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State leaders back coal, oppose Obama's speech

If there really is a war on coal, as some suggest, then North Dakota's governor and senior senator are on the front lines.

Continuing his opposition to President Barack Obama's speech outlining his administration's climate change strategy, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., released a joint statement with Gov. Jack Dalrymple on Wednesday criticizing the initiatives set forth by Obama, especially those directed at the coal industry.

"Instead of picking winners and losers, the administration should be streamlining the regulatory process and empowering all sectors of the energy industry, including coal, to attract the investment that will deploy new technologies to help produce more energy with better environmental stewardship."

The plan outlined by Obama on Tuesday during a Georgetown University speech called for the U.S. to step up its global leadership effort in regard to climate change -- a theory many in the GOP don't accept -- and focused a portion of his address specifically on the coal industry, calling for stricter carbon pollution standards for existing coal facilities.

Dalrymple said Wednesday the measures proposed by Obama would be going too far.

"It's a big concern," Dalrymple said. "We don't have the details we would need to really make a true assessment at this point. But, if we are talking about some kind of forced reduction in CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions from our existing coal plants, that's going to be difficult. Of course, it depends on the percentage of reduction that would be demanded, but this can only be done with very expensive technological solutions."

Advocates for the coal industry say new regulations could hurt jobs in the industry and weaken the overall economy. Environmental leaders point to the need for cleaner energy and potential health concerns caused by forms of carbon pollution.

Daryl Hill, a spokesman for Basin Electric Power Cooperative -- which operates the Antelope Valley Station coal plant north of Beulah and another large coal outfit near Stanton -- said the potential new regulations could mean higher prices for power customers.

"The coal industry is a very important part of North Dakota's economy," Hill said. "Ultimately what would happen, if we're talking about new carbon dioxide emission standards, is that would greatly increase the cost of producing electricity. As electricity prices rise, that can have an impact on the vitality of an economy because a lot of what we do here in the upper Midwest is based on low-priced electricity."

Obama wants new coal industry standards to be implemented by the Environmental Protection Agency. Hill said it would be a mistake to have the EPA write the potential new guidelines, arguing that Congress should be the body that enacts such rules.

Dave Glatt of the North Dakota Department of Health said he believes coal gets a bad rap.

"In North Dakota's case, we're one of a handful of states that leads in all the air-quality standards as established by the federal government," Glatt said. "Over the years, the coal plants have gotten cleaner, and they continue to do so with better emission controls and better ways to burn the coal to generate electricity. We've actually seen, with regard to the coal plants, air quality improve."

As part of Obama's plan, the EPA would issue regulations to reduce power plant carbon emissions for existing plants no later than June 2014, with final standards due by June 2015. The ultimate goal would be to reduce so-called greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. by 17 percent by 2020.

Cris Oehler of Otter Tail Power, the company that operates the Coyote Station coal facility in central North Dakota, said her employer is already on its way to significantly reducing carbon dioxide emissions without further government intervention.

"What we're doing at the coal plants we operate and own is we're on track to reduce our carbon emissions by 14 percent from our 2005 levels by 2020," Oehler said. "I think that gives an idea of what we expect our emissions to be. The industry, in general, is making ongoing investments into a cleaner generation fleet and an enhanced electric grid."

Dalrymple said the path laid out by the president will lead to increased unemployment and higher electricity rates for consumers.

"When you really boil it down, we're talking about the cost of our electricity," Dalrymple said. "This is where we get a lot of our power in the Midwest and, if you place more and more stringent requirements, we're going to be paying more for our power. That means every consumer and every business. (Carbon) emissions is a global issue, it's not something that is solved in North Dakota or in the U.S. It needs to be solved globally. Who's going to get China to cut down its emissions while we're doing it in North Dakota?"

On the other side of the issue, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune released a statement Tuesday lauding Obama's plan, calling it "the change we have been waiting for on climate."

Brune went on to applaud the president's "declaration of tackling the biggest single source of carbon pollution: Coal plants."

Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., led a "leadership hour" Wednesday for the House Energy Action Team, an energy advisement group in Congress, in opposition to Obama's new climate change goals. Cramer has said the new regulations would be detrimental to North Dakota's coal-fired power plants.

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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