the experience of another ethanol plant in Iowa which waited more than six years to get their permit from the feds at the EPA.

He expects North Dakota will be able to permit future projects even faster. "Ours took a little longer because we were the first one," he said.

Going forward, his company expects to add to their capture operations. He says the next phase is to capture the carbon coming off their heating systems, at which point their facility will be nearly carbon zero. He also said a part of their business in the future may be selling access to their storage well to other carbon-emitting businesses.

And that's a key factor in all of this. For Red Trail, capturing this carbon wasn't just a good environmental decision, but a good business decision as well. While the cost of developing this project was around $38 million, he expects his company will bring in upwards of $9 million per year in revenues from 45Q tax credits from the federal government, as well as commanding $0.15 cents per gallon more for their ethanol thanks to a better carbon rating.

Bachmeier sees a bright future for carbon capture. "For North Dakota's industries, I think we have a huge opportunity."

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349: Attorney General speaks out on rogue employee who deleted emails
Mon Jul 18 11:55:59 EDT 2022
Last week, in response to an open record request filed by myself and others for emails, Attorney General Drew Wrigley announced that his office wouldn't be able to satisfy those requests in full.

An employee, who was not a supervisor or attorney in his office and who had no authority to do so, ordered the deletion of former Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's email account. Stenehjem passed away earlier this year. Wrigley, who had already announced a campaign for the office, was appointed his replacement by Governor Doug Burgum.

Subsequent to the deletion of Stenehjem's account, the employee also ordered the deletion of Deputy Attorney General Troy Seibel's account. Seibel left the office earlier this year after Wrigley informed him that he would be bringing in his own personnel for that position.

The original records requests were part of investigations into controversy over a cost overrun for newly-constructed office space for employees of the AG's office, but these deletions have become a controversy in their own right.

Wrigley addressed the matter on this episode of Plain Talk. He declined to name the employee during our interview, but indicated that afterward his office would be releasing the communication in which the account deletions were ordered, and that this would identify the employee.

He also declined to discuss what disciplinary actions his office would take with regard to this employee, saying they're an "internal personnel" matter. He added that he'd received at least one "plea" not to identify this person publicly, but said he had no legal authority to keep that information from the public.

There is "no way to ascertain" the number of emails that were deleted.

Wrigley also said that while he wasn't aware of any situation where records that needed to be retained for on-going matters of litigation, "the timeline was very rapid" for the removal of the accounts.

Wrigley said that he assumes a "vast" number of the emails in those accounts were also sent to other state employees, and so are maintained as records in those accounts, but with the accounts now gone, and with the state's IT personnel assuring him there's no way to get them back, there's also no way to measure how much information is now lost.

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348: Addressing North Dakota's child care crisis
Wed Jul 13 12:31:41 EDT 2022
Governor Doug Burgum's administration is on the path to proposing some very significant policy to address North Dakota's child care process in the upcoming legislative session. It will be "something different from what you usually see from our administration," Lt. Governor Brent Sanford said on this issue of Plain Talk.

Child care has been talked about as an urgent public policy need for, well, about a generation now, most recently at a Chamber of Commerce event in Fargo, yet there hasn't been much in the way of substantial progress on the issue.

Part of the problem is politics. "Our legislator's eyes glass over" when this issue gets brought up in the context of early childhood education. "They'll say 'we don't want to back the school bus up to the maternity ward'," Sanford says.

He thinks a more persuasive approach will be to talk about the need for childcare policy in the context of the economy. Ensuring access to affordable child care "is what we have to do to retain and recruit," Sanford says, especially because the private sector can't seem to provide that.

"The daycare model is uneconomic," Sanford argues. "It doesn't work." In fact, he says, it only works to the extent it is now because of low-wage workers. He pointed out that ratio policies, which dictate the number of children per daycare worker a facility can have, were "built when we still had minimum wage workers. Who still has minimum wage workers?"

Sanford says the administration is still working on a policy proposal, but that it may include revenue from the state's Legacy fund to make things work.

347: Gas station owner responds to Joe Biden
Wed Jul 06 12:57:30 EDT 2022
President Joe Biden is putting the blame for high gas prices on gas station owners. "My message to the companies running gas stations and setting prices at the pump is simple: this is a time of war and global peril," he wrote in a tweet posted before Independence Day. "Bring down the price you are charging at the pump to reflect the cost you’re paying for the product. And do it now."

How does an actual gas station owner feel about that?

"He seem to think we can drop the price twenty cents to be patriotic," Kent Satrang said on this episode of Plain Talk.

Satrang is the owner of Petroserve USA, which has several locations in North Dakota and Minnesota. He said doesn't really get to choose his prices. They're set by a very competitive market. A station that is selling fuel at a price that's significantly higher than competing stations simply won't see business.

And besides, Satrang argues, companies like his don't make much on the fuel anyway. Satrang says his margin amounts to a "few cents a gallon."

"The actual credit card company makes more off our fuel for their fees than we do," he said, adding that most of his profits come from the food, drinks, and other items sold in his convenience stores.

Also on this episode, Wednesday co-host Chad Oban and I discuss the unhappy state of America as another Independence Day comes and goes.

346: Emissions governed by policy makers not lawsuits
Fri Jul 01 11:53:36 EDT 2022
America's industry, from power production to agriculture to manufacturing, needs "to be governed by policymakers not lawsuits."

That's what Jason Boherer, president of the North Dakota Lignite Energy Council, said on this episode of Plain Talk. He sees the recent Supreme Court decision in North Dakota v. EPA as a boon not just for his industry, but for American democracy in that it will require Congress and other legislative bodies to actually make a decision on what it wants emissions policy to be, instead of punting the question to regulators and judges.

That's a more transparent process, he argues. A more predictable one. That, in the end, will serve America better.

And while some are arguing that the Supreme Court's finding that the EPA didn't have authority from Congress to regulate emissions in the way it was will endanger the environment, Bohrer sees it as helping. He argues that projects such as carbon capture, of which there are many here in North Dakota, will be more viable now that they don't have to match pace with a timeline from the EPA that seemed calculated, on a political basis, to be "impossible to meet," according to Bohrer.

This ruling "increases the odds that you're going to see carbon capture on some of our projects," he claims, and that seems likely.

Which is good news for North Dakota.

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345: A pro-life Democrat on North Dakota's statewide ballot speaks out
Wed Jun 29 12:28:46 EDT 2022
Believe it or not, there is such a thing as a pro-life Democrat.

There are pro-choice Republicans too, of course, but on this episode of Plain Talk, it was Mark Haugen, the Democratic-NPL candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, who is staunchly pro-life, who we were speaking to.

Haugen's party leaders have described the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade as "evil," but Haugen isn't too worried about that. "Pat's a good friend of mine," he said, referring to party chairman Patrick Hart, and adding that they'd discussed the matter.

Still, Haugen feels it's important to remember that pro-life Democrats are a part of the party. "Are we the minority? Absolutely. But that's democracy," he said. "I have to work hard at explaining my position.

Haugen describes that position as being "whole life," arguing that Democrats should focus on social assistance policies to help mothers and children.

Wednesday co-host Chad Oban and I also discussed the political ramifications of overturning Roe v. Wade, both locally and nationally, as well as the latest revelations of the January 6 committee.

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