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Groups say carbon summit may not have big picture

BISMARCK -- North Dakota environmental groups say a summit planned today at the Capitol on the effects of carbon cap-and-trade reflects an unwillingness to see carbon dioxide regulation as anything other than a threat to the status quo.

Instead, members of the Dakota Resource Council and the Sierra Club said on Thursday, the possibility of federal taxes on carbon dioxide emissions should be seen as an opportunity for more development of the state's alternative and renewable energy resources.

Carbon cap-and-trade is a term for plans to control carbon dioxide emissions by setting a limit or cap on the amount allowed and issuing credits that can be traded and marketed. Companies whose operations emit carbon must have credits to be able to do so.

The summit this morning is sponsored by the state Public Service Commission, which says carbon cap-and-trade would increase costs for the state's coal-fired power plants and "result in significantly higher prices residents and businesses pay for electricity (and also) higher prices for goods and services people buy."

Verle Reinicke, a Dakota Resource Council member and volunteer, said, "We have to recognize that climate change is a reality and we in North Dakota are having trouble recognizing that. We have to embrace it positively, not see it as a threat."

DRC and other clean energy advocates say carbon dioxide regulations are up to Congress.

"This does not mean North Dakota will suffer, even though North Dakota is rich with fossil fuels." Reinicke said. "We can move forward and create jobs (in alternative energies) and save money" through energy efficiency.

Wayde Schafer of the Sierra Club said the state should "move from a coal mindset to envision a future of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies" in which the state has a future as an exporter of clean energy generated by wind power, solar collectors and geothermal wells.

Public Service Commissioners Tony Clark and Kevin Cramer it isn't as easy as DRC and Sierra Club think, and that it would be irresponsible to ignore the possibility of increased costs for electricity consumers.

"It is a profound disservice for anyone to suggest that new carbon regulations will be cheap or easy for a state like North Dakota," Clark said. He said North Dakota produces 95 percent of its energy from coal, the second highest percentage of any state, and is among the 10 lowest-cost electricity states.

"There is no way on earth that you could add a new tax on coal without disproportionately impacting North Dakota consumers. North Dakota rate payers have a huge state in this debate, which is why we're holding the summit," Clark said.

Cramer said the PSC can't "pretend these proposed costs aren't going to affect ratepayers."

Schafer said the statement that coal power is markedly cheaper than other forms doesn't take into effect costs not usually considered.

"Coal really isn't cheaper when you start factoring in health and subsidies," such as tax breaks which the state and federal government provide, he said.

Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk took a slightly different tack Thursday.

He said that if taxes on carbon dioxide are passed, "every nickel generated should go into research. We can't just say this is bad."