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Viewpoint: North Dakota lawmakers' view on coal is irresponsible

Instead of being responsible and starting a transition away from coal power, the North Dakota Legislature is doubling down.

Dexter Perkins
Dexter Perkins

The North Dakota Legislature this session decided that supporting and promoting the coal industry is more important than combating climate change. While most states and most countries are being responsible and moving away from coal, in North Dakota it is business as usual.

People have been adding significant greenhouse gases to the atmosphere since the industrial revolution and we know, today, that it has had very bad consequences. The most serious impacts are global warming and climate change that are responsible for sea-level rise, flood disasters, droughts, and other extreme and unusual weather. Countless numbers of people have had to leave their homes. We have also seen many more wildfires and significant species loss.

And all predictions are that these problems are getting worse.

Greenhouse gases come from many sources. But, climatologists are unanimous that the biggest culprit that we need to address is CO2 produced by coal-fired electrical plants. In the United States today, about 30% of our electricity comes from coal. This percentage has dropped in recent years but not fast enough, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists and others. Although difficult for states and communities that have relied on coal as a source of jobs and prosperity, moving away from coal is essential to avoid major global catastrophes and many more millions of displaced people.

The good news is that we have good alternatives. Electricity can be generated by non-polluting solar and wind energy. And we can also produce ethanol and biodiesel that, in principle, add no additional CO2 to the air. These and other alternative energy sources have become very affordable these days. They are all possible in North Dakota.


But, the North Dakota Legislature has elected to go in a different direction. Instead of being responsible and starting a transition away from coal power, they are doubling down.

The Legislature passed a bill that gives coal companies a tax break if a facility is sold to new owners. The tax exemption is intended to keep plants, like the money-losing and highly polluting Coal Creek Station, open when they are better off shut down. As Great River Energy said when announcing plans to close Coal Creek, the station is currently losing customers 100s of millions of dollars.

The Legislature invested tax dollars into a harebrained scheme for capturing CO2 at coal plants and storing it underground. CO2 capture is a technology tried before. The Petra Nova plant, near Houston, is the only functioning capture facility in the U.S. It was incredibly expensive and would never have been built without huge taxpayer subsidies. And it only captures a fraction of the CO2 produced by the plant. Nobody has demonstrated that carbon capture can ever work or be economical at a large scale.

The Legislature also passed a bill that provides $40 million for a new Clean Sustainable Energy Authority. Yet, despite its name, the Energy Authority has nothing to do with clean energy. It is only about the dirty energy that comes from burning coal and other fossil fuels. The Authority will not even consider wind, solar or other sources of clean energy.

Perhaps the worst thing about this year’s Legislature is what they have not done. Whether we like it or not, the coal industry is in decline. There is no avoiding problems for people whose livelihoods depend on the coal industry. Folks in Mercer, McLean, and Oliver counties will be hit the hardest, but the impacts will be greater than that. A responsible Legislature would be investing money into a plan for a coal-free future instead of living in the past.

The best that can be said for the North Dakota Legislature is that they have acted irresponsibly. That is probably being too kind. Intelligent legislators know that promoting continued use of coal will damage our planet and harm the people of the world. Yet, they elected to do it anyway. That seems to go beyond irresponsible and becomes reprehensible and immoral.

Dexter Perkins is a professor in the Department of Geology and Geological Engineering at UND.

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