MINOT, N.D. — Over the last year I've had a few conversations about energy with my good friend Robert Harms.
He's a longtime Republican and worked in the administrations of former Govs. Ed Schafer and John Hoeven. He's also served in various leadership roles in the North Dakota Republican Party.
These days, he's a lobbyist for the wind industry. Enel Green Power is listed as a client of his for the current political cycle. He's also a "policy advisor" for North Dakotans for Comprehensive Energy Solutions, a wind industry astroturf group.
Harms is a good hire for Big Wind. He knows how to speak the language of North Dakota Republicans.
When we've talked over the last year or so about North Dakota's efforts to protect the coal industry, including government-backed loans to Project Tundra, an intriguing carbon capture initiative, I've listened attentively to his arguments.
Because I like Bob.
I respect him.
His pitch on this issue can be summed up with one question: "Why are Republicans, typically proponents of limited government and free markets, pushing government-backed loans to protect the coal industry?"
It's not an unfair question, though the rebuttal is, "Why is a Republican working for the wind industry suddenly concerned about government intervention in the energy markets?"
That intervention to promote wind power is massive, far exceeding anything done for coal by the State of North Dakota. The federal tax credit for wind energy production is a gusher of money Harms, during a conversation over coffee and omelets at Charlie's Main Street Cafe in Minot, guaranteed me would be expiring two years ago.
It's been renewed twice since then, as I've frequently reminded him, costing taxpayers billions upon billions of dollars annually.
The wind industry claims they don't need that subsidy, but they keep getting it renewed, which makes me wonder if it's even possible for that industry to stand without being propped up by the taxpayers.
Beyond that egregious subsidy, we also have various state-level subsidies and mandates pushing utilities away from baseload power and toward sources like wind and solar.
Arguing for a "free market" in energy is fine as rhetoric, and it's particularly appealing to conservatives, but we don't have a free market in energy.
What we have are a lot of flacks, working for an industry that has enjoyed a tidal wave of political favoritism over the last couple of decades, using free-market rhetoric as cover.
This brings me to a recent article by Adam Willis quoting state Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, and North Dakota Watchdog Network founder Dustin Gawrylow, both ostensible conservatives, using Harms' tactic to argue against state loans for carbon capture.
“The state is willing to put the taxpayers at risk,” Becker told Willis.
Gawrylow makes similar noises about a supposedly too-cozy relationship between coal power and state lawmakers.
If Harms and Becker and Gawrylow were arguing in a vacuum, they might have a point, but they're not.
Our government has been heavily promoting renewables. Baseload, coal-fired power is being closed down, not by market economics, but by political forces. We've now reached a point where utility bills are spiking and our electrical grid is vulnerable.
The federal government, and the various state governments, haven't shown any sign that they're willing to take their foot off the gas of the subsidies and mandates which have created this situation.
That leaves North Dakota politicians in the unenviable position of making some pretty extraordinary interventions on behalf of the coal industry, including taxpayer-backed loans for Project Tundra.
There's risk, yes, but what's the alternative if we do nothing?
Our state will lose thousands of jobs.
Entire communities in central North Dakota will wither and die.
Our region will lose more reliable baseload power at a time when power outages are becoming disturbingly typical.
Arguments about free markets in this context, whether they're motivated by ideological myopia or the pecuniary interests of industries competing with coal, make little sense.
If coal-fired power plans close because we've discovered a way to produce electrons in a similarly cheap and reliable fashion, then so be it. That's progress. But as things stand now, we're shutting down coal-fired plants, and some are trying to tank research into areas like carbon capture that can keep coal power viable well into the future, because of politics, at best, and crony capitalism, at worse.
It's fine for flacks and ideological pedants to wax on about "free markets," whatever their motivations, but the rest of us have to live out here in the real world.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.