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Port: Today's coal power isn't the same as yesterday's

Coal plants today are not the same smoke-belching monstrosities of the 19th century.

The Big Jake dragline excavator works the BNI Coal lignite mine Wednesday, May 13, near Center, N.D. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
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MINOT, N.D. — There are two myths about coal that need be destroyed.

The first is that the economics of coal don't work anymore. This is true only insofar as lobbyists promoting the energy industry have been successful in politicizing the energy markets.

Coal is asked to compete with energy sources like wind and solar which are so heavily subsidized their power can be priced below cost, even though those intermittent sources of energy really shouldn't be in the same category as baseload power from sources like coal.

Can you imagine running a grocery store when your competitors can sell bread and milk cheaper than you because they get checks from the government?

It's not the market.


It's politics.

The other myth is that coal power is old and busted technology. As if coal plants today are the same smoke-belching monstrosities of the 19th century.

They are not.

You're probably not aware of this, because it's not fashionable to talk about with certain political factions out to treat coal power as if it were an evil endeavor, but the coal industry has made massive improvements.

Even just looking at the last 15 years, the changes have been remarkable.

Mercury emissions have long been a concern for the sort of lignite-fired electricity we produce in North Dakota. Thanks to research and development backed by the state's lignite coal industry (and the sort of public research investments coal's enemies like to mischaracterize as "subsidies"), from 2007 through 2016 mercury emissions declined 68% according to the state Department of Health. Every coal-fired power plant operating in the state today has been fitted with the technology necessary to capture mercury.

Sulfur dioxide, too, was a problem for the energy industry. This is the emission that contributes to the phenomena known as "acid rain." But this issue, too, has been addressed. Everything from oil refineries to natural gas plants to, yes, coal power has had to deal with it. The coal plants in North Dakota have addressed this, and from 2007 to 2016 sulfur dioxide emissions declined 67%, a reduction of approximately 90,000 tons.

The story is the same for nitrogen oxides. These emissions have declined too, coming down 46%, or more than 32,000 tons.


These are the challenges of the past, and the coal industry has met them.

The challenge today is carbon. The cronies and ideologues in the wind and solar industries would have you believe that coal can't meet it.

If we choke the industry to death with a skewed marketplace, maybe that might be true, but if we can end the political favoritism, answers are on the horizon.

Answers like Project Tundra in central North Dakota, which if allowed by politics to bear fruit, would be just the latest example in a long history of coal power riding to meet modern demands.

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Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referenced "mercury emissions" rather than "sulfur dioxide emissions." This story has been updated to correct the reference. We regret the error.

Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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