GRAND FORKS - North Dakota's coal industry stands to breathe a little easier over the next few years after President Donald Trump's Tuesday rollout of a major shift in climate policy away from carbon emission reductions.
But despite industry relief, some are worried about what looser regulations could mean for the environment and the future of the Upper Midwest.
"I don't see it as putting the economy ahead of climate," said Tracy Twine, an associate professor with the University of Minnesota's Department of Soil, Water and Climate. She described flooding, extreme weather, and shifting precipitation that could all be fed by excess emissions. "I don't think this is in anyone's interest except the coal lobby that (Trump) made a promise to of bringing their jobs back."
To Twine, Trump's executive order rolling back Obama-era climate protections on Wednesday is a big mistake. But to others, the news is a welcome brake on policies that could have driven up consumer cost or even a pause that buys North Dakota time to prepare for future regulations on its own terms.
Trump's executive action will undo the previous administration's commitment to the Clean Power Plan, a rule that aimed to drastically cut nationwide power plant carbon dioxide emissions by 32 percent from 2005 rates by 2030. The plan has been mired in legal challenges, but would have resulted in even more aggressive cuts in North Dakota emissions if implemented, placing great pressure on the state's coal power industry, which makes up a significant chunk of its energy generation sources.
The executive order rolls back multiple other federal regulations, such as a moratorium on leasing federal lands for coal mining purposes.
"There's a lot of problems in this world, and you can't just focus on one of them," North Dakota Public Service Commissioner Randy Christmann said of Twine's concerns. He argued that Trump's changes regarding the Clean Power Plan will bring relief and optimism throughout the state's energy economy. A healthy economy, he argued, is important to solving other social ills.
The move also drew responses from North Dakota's top politicians. Sen. John Hoeven and Rep. Kevin Cramer, both Republicans, attended Trump's signing of the executive order. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat who has previously opposed the Clean Power Plan, issued a statement calling for policies to boost "innovation" in coal power to lower emissions and keep the resource viable.
It's not clear exactly how the future of Trump's climate policies will play out. A replacement for the Clean Power Plan would have to work its way through a vetting and approval process and is expected to come under legal fire from environmental advocates and individual states.
Brad Crabtree is vice president for fossil energy at the Great Plains Institute, which he said works closely with a range of groups to build energy policy. Crabtree said the reprieve Trump has provided helps buy time to build more technology that can help reduce carbon emissions and make coal cleaner before any future regulations fall into place.
"The default assumption is that if you care about climate change, you have to stop using coal," he said. "We need to have the same kind of enthusiasm for wind energy and solar. ... We can do the same thing for carbon capture, but we have to put our shoulder to the wheel."