MINOT, N.D. — Today hundreds of North Dakotans, employees of Great River Energy, went home from work to talk with their families about the uncertain future of their jobs.
This at a time when, both in North Dakota and nationally, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a spike in unemployment.
The cause of the bad news was the announced intention to close Coal Creek Station, North Dakota's largest coal-fired power plant, unless a buyer for it can be found.
But even as the corporate messaging from Great River stroke a sorrowful tone about the closure, behind the scenes the atmosphere was more jubilant.
At least according to an email sent to Great River CEO David Saggau by the executive of a member utility which was inadvertently forwarded to all Great River employees.
The email, authored by Minnesota-based Cooperative Light & Power CEO Hal Halpern, credits Saggau with a "tremendous job" in closing Coal Creek Station. "This will serve as a model for the rest of the country," he continues.
"Our environmental minded members and all our members are blown away by this development. None of them thought it could get done this quickly, responsibly and practically in such a cost saving manner."
"You just made my month Hal!!!" Saggau wrote in response. "Thank you for the great note."
Reached for comment, Saggau struck a much different tone about Halpern's email.
"Shortly after our announcement, I received a note of support from a member. My response was appreciation for their feedback, but as I said earlier today, these changes are incredibly difficult," he told me via email. "Coal Creek Station is operated efficiently, safely and with pride by a dedicated and talented staff. We are making every effort to minimize impacts on our employees and the communities through this transition."
Saggau may say, on the record, that this decision to kill hundreds of jobs in central North Dakota was "incredibly difficult," but privately he was celebrating over email with someone who was "blown away" at how "quickly" the decision close the plant was made.
Halpern's email actually highlights one of the most difficult political dynamics at play behind the scenes of Coal Creek's closure. Though the plant operated in North Dakota, it served Great River's Minnesota-based customers.
Minnesota is a place with very different politics than North Dakota. In fact, it can often seem as though Minnesotans will be happy to see North Dakota's landscape dotted with wind turbines, and crisscrossed with the spiderweb of transmission lines necessary to serve those turbines, all to satisfy that state's political preferences.
Some Minnesotans, it seems, would be happy to see North Dakota as little more than their state's desolate, economically stagnant battery.
Halpern did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
I did reach Mark Pierce, a coal industry worker who founded the grassroots group Faces of North Dakota Coal. I shared the email exchange with him, and while he declined to comment on it specifically, he did offer that the closure of Coal Creek Station marked a "somber day on main street in coal country during a very difficult time."
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.