BISMARCK — Ongoing tensions over the construction of a new wind farm in North Dakota coal country have come to a head with Mercer County imposing a moratorium on all wind-related projects.

The county's two-year moratorium, designed to block the construction of a proposed Garrison Butte Wind Farm by Alberta-based company Capital Power, was announced at a packed Mercer County Commission meeting July 1 in which both coal industry workers and wind advocates gave passionate pleas for the future of energy in the county.

“You know, people are scared," Hazen Mayor Jerry Obeneauer told The Forum, expressing opposition to the Garrison Butte project while acknowledging that he's generally approving of wind expansion. “I have to know the economics of what wind will do to the city of Hazen and our citizens. Right now, no one can really answer that. I support it, but what does it do for our finances?”

While Obeneauer stressed that he's all for the expansion of renewables in North Dakota, he fears the arrival of the wind farm could leave many of his neighbors out of work.

"There’s an attack on coal, obviously, across the country," he said. "I think we all know and understand that in 20, 30, 40 years coal will be gone.”

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Anxiety around the fate of coal is especially acute in Mercer County, which has more residents employed by the coal industry than any other North Dakota county. And the moratorium in Mercer is similar to laws in neighboring McLean County, where the state's largest coal plant, Coal Creek Station, was recently slated to shutter in 2022. McLean County implemented zoning laws in March that curtail the construction of power lines, needed for new wind development. McLean County, however, has not explicitly banned wind developments.

Advocates for the Garrison Butte development say fears are misguided, at least in the short term, and argue a new wind development won’t sap the coal industry. A recent study from Local Jobs North and commissioned by LiUNA, a labor union with vested interests in the construction of the wind farm, found that McLean's wind moratorium cost the county as many as 600 jobs and up to $44 million. The report also estimated that Garrison Butte would bring 100 new jobs to Mercer County and inject close to $10 million if Capital Power relies on local labor for the project.

Wind turbines as seen July 7, 2014, south of Wilton, N.D. Forum file photo
Wind turbines as seen July 7, 2014, south of Wilton, N.D. Forum file photo

“This wind farm is no threat,” said Chuck Stroup, the lawyer to one of the landowners leasing property to Capital Power, calling it a “short-term solution” that would help to preserve the local coal industry by pairing with it on the electricity grid.

Stroup, a lifelong Mercer resident, said he hopes his county can "be a leader" for North Dakota in the expansion of wind power.

"We’re going to have to work damn hard to keep coal mines in the United States unless we can find some way to make energy clean for the environment and not add to the problem,” he said, arguing that the Garrison Butte would complement, not supplant, coal energy in Mercer, since the inconsistency of renewables requires a more traditional backup on any electricity grid.

But Mercer's coal advocates argue this kind of shared workload for wind and coal would not be enough to keep the local coal industry profitable. Running the county's coal plants at partial capacity to make room for wind could accelerate their financial end.

Mercer landowners who have leased property to Capital Power have lobbied for a repeal on the moratorium. The county commission is scheduled to address the issue again Tuesday, July 14.

The Garrison Butte Wind Farm will still need to pass several county and state permitting tests before construction can begin. In a statement to The Forum, Capital Power indicated that it intends to keep pushing the project, even if the commission holds its ground.

Still, some wind advocates in Mercer are less confident that Capital Power will stay committed to the project if the county doesn't back down soon.

“If you turn Capital down — and I don’t know if they can — but if they do, I think Capital’s gonna blow Dodge and they won’t come back," Stroup said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at

An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to zoning ordinances in McLean County. The county implemented new zoning laws in March that curtail the construction of power lines, needed for new wind development. However, the county has not put an explicit ban on wind developments.