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Franken, McFadden clash on energy issues at Farmfest

Pipelines — whether to build them, where, and from what — played an outsize role in the Senate candidates forum.

Farmfest, located in Redwood County, once again played host to Minnesota's political candidates.

REDWOOD COUNTY, Minn. — The major candidates in Minnesota’s U.S. Senate race agree on expanding a wind energy tax credit. They also agree farmers should have clearer rules about labeling their food as GMO-free. 

And … that’s about it.

Sen. Al Franken met four of his opponents, including Republican-endorsed businessman Mike McFadden, at their first major debate of the campaign at Farmfest on Wednesday. The questions were largely related to rural and agriculture issues and there was a big focus on energy policy — and besides keeping the aforementioned tax credit for wind power development, there wasn’t much agreement between them, especially Franken and McFadden, the leading candidates in the race.

The energy focus played into what McFadden has tried to make a key part of his campaign. During the debate, he pushed expanding pipelines to move oil and propane through the state and jabbed Franken for not more aggressively supporting the same.

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“The way to have this is to have more pipelines bringing oil and gas to the consumers,” he said. “We need to get pipelines built yesterday, and I’ll make sure that happens.”

Franken noted that he helped write the energy title of a five-year, $500 billion farm bill that passed earlier this year (an occasion that the crowd met with the biggest applause of the day). He said he supports a “diverse energy portfolio” but said that Minnesota needs to look toward renewable forms of energy since there isn’t an oil or natural gas industry here.

“I’ve been a champion for renewable fuels in the farm bill, which we got done, and I helped get that done,” he said.

Asked about climate change, Franken said “climate change is real, and we have to address it.” He suggested the United States should begin developing and exporting clean energy technology.

McFadden said there was a “false choice” between helping the environment and supporting businesses or farming, and referenced potential new regulations for coal-based power plants.

“We need arguments that are based on science and not on emotion,” he said. “I’m very concerned about the war on coal that has taken place. I support all forms of energy.”

Keystone and American-made steel

Pipelines played an outsized role in the debate. Franken highlighted work he did in the Senate last winter to ease a propane shortage that struck Minnesota (in response, the state got almost $16 million in emergency funding and a Texas company eventually began making emergency shipments to the Midwest), but McFadden said he hasn’t gone far enough to help deliver propane, oil and natural gas to consumers through pipelines.

He hit Franken for voting against measures in the Senate meant to speed up the approval process of the Keystone XL pipeline. After the debate, Franken said his votes were meant to “not circumvent the [approval] process,” which is pending an Obama administration review.

Franken said, though, that he has supported measures to guarantee the pipeline is built with American-made steel. After the debate, McFadden said he wouldn’t be a stickler for that requirement, just that any steel, even if it comes from overseas, would need to be acquired through “free and fair trade.”

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“What I’d love to see is us to use American products where we can, but we’ve got to be cost-competitive where we can. I am a supporter of free and fair trade,” he said. “But I think we’re going off on a tangent right now. What’s real is, we’ve got to get this pipeline built.”

‘We’re going to have plenty of time to debate’

There were flashes of agreement in the debate, but not many.

The candidates said they support expanding a tax credit to expand wind energy infrastructure around the United States. Franken and McFadden said international trade agreements should keep markets open to American commodities, and they agreed the federal government should play a role in standardizing genetically-modified ingredient labeling guidelines.

But on everything from immigration reform to funding the highway trust fund, the differences outweighed the similarities, though the format of the debate limited any engagement between the candidates (it was technically a forum, with a long list of topics and no opportunity for follow-ups).

But Franken said he expects there will be enough of that coming down the road.

“I think we’re going to have plenty of time in this campaign to debate and air out any differences,” he said. 

Update: This story has been updated to clarify the candidates’ positions on GMO labeling.

Devin Henry can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry