Jeanne Shaheen

“We can’t depend just on oil,” says Democratic Senate candidate Jeanne Shaheen. “I think people want choices. They understand that we’ve got to address this issue and they want some leadership to get it done.”

Shaheen is taking a second shot at beating New Hampshire’s first-term Sen. John Sununu, a Republican with a mediocre record on environmental issues who has been part of the push for more drilling. The League of Conservation Voters put Sununu on its “Dirty Dozen” list in 2002 and has endorsed Shaheen this year, along with the Sierra Club.

Shaheen has made energy and climate issues a centerpiece of her campaign. Her first ads called for closing the Enron loophole, regulating the oil industry and increasing investment in renewable energy.

In 1996, Shaheen became the first woman elected governor of New Hampshire, a post she held for three terms. As governor, she led the effort to pass the Clean Power Act, a bipartisan initiative that made the state the first in the country to pass legislation to cap the emission of carbon dioxide and other pollutants from power plants, and championed a comprehensive energy plan for the state that stressed efficiency. She was also pivotal in creating the Land and Community Heritage Investment Program, which has protected 250,000 acres of open space in the state.

In 2002 she declined to run for a fourth term as governor (N.H. governors are elected to two-year terms), instead undertaking an unsuccessful bid for the Senate against Sununu. After that race, she took a post as the Director of the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in April 2005, where she served until entering the Senate race in September 2007.

New Hampshire has been trending Democratic in recent elections. Both GOP House members were defeated in 2006, and Democrats have won every governor’s race except one in the past decade. Currently, most polls show Shaheen with a double-digit advantage over Sununu, though it’s expected to be a tight race in November.

Grist caught up with Shaheen to talk about her energy plan for the U.S. Senate and what prompted her to come back to electoral politics.

Grist: What made you decide to jump into the race this year?

Shaheen: Like so many people in the country, I was concerned about what our future is going to be if we continue going down the road that we’ve been on under the Bush administration for the last eight years and really felt like one of the people who has been a rubber stamp for Bush’s policies is John Sununu. I have six grandchildren and I got to thinking about what will life be like for them in the future. It’s not encouraging to me to hear the statistics about the fact this is the first generation that’s not going to be better off then their parents.

Grist: Your first ads were about gas prices and energy policy. What do you think is the best way to lower gas prices in the short-term, while at the same time lowering dependence on oil in the long-term?

Shaheen: One of the things that I’ve been talking a lot about for the last several months is what speculation on Wall Street on energy futures is doing to the cost of gasoline, and the fact in the short-term we need to crack down on that speculation. Longer-term we got to look at energy efficiency, the demand-side, conservation. We’ve got to look at energy policy that reduces our dependence on foreign oil. I think that’s imperative for our national security, it’s imperative for our environment, and it’s imperative for our economy.

Grist: How do you differ from incumbent Sununu on these issues? What message do you take to voters about the differences?

Shaheen: John Sununu has consistently had one plan for addressing energy, and that’s been just drilling. He’s been in the pocket of the oil and gas industry. He was the deciding vote last December when there was an energy bill before the Senate that would have taken the $13 billion in subsidies to the oil and gas industry and put those into tax credits and investment in renewable and alternative sources of into energy efficiency. I think that pretty much sums up where he’s been on the issue.

Grist: As governor you developed the state’s first comprehensive energy plan, as well as the Clean Power Act. What did you learn about how to craft environmental and energy policy?

Shaheen: The Clean Power Act was really a bipartisan initiative. I worked very closely with the legislature on with that, with Republican leadership in the legislature to get that done. We worked with the private sector, with utilities in the state. No side got everything we wanted in that bill, but we made some important steps to address the issue going forward. That’s an important message for all of us who are trying to make progress is that we need to think about how we can work across the aisle to get things done, and we need to think about how we involve both the public and private sectors. It’s important to have a baseline for what you have to accomplish, but then to recognize that it’s important to get something done.

Grist: The talking points from Republicans about regulating emissions and shifting away from fossil fuels are that it will be catastrophic for the economy and for working families. It seems these scare tactics seem to work. What message to do you take to voters who are worried about rising gas prices?

Shaheen: I think voters are smarter than that. They understand that Bush and Cheney come out of the oil industry. They understand that we’ve had almost eight years now of the Bush/Cheney policies that have not moved us on energy one iota. I think people are looking for help with their immediate short-term costs, and I understand that they are struggling. They deserve better then they’ve gotten under the Bush administration. But they also appreciate that we’ve got to have other options. We can’t depend just on oil, particularly foreign oil. I think people want choices. They understand that we’ve got to address this issue and they want some leadership to get it done.

Grist: So you get to craft the Shaheen Climate Act of 2009. What would it look like?

Shaheen: As we’re looking at how to address global warming, I think we’ve got to look at emissions reductions of 80 percent by 2050. Global warming is having an impact that we’re already seeing very dramatically. It’s having an impact on our fall foliage, on our skiing industry, on our maple sugar industry, on the habitat for fish and game in the state. It’s a huge issue and we’ve got to address it and we can’t wait. We’ve got to start now. I think we need an economy-wide emissions reduction plan. We need aggressive research and development for new energy technology. We’ve got to work with our international partners to achieve those emissions reductions.

Grist: What should be the primary goals for the Senate in terms of energy policy?

Shaheen: It should be to help encourage investment in new energy technologies. I think the federal government has a role to play in helping to create a market for alternative energy. I’ll give you an example. My husband and I built our home in Madbury, where we’re still living, in 1979 in the middle of the Iranian oil crisis. At that time, there were tax credits to encourage us to make our home energy efficient. So we built something called an envelope house, which is a passive solar design, [installed] a furnace that burns oil, wood, and garbage if it has to. We put in triple paned windows, which at that time were not the norm. We put solar panels on the roof to heat our hot water. Unfortunately, we had to take those out after about 10 years. But we got tax credits to do all that, and that’s one of the roles government should be playing is trying to encourage people to make those decisions in a way that are energy efficient.

Grist: What first got you interested in environmental issues?

Shaheen: I’ve always been interested because I love the outdoors. I love being outside. I believe it’s important for us to recycle; it’s important for us to protect our natural resources: our water and our forests here in New Hampshire. We don’t own the land, we just inhabit it for a while. I want to make sure that my children and my children can enjoy the beauty of New Hampshire and the rest of the country as I’ve been able to do.

Grist: Do you have an anecdote about your most memorable outdoor or wilderness adventure, or maybe a favorite place that you like to visit?

Shaheen: Mt. Washington is an amazing place in New Hampshire to visit. It’s the highest point in the Northeast. It has an ecology that is totally different from anything else in the Northeast that exists. You’re up above the tree line and it has an alpine climate when you get above the tree line. The highest winds that have ever been clocked in the world were clocked atop Mount Washington. One of the favorite things that I got to do when I was governor was to go up to the top of Mt. Washington in the middle of the winter on a snowcat in a snowstorm, and it was just an amazing experience.