BISMARCK — It's not like Loren Kopseng vehemently denied the company he runs, United Energy, is buying Coal Creek Station. Or that he denied it at all. He just didn't confirm it.
"I'm supposed to say no comment," Kopseng said Wednesday, June 2, when reached by The Forum and asked directly whether he and the company of which he is president and CEO were negotiating to buy the coal-burning power plant located near Underwood, N.D.
After a pause he said, "There should be something in a couple of weeks."
Whether that something is news about United Energy or one of its subsidiaries like Rainbow Energy saving Coal Creek remains to be seen. The chances are good.
Word on the street in Bismarck recently, the open secret even, was that Kopseng was the name connected to buying Coal Creek, the massive power plant slated for closure in 2022 by its current owner, Great River Energy of Minnesota.
A spokesman for North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum deferred questions about Coal Creek to Great River Energy, which declined comment citing nondisclosure agreements with potential buyers.
Whether Great River was closing the plant because it was losing tens of millions of dollars a year and its customers were demanding green energy, as it said, or because the company was bowing to political pressure in Democrat-run Minnesota, as North Dakota fossil fuel advocates said, it would be a crushing economic blow to McLean County.
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Coal Creek employs almost 250 people, while the attached Falkirk Mine, operated by North American Coal, supports several hundred more jobs.
That's why Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford spearheaded a high-priority effort to find a buyer to keep the plant operating. Burgum's administration in March announced that Great River moved into exclusive negotiations with a prospective new owner for the plant.
North Dakota officials and Great River have been keeping quiet about the prospective buyer but said the intent was to pursue carbon capture projects attached to the plant.
That the state was bullish on a buyer for Coal Creek was evident during the 2021 legislative session. Lawmakers passed several bills meant to buoy the coal industry — which nationally has been declining for decades — that included tax breaks, grants and loans.
Why United Energy? The Bismarck-based company (it has 11 affiliated offices in the U.S., Canada and Mexico) has five subsidiaries that deal largely in energy marketing. It buys and sells energy, in other words. According to United's website, it "purchases, transports, stores and sells over 1 million barrels of crude oil per day."
Coal Creek, presumably, would provide energy United could sell to one of two electricity grids in close proximity. Great River Energy has said the potential buyer would purchase the power plant along with the attached high-voltage transmission line.
A 2013 New York Times article on North Dakota's oil boom included a mini-profile of Kopseng, saying "you won't find a better ambassador of what the oil industry calls 'the play' in western North Dakota than Loren Kopseng. Kopseng — 65, a deer hunter, a Bud Light drinker, a profane churchgoer with four kids and two ex-wives — refers to himself as a 'petro-preneur.'"
The same article said United Energy in 2012 earned a net profit of $44.8 million on revenues of $5.7 billion.
"Kopseng first came down with oil fever in the late 1970s, when fortunes were being made domestically in the wake of the OPEC oil embargo. He struggled for five years, learning expensive lessons," the Times reported. "'I had a lot of lemonade wells,' he sighed. He went broke twice, maxed out his credit cards and even borrowed money from his mother — loans that came with sharp remarks about his clothes and hair. After he married and started a family, it was his wife’s friends who looked at him sideways. While they were buying houses and investing in mutual funds, he was in debt-work-out negotiations with Halliburton.
"'I embarrassed myself,' he said."
Kopseng told the Times he turned things around in the mid-1980s after he met Mandan businessman Don Russell. With Russell handling the financial side, Kopseng acquired distressed oil and gas wells in the Williston Basin. By 1997, Russell and Kopseng consolidated several energy businesses into United Energy.
While critics believe giving tens of millions of dollars to the coal industry is throwing good money after bad to an energy sector that will inevitably die, state leaders are championing the idea North Dakota could become a world leader in carbon-capture technology. While coal backers have touted carbon capture and storage as a path to continued viability, it has never worked on a large commercial scale.
If United Energy's purchase of Coal Creek Station is finalized and announced in a couple of weeks, North Dakota leaders will undoubtedly point to the state as a pioneer that is working toward a way to keep its coal industry relevant in the face of pressure from progressive politicians and climate-change activists.