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Leaders discuss future of North Dakota coal power plants after announced closure

STANTON, N.D.-A North Dakota coal-fired power plant scheduled to close within the next year may not be the last one shuttered here, a congressman and a state regulator said this week.Great River Energy announced last week it would retire the Stan...

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A minor girl was transported from a home located in the Hwy. K trailer court east of the city of New Richmond Wednesday, July 27. Raymond T. Rivard / Forum News Service
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STANTON, N.D.-A North Dakota coal-fired power plant scheduled to close within the next year may not be the last one shuttered here, a congressman and a state regulator said this week.

Great River Energy announced last week it would retire the Stanton Station power plant in Mercer County by May. The company cited low prices in the regional energy market for the decision, but it also comes during debate over a pending federal regulation restricting carbon emissions from power plants.

North Dakota-elected leaders and utilities have been vocal over the past year in opposing the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan. Some predicted it would require facilities to close, given the 45 percent carbon dioxide emissions rate reduction target the state would have to meet by 2030.

But Lyndon Johnson, a Great River Energy spokesman, said the Stanton Station closure was driven by economic factors and not the Clean Power Plan. The U.S. Supreme Court voted in February to issue a stay of the regulation.

Jason Bohrer, president and CEO of the Lignite Energy Council in Bismarck, said the Stanton Station's closure is an "example of the challenging environment that coal faces in general in the United States right now." But he noted the plant is different from other North Dakota because it doesn't use lignite and instead uses coal shipped from Montana.

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"The closing of that plant should remind people that coal is facing an uphill battle, but it's not directly relatable to the rest of the lignite industry in North Dakota," Bohrer said.

U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., a former state utility regulator and an energy adviser to his party's presidential nominee, Donald Trump, had a dimmer view of the closure. He said local economies in the Appalachia region of the U.S. have been hurt by the closure of coal plants.

"It's taken a long time for the first fatality to happen in North Dakota," Cramer said. "Now that it's happened, I don't think we can presume this is an outlier."

'Jump on board'

Randy Christmann, a Republican member of the North Dakota Public Service Commission, said North Dakota coal plants' proximity to mines has helped shield them from closures that facilities elsewhere have faced.

"There's almost no transportation costs involved," he said. "They've been operating so efficiently they've been among the last to get hit. But I also don't think that the Stanton Station is the last one that's going to be closing."

Christmann acknowledged low natural gas prices, but he pointed to competition from "heavily subsidized" wind energy as the threat to the region's coal industry.

"I just think we've gotten to a point where they're overly subsidized," Christmann said.

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Though he called wind a "good source of electricity," Christmann worries more power plant closures could result in a less reliable and more expensive electric grid. The PSC received an application this month for the the largest individual wind farm permit in state history, according to a Forum News Service report.

But Wayde Schafer, a conservation organizer for the Dacotah Chapter of the Sierra Club, said renewables are the energy sources of the 21st century.

"This is something that North Dakota has just got to face, transitioning to cleaner energy," he said. "That's just what's happening, and we need to jump on board."

Schafer added Stanton's closure could help North Dakota meet its obligations under the Clean Power Plan and reduce carbon emissions.

As for the 65 workers employed at the Stanton plant, Schafer hoped they could be retrained or find jobs at another plant. Great River Energy's website said it is providing "resources and services to assist" those workers, and mentioned the possibility of finding work elsewhere in the company.

The Stanton Station began operating in 1966 with one boiler, and a second one was added in 1982. Unlike the newer boiler, the 1966 unit does not include a scrubber to remove sulfur dioxide, Johnson said.

"Had we continued to operate the plant, we would have been required to have a scrubber in place by May 2017," he said. "That would have been an additional capital cost, and it would have further removed us from being competitive in the market."

Policies and politics

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Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., is pushing a bill that would extend tax credits for carbon capture and storage projects, which could prevent carbon dioxide produced from power plants from entering the atmosphere. Her bill got a boost when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell signed on as a co-sponsor this month.

"Across our state, communities have seen the positive impact of energy production facility expansions like Xcel Energy's new wind farm-but they will also feel the blow when Stanton Station shuts down next year," Heitkamp said in an emailed statement. "My bill would build excitement for new carbon-capture techniques-incentivizing cutting-edge strategies, boosting coal production in North Dakota and broadening our national energy strategy for years to come."

The future of coal also may depend on the outcome of November's election, Cramer said. He said Trump would roll back the Clean Power Plan.

"This election is going to have a major consequence," he said. "The first thing we should do is stop the bleeding, and we stop the bleeding by stopping the regulations."

Trump's Democratic opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has supported the Clean Power Plan on the campaign trail, pointing to public health effects of pollution. In discussing a transition to renewable energy during a March campaign event, Clinton said, "We're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business," adding she didn't want to "forget" coal workers, according to a transcript posted online by PolitiFact.

Heitkamp, who has endorsed Clinton but has been critical of the Clean Power Plan, pointed to her own record supporting coal.

"I have long fought for coal country, coal jobs, and a viable future for coal-just as the bill I recently introduced would do-and that will continue," Heitkamp said in a statement. "We need real results for coal miners and coal country, not more political rhetoric from those on either side of the aisle."

Related Topics: KEVIN CRAMERHEIDI HEITKAMP
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