McFeely: No skepticism allowed on Coal Creek

About the only voice locally that's dared speak up about his doubts for Coal Creek is Scott Skokos, executive director of the Dakota Resource Council, a Bismarck-based environmental advocacy group.

The Coal Creek Station power plant is seen May 13, 2020, near Underwood, N.D. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

FARGO — North Dakota showed Minnesota who's the boss and that's the end of that, apparently. Coal is still king and those tree-hugging libs to the east can go suck a Prius. Dig, baby, dig.

It is at once uplifting and weird that once Bismarck-based Rainbow Energy Marketing and North Dakota Republican politicians announced the massive Coal Creek Station coal-fired power plant near Underwood was going to be purchased and saved, everybody cheered and went back to melting from the summer heat that most certainly has nothing to do with a changing climate.

  • Bismarck-based energy company to buy North Dakota's largest coal-fired power plant Rainbow Energy Marketing publicized plans to acquire the financially troubled Coal Creek Station from Great River Energy on Wednesday, after North Dakota leaders made rescuing the plant a top priority since its planned closure was announced a year ago.

"Another 40 years," trumpeted a headline in a weekly newspaper that serves McLean County. The headline and accompanying article suggested the plant and its good-paying jobs were saved for another four decades despite the original intent of Minnesota's Great River Energy to end them.
The ease with which North Dakotans stopped stressing about their coal plant is uplifting, in a way. That they have so much trust in a what appears to be a longshot, and politicians who have every incentive to pander to them is, well, endearing.

That's also the weird part. There seems to be so little skepticism about Rainbow Energy's big plans, which are literally unprecedented, it's a touch jarring.

To recap: Rainbow Energy is going to retrofit Coal Creek Station with a carbon-capture system that will reduce the plant's carbon dioxide output, ostensibly cutting its impact on climate change. Rainbow, an energy trading company, will also obtain the massive transmission line from Coal Creek and plans to supply energy to Minnesota and other locales.


Installing the carbon-capture system on the 1,150-megawatt plant will cost an estimated $1.5 billion, an astounding figure that would be unattainable without government subsidies. They will mostly come in the form of federal 45Q tax credits, the only thing that makes carbon capture remotely economically feasible.

Rainbow Energy president Stacy Tschider said he wants the carbon-capture system at Coal Creek up and running in less than five years, which he told me in an email "seems like an aggressive timeline."

It does simply from the fact this technology has not worked at this scale ... ever. Coal Creek, combined with the separate attempt to retrofit the smaller Milton R. Young Station with carbon capture, would be a first-in-history success.

There's been some pushback, almost all from the outside world, questioning the economic and technical feasibility of Rainbow Energy's plans for a rapidly shrinking industry. Nationally, coal is irreversibly dying.

About the only voice locally that's dared speak up about his doubts for Coal Creek is Scott Skokos, executive director of the Dakota Resource Council, a Bismarck-based environmental advocacy group.

Skokos expressed skepticism in news articles immediately following the announcement of Rainbow Energy's purchase agreement, saying what he's always said — that carbon capture is unproven and almost always doomed by financial or mechanical problems.

Skokos also points out Coal Creek was a big money loser for Great River Energy, to the tune of $170 million in 2019 alone. That figure is disputed by coal boosters and supporters of carbon capture, who accuse GRE of using accounting tactics to turn the books red.

In an interview with Inside Climate News , Skokos flat-out said he believes the dance to "save" the plant is really only about delaying its closing, "so that elected officials can get the short-term benefit of saying they saved the jobs and then, when the plant closes, those officials can say they did everything they could to save it."


It's a harsh accusation. Time will tell if it's accurate. But at least it expresses a dollop of skepticism rather than unconditional cheerleading.

If Rainbow Energy's plan to employ unproven technology on a pioneering scale on an accelerated timeline in a way that makes it economically workable for the first time does actually work, that's a win for the communities that depend on coal jobs.

If it doesn't, as Skokos said, "then you're at the same place you were."

It seems as if that possibility should at least be acknowledged, even if It isn't nearly as much fun as patting yourself on the back and sticking it to the libs in Minnesota.

Opinion by Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
What To Read Next
The family of state Rep. Donna Henderson has extensive ties to a Missouri-based church that espouses racist and antisemitic views.
From migrant caravans to Hunter Biden's laptop to gay M&Ms to gas stoves, Republicans have something new to stew over every day
"I think this juxtaposition illustrates something important — namely, the utter futility of legislative attempts to force the LGBTQ community back into the closet."
House appropriators are advancing an amendment that would set aside $3 million to litigate a newly passed Minnesota law prohibiting the import of power from carbon-emitting sources.