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Zaleski: Again, sky is falling in coal country

The reaction to proposed EPA carbon pollution standards by North Dakota’s lignite industry suggests Chicken Little is writing their stuff. It’s as if a panicky flock of free-range chickens is expecting the sky to fall on the coal dust in their barnyard.

The over-the-top campaign to discredit EPA’s regulations started before they were announced. Indeed, the comment period and rule-making have a long way to go before anything is imposed on anyone. Furthermore, a careful reading of the carbon-reduction goals reveals opportunity for unprecedented flexibility among states and regions – recognition that a one-size-fits-all mandate can’t work.

To the surprise of no one, the coal folks trotted out the canards that the rules would kill off a zillion jobs, cripple coal-state economies and cause tooth decay among kids. (OK, that last one is just for fun.) The reaction was so predictably extreme that the industry’s credibility, not the best in any case, took another hit.

Don’t forget, today’s North Dakota coal lobbyists are inheritors of a history that demonstrates their initial reactions to regulation have been wrong. For example, when lignite strip mining took off in North Dakota over a generation ago, the state got serious about imposing tough land reclamation laws. Thanks to the determination of then-Gov. Art Link, the nation’s best reclamation laws went into effect over the strenuous objections and well-financed lobbying of coal and energy companies that claimed (way back then) jobs would be lost, economies would collapse and high electricity prices (lignite is primarily used in electric generation plants) would plunge North Dakotans into darkness and economic stagnation.

Didn’t happen. Rather, today the industry uses its stellar reclamation record (forced on them as it was) as a focus of their public relations. Go figure.

The same pattern of resisting pollution controls, then predicting Armageddon if they are imposed, and then finding a way to clean up their act has been repeated for decades in coal country. It’s as if they have no faith in their own science and engineering acumen. The record shows, however, they are very good at managing health-threatening air pollution when they are forced to do it.

Coal is not alone. Nearly every air- and water-polluting business/industry behaves the same way. Does anyone believe Lake Erie would have been cleaned up without the Clean Water Act? Would air pollution in major cities be under control had the auto companies not been forced to incorporate pollution controls into cars? Would mega-farmers be as quick to adopt conservation practices to stop chemical runoff into waterways and soil erosion without the hammer of losing farm program crop subsidies? Would chemical companies have quit dumping poison into the environment without independent scientists working with regulators to get it stopped? Would the bald eagle be back if regulation had not restored habitat and protected the national symbol?

Here’s a stat for the coal lobby: 70 percent of Americans polled last week by Gallup support EPA’s carbon pollution rules. And this eye-opener: They said they were OK with the rules even if it meant their electricity bills go up. No surprise. Most people will instinctively favor clean air and respiratory health over dirty fuels and polluted air every time.

Even Chicken Little gets that.

Zaleski is the opinion editor for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. Email him at