The 2021 North Dakota Legislature decided that promoting the coal industry is more important than combating climate change. While most states and most countries are being responsible and moving away from coal, in North Dakota it is business as usual.
People have added significant greenhouse gases to the atmosphere since the industrial revolution, and it has had very bad consequences. The most serious is the climate change responsible for sea-level rise, flood disasters, droughts, and other extreme weather. Many people have had to abandon their homes. We have also seen more wildfires and significant species loss.
All predictions are that these problems are getting worse.
Climatologists are unanimous that burning coal is the No. 1 cause of climate change and say it must stop. About 30% of our electricity comes from coal. This percentage is dropping, but not fast enough, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Although difficult for states and communities that rely on coal for jobs and prosperity, moving away from coal is essential to avoid major global catastrophes and many more millions of displaced people.
The good news is that we have alternatives. We can make electricity using non-polluting solar and wind energy. We can produce ethanol and biodiesel that, when burned, do not increase CO2 to the air. These alternative energy sources are affordable, and perfect for North Dakota.
But, instead of being responsible and starting a transition away from coal, the Legislature doubled down.
They passed a bill giving coal companies a tax break if a facility is sold. The tax exemption is intended to keep plants, like the money-losing and highly polluting Coal Creek Station, open when they should be shut.
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The Legislature invested tax dollars into a scheme for capturing CO2 at coal plants and storing it underground. This has been tried before. Houston’s Petra Nova plant is the only functioning capture facility in the U.S. It would never have been built without huge taxpayer subsidies. And it only captures a fraction of the CO2 the plant produces. Nobody has demonstrated that carbon capture can ever work or be economical at a large scale.
The Legislature also passed a bill providing $40 million for a Clean Sustainable Energy Authority. Yet, despite its name, the Authority has nothing to do with clean energy. It is focused on dirty energy from coal and petroleum. The Authority will not consider wind, solar or other sources of clean energy.
The worst thing about this year’s Legislature is what they have not done. Whether we like it or not, the coal industry is in decline. This is devastating for people whose livelihoods depend on the coal industry. A responsible Legislature would invest money into plans for a coal-free future instead of living in the past.
The best that can be said for the Legislature is that they have acted irresponsibly. But that is too kind. Intelligent legislators know that continued use of coal will cause harm. Yet, they elected to promote it anyway. That goes beyond irresponsible and becomes reprehensible and immoral.
Dexter Perkins works in the geology and geological engineering department at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.