The Legislature and the environment: a report card Lawmakers concerned about coal industry, jobs

Brayden Zenker

BISMARCK – As the 2021 Legislature works toward adjournment later this month, what has the assembly’s impact been on the environment of North Dakota?

According to one environmental advocate, that answer may be – not much.

Wade Schafer, conservation organizer for the state chapter of the Sierra Club, said that ever since the Bakken oil boom, environmental issues have not been at the forefront of the Legislature’s agenda.

“From our standpoint … it is very pro-industry,” Schafer said.

He said that before the boom there was a closer balance between development and environmental protection. He said that in response to the oil boom some environmental protections were rolled back while others were not enforced.

According to Schafer, rolling back environmental protections in the state was a major oversight. Because the North Dakota economy depends on the environment for agriculture, Schafer said more should be done to protect it. According to the 2017 Agriculture Census, 89% of land in the state, or 39.3 million acres, was used for agricultural purposes.

“If you can’t breathe the air, drink the water and eat the food, what else is there?” Schafer said.

This session, the majority party leaders in both chambers have proposed bills that would seek to increase funding for carbon-capture methods for coal refineries. When coal is burned for energy, it releases CO2­, carbon dioxide. Carbon-capture methods would strip and store carbon molecules so oxygen would be the only byproduct released into the air.

The Republican-dominated assembly has taken other steps to bolster the coal industry, which still employs about 13,000 people in several central counties, as federal subsidies have increased competition from wind and solar energy. The impending closure of the coal-fired Coal Creek Station power plant near Underwood, N.D., and the Biden Administration’s focus on climate have upped the industry’s concern, according to a Forum Communications report early in the session.

Lawmakers seeking to sustain the industry and its jobs argue that coal should continue to be part of a transitional “all of the above” energy strategy, and carbon capture can mitigate some of the environmental impact. 

However, Schafer said he believes that carbon-capture incentives are only a distraction, allowing producers to continue using coal for energy, not to better the environment.

“Coal is on the way out and it seems like they are trying to prop it up just to keep it going,” Schafer said. “If they were serious about modernizing our energy production, I think they would be putting all the money towards renewable energy.”

According to Schafer, the biggest obstacles facing the environment in North Dakota are the continued use of coal and fossil fuels and their effects on climate change.

“We have a small window of opportunity to reduce our carbon footprint before it’s too late,” Schafer said. Shoring up the extraction industry is “just backwards thinking. In the long run, it’s not going to be good for North Dakota.”

Schafer said the state is already seeing the effects of climate change. He cites the extreme weather patterns including extremely mild winters and extended droughts. He said that because many people don’t believe in climate change or the seriousness of its effects, it is up to state leaders to educate citizens and put forth polices to mitigate those effects.

“If we don’t make the investment now, both financial resources and time and effort, we will have to pay down the line because the effects of climate change are very costly,” Schafer said. “North Dakota really stands to lose a lot if we don’t keep on top of it.”

North Dakota has the ability to become a leader in clean energy, he added. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and AWS Truepower, a New York-based renewable energy company, North Dakota is ranked sixth in the country for wind resource. Currently over 20% of power in North Dakota is produced by wind energy.

“North Dakota is primed to be a leader in (wind and solar energy),” Schafer said. “That makes more sense than trying to figure out how to use coal when nobody wants to be using that anymore.”

He said that while the state is primed for renewable energy, it lags behind other states in development. He said the state needs to start investing in renewable energies or North Dakota will be left behind as renewable energy becomes more popular.

“We’ll be stuck driving a Model T and everybody else is driving a Tesla,” he said.

K. William Boyer is the Managing Editor of the Devils Lake News Journal. He can be reached at kboyer@gannett.com, or by phone at (701) 662-2127.  

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