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ND facing realities of coal decline

With the closure of the state’s largest power plant a certainty in 2022, North Dakota is forced to accept the realities facing a coal industry that has existed since settlement days.

Great River Energy, a Minnesota company, announced recently that it was closing its Coal Creek Station near Underwood in 2022, short notice for a move that will have significant impact on the City of Underwood and surrounding area.

This closure may be only the first domino to go and sweep away the remaining four plants and six mines working at excavating the 400-billion ton bed of coal underlying western North Dakota.

State Has a Role

A several weeks ago, this column predicted that the North Dakota coal industry would be gone in 50 years. At the time, hopeful advocates of coal mining failed to understand that the prediction was not advocating the closure of the coal industry but suggested that the state government should play a lead role in helping communities and employees through any closures.

We can lament leaving 400 billion tons of coal in the ground; the loss of high-paying jobs; dying Main Streets and absorbing the fiscal shocks involved. But the coal industry is doomed by forces beyond our control.

According to comments from a Great River official, reported by Bismarck Tribune’s April Baumgartner “energy produced from coal has been unable to compete with low-priced wind and natural gas.” North Dakota has no voice in the energy market.

Capitalism Doesn’t Mourn

Even though Great River Energy is making efforts to soften the closure blow in the affected communities, the profit-motivated capitalistic system has little room for mourning the social implications and economic consequences of its actions.

For decades we have refused to believe in the science of earth warming, using quack science to buttress our cause, the realities of its consequences are becoming more clear as each day passes. But because we have a strong economic motive and believe what we want to believe, we will deny it’s reality until we are on the edge of the abyss.

While North Dakotans have a motive to deny earth warming, the rest of the states don’t and are beginning to deal with the environmental crisis. And outside forces hold most of the cards.

Outsiders Hold Cards

Oregon and Washington are ruling out the inclusion of coal in their energy mixes. Minnesota is planning to shut lignite out by 2050. The environmentally friendly states in the west and New England have also been moving to curtail coal-generated power. Eventually, Congress will act.

If governments move too slowly for environmentalists, almost half of the states provide for placement of issues on general election ballots. We have already seen some healthy state ballot fights over environmental issues.

As earth warming becomes more apparent, public opinion will support more aggressive action.

New Opinions Coming

In our previous column, we cited the shift in public opinion that will occur when the younger people move into the government and places of influence. Polls tell us that the younger generation is more concerned about earth warming than the older generation. That trend is relentless and unchangeable.

Since the 1960s, energy companies and the state and federal governments have poured millions and millions of dollars to make coal clean. To suggest the organization of a method by which state and local leaders plan for the worst does not mean that we need abandon efforts to make coal clean. But if we don’t find that silver bullet to make coal clean, the state should be prepared to make the crash less painful.

Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota and former political science professor at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.

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