Dorgan on eco-thrillers, DOE rumors, basketball in Rayburn

Source: Robin Bravender, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Since energy guru Byron Dorgan left the Senate five years ago, he’s penned two action-packed eco-thriller novels.

One is about foreign governments launching an assault on the U.S. electric grid; the other involves a research team working on top-secret coal technology in North Dakota’s Badlands. He’s now working on the outline for his next book.

On top of his writing, Dorgan is working part time as a lobbyist at Arent Fox on issues like the renewable fuel standard. He’s also a guest lecturer at Georgetown University, and he’s serving on several boards, including the board of governors of Argonne National Laboratory.

The North Dakota Democrat recently sat down with Greenwire at Arent Fox’s Washington office on K Street to discuss rumors that he could be the next Energy secretary, his first job shoveling manure and the tragedy that thrust him into his first political job.

Tell me about your novels, which have been described as eco-thrillers.

They’re different, although they’re both about energy. … “Blowout” is about a top-secret government installation that’s doing cutting-edge work to evaluate how could you train — now, this sounds strange — but how could you develop a language for bacteria that would allow you to put bacteria in a coal seam and chew their way through the coal seam and leave fuel in response? … The other one, “Gridlock,” the short description is about a drug-addled hacker living in a commune in Amsterdam that is used by the Iranian intelligence service to shut down the electric power grid in the United States. And it comes from a thumb drive that contained a virus that was taken out of Russia, purchased by the Iranian intelligence, used by this drug-addled hacker and his strange girlfriend to begin shutting down the electric power grid in the U.S. The idea for that came from a Wall Street Journal news article about five or eight years ago. … The news article was that there’s always been this persistent rumor in the United States that either the Chinese or the Russians have implanted some sort of virus in our electric grid system.

Do you think that might be true?

I don’t have any idea.

Are you going to write an autobiography?

I’ve thought a lot about it. … I don’t think it would be very marketable, honestly. Every senator, every congressman has an autobiography in them if they want to write it. The question is, who would buy it?

What would it be called?

I don’t know. If I were still in the Congress, I’d title it “Star-Spangled Rut.” But actually, part of the time I was there, it worked pretty well. We actually got some things done.

What’s your biggest regret from your time in Congress?

That’s the easiest question. It was voting to give George W. Bush authorization to prosecute the war.

What’s your take on this year’s presidential election?

I’ve never seen anything like it, ever. Donald Trump is the least qualified and least prepared candidate in my lifetime to become president. And he uses language that denigrates the process, in my judgment. While Hillary is wearing the collar of a fabricator, right, who is not trustworthy, the fabrication and the lies are overwhelmingly offered by Donald Trump, it’s unbelievable. … I’ve known Hillary since her husband was the attorney general of Arkansas. It’s a long time ago. I think if most people could spend personal time with her, they’d have a very different view of her.

You’ve been rumored as a possible Clinton administration Energy secretary. Is that something you’d consider?

My guess is my public service is over. That’s my guess.

What was your very first job?

First job was to clean the barn. We lived in a town of about 280 people, and we had a barn and pasture on the edge of town. In the barn, we mostly had horses, we had some cattle. … My job was to clean the barn. When I could just barely see over the steering wheel, we had a little pickup truck with a hoist in the back. So I was backing that up to the barn door and with a pitchfork was in that barn swearing and sweating.

Your first job in politics was tax commissioner. What was that like?

I got my master’s degree, was living in Colorado … came back for my grandfather’s funeral and somebody said, “There’s this young man that’s just been elected statewide, 38-year-old tax commissioner. … He wants to hire a young MBA to help him. Would you see him?” … I was so inspired. He was from a town of 80 people, Harvard Law grad. He said, “Come back and be my assistant.” … I decided, OK, I’m going to move back to North Dakota. Eighteen months later, I walked into his office at 8 in the morning and found his body, he’d killed himself in his office in the Capitol. … Obviously, finding a friend like that, it was so traumatic in my life. But about six weeks later, the governor called me down to his office and said, “I want to appoint you to the unexpired term.” I was 26 years old. And he said, “Can you do that job?” And I said, “Yep.”

What’s your favorite beverage?

Coca-Cola. I drink probably two or three Cokes a day.

What are your favorite TV shows?

Mostly news and sports, although we watch “The Voice.” We loved “Nashville” because we both like the music. Football, baseball. The Minnesota Vikings. … We follow the Nationals a lot. We love baseball.

What are your hobbies?

I play tennis, play some golf, watch sports. … When I was in the House, we had what was called the 4 o’clock caucus. At 4 o’clock, we’d go down and play basketball, full court. [He pulls out a photo of lawmakers with Magic Johnson.] Magic only came and played with us once. … We had an agreement with Tip O’Neill that he would not have votes between 4 and 5. … I was in great shape, all of us were because we were playing full court. It’s not well known, but there’s a gymnasium in the basement of Rayburn. … When the House was in session, we would play three or four days a week. Occasionally, there would be a vote that they couldn’t avoid, so there would be about 10 or 15 of us that would pull on a pair of pants and white tennis shoes and peek our heads through the door and vote.

What surprises people most about you?

I’m mostly Scandinavian, and my guess is, I’m probably not as verbal at first with people as some others are. I’m not so much a backslapper … because I come from the northern Great Plains, where we’re more reserved, I think.

Who were your best friends in the Senate?

Kent Conrad … Tom Daschle. Those are the obvious ones, but there are a lot of people who have been good friends in the Senate. But people ask what you miss, I miss going to a vote and seeing all my buddies, because you’re in the club, then you’re not in the club. And when you’re not in the club, you’re not in the club. I miss that. And you don’t realize it until you’re gone.