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Dexter Perkins: Coal industry is shooting itself in the foot

GRAND FORKS -- In September, the federal government issued rules that limit pollution from new coal power plants. The coal industry predictably responded by saying the rules were completely unfounded and would be ruinous for Americans.

GRAND FORKS -- In September, the federal government issued rules that limit pollution from new coal power plants. The coal industry predictably responded by saying the rules were completely unfounded and would be ruinous for Americans.

Instead of insisting on things that are untrue, the industry should acknowledge -- and do what is needed to solve -- the problems it helped create.

Although it was the key to the industrial revolution two centuries ago and traditionally has been an important source of electricity, burning coal long has been known to have a darker side.

Coal pollution directly harms millions of people each year. It has been linked to asthma, lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, stroke, brain dysfunction and allergies.

On a larger scale, coal is the No. 1 cause of global warming and associated climate change, which already have caused many problems around the world and could have huge consequences for our state.

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Because of coal burning, weather-related disasters including Superstorm Sandy, killer tornadoes, droughts, wildfires and floods are more common than in the past. Ten of the hottest years on record have occurred since 1990, and the rate of rising temperatures is the fastest it has been in more than 1,000 years.

The World Health Organization reports that heat and related illnesses and diseases kill hundreds of thousands of people each year. Rising sea levels threaten coastal areas, and some climatologists predict that ocean waters will swamp many cities on the East Coast by the end of this century.

Direct economic losses to agriculture, fisheries, coastal communities and others are staggering, as are the impacts on wildlife, vegetation and landscapes.

So, it is no wonder that the federal government proposed new rules for coal plants. The days of unlimited coal pollution are over: new coal plants will have to be 40 percent cleaner than average plants today and, most significantly, will have to deal with carbon pollution.

This is good news for all of us because cleaning up coal plants will slow the rate of climate change and stop pollution of other sorts.

And although it may cost more, meeting the new requirements is possible. A new plant under construction in Mississippi will meet the new standards, and others are planned in Texas and Illinois.

Perhaps most important, the new regulations will encourage more development of clean alternative energy sources. This could be very good for North Dakota because we have huge potential wind, solar and geothermal resources to develop.

North Dakota Sens. John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp and Rep. Kevin Cramer all repeated the coal industry's claims. According to the delegation, the rules are unjustified and will harm the North Dakota coal industry while raising electricity prices for consumers. The three also say that the rules will cost jobs.

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Hoeven, Heitkamp and Cramer are pandering to the coal industry and being dishonest with North Dakotans -- because they know that the new pollution limits do not apply to any of North Dakota's coal facilities. They apply only to brand-new plants, and no new ones are now planned in North Dakota.

If anything, the rules will create more jobs in North Dakota as the wind and solar energy industries grow.

The U.S. coal industry has been in decline for quite a while, and it's not because of government regulations. The U.S. burned about 943 million tons of coal this year, the lowest in 20 years. During the past decade, the amount of electricity from coal has shrunk from about half to a third of what is used in the United States.

Just about no one is building new plants, and many that were proposed have died on the drawing board, in large part because natural gas is cheaper and burns more cleanly.

Furthermore, renewable energy sources, including wind and solar, are becoming less expensive and can now out-compete natural gas in some places. In September, for example, Colorado Xcel announced it was planning to triple solar energy production and add more wind power to its grid.

North Dakota coal supporters like to brag about investments in clean coal technology, but the technology they are talking about has not stopped coal pollution, only decreased it a bit. That's why North Dakota still has some of the most polluting coal plants in the United States.

The Lignite Energy Council says that coal provides a reliable and inexpensive energy source, but that's true only if the costs associated with human suffering are not considered. In fact, reports from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and others make it clear that complying with the new coal regulations will be less expensive than recovering from Hurricane Sandy, Colorado wildfires, floods and all the other weather disasters caused by coal burning.

Do the new regulations mean an end to the coal industry? Probably not, but they do mean that any new plants will operate in responsible ways that ensure the safety of all of us on this planet.

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The new regulations also may mean that some utility companies will switch to other, clean and renewable fuels. Either way, we all will be better off.

Perkins is a professor of geology at UND.

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