McFeely blog: McLean County cut off nose to spite face; will North Dakota?

Ladd Erickson.jpg
McLean County State's Attorney Ladd Erickson.
Tom Stromme, Bismarck Tribune

McLean County officials are smart enough to know the Coal Creek Station coal-fired power plant was going to close. The plant's owners, Great River Energy, warned them for years of mounting financial losses and the uneconomical future of coal.

Yet, when offered an option to create at least some new jobs to help replace the devastating losses coming with the plant's impending closure, the county dug in its heels and flipped the bird at Great River.

Now, the plant is closing in 2022 and the potential jobs for McLean County residents have gone elsewhere.

McLean County cut off its nose to spite its face.

Will North Dakota follow by putting in a statewide moratorium on new wind energy projects?


I'll bet "yes," even though it's way too early to make such a prediction, given the North Dakota Legislature doesn't convene until 2021.

Before Minnesota-based Great River Energy announced its decision in early May to shutter Coal Creek in 2022, the company in February said the plant had been operating for a decade under "significant financial loss" and it was looking for options.

One of those options was to "heavily reinvest" in wind energy production and transmission in McLean County and North Dakota, according to a letter sent to the county commission by Great River Energy CEO David Saggau.

Great River was willing to add 800 megawatts of North Dakota wind energy from turbines in McLean County's neighboring counties (McLean County has no wind towers) to help replace the energy lost by the closure of Coal Creek Station. Saggau's letter said that represented a $1.5 billion investment and would provide 700-800 temporary construction jobs, 30-40 full-time jobs, more than $100 million in property tax payments and nearly $100 million in landowner payments, according to the company.

Saggau's letter was a plea for the commission to remove recently-added amendments to its zoning ordinance that would require a one-mile setback from the Missouri River, Lake Sakakawea and Lake Audubon to electrical power transmission lines from North Dakota Public Service Commission permitted wind turbines.

The county's planning and zoning commission added the anti-wind power amendments in March, OK'd by the county commission as a whole, after the possible fate of Coal Creek Station became clearer. The amendments were written, and promoted to the county commission, by McLean County state's attorney Ladd Erickson.


Erickson has been an out-front critic of Great River Energy and appears to hold strong sway over the county commission and its voting decisions.

When the amendments were approved, they effectively ended any chance Great River Energy could add wind-power transmission lines to tie into its high voltage direct current transmission line that carries power from North Dakota to the Twin Cities area in Minnesota. Great River couldn't build the transmission lines it needed to move energy where it needed.

Instead, Great River said it would buy its wind energy from sources in Minnesota and South Dakota when it made its announcement that it would close Coal Creek Station.

A GRE spokesman laid out the timeline like this.

  • Great River Energy was looking to purchase new wind generation in North Dakota to replace part of the capacity of Coal Creek Station.
  • McLean County made zoning amendments on March 26 that would have extended the time to add that wind generation beyond what would work for Great River Energy.
  • As a result, after that meeting, Great River Energy made a decision to not purchase new wind generation in the area surrounding Coal Creek Station.
  • On May 7, Great River Energy announced that it plans to purchase more than 1,100 megawatts from new wind energy projects located in other states.

In other words, McLean County had the chance to add 700-800 temporary high-paying construction jobs and 30-40 permanent high-paying jobs — and chose not to.
To be clear: Nixing the anti-wind power amendments would not have replaced the jobs to be lost at Coal Creek in a one-on-one fashion. Not even close. Those jobs, about 750 of them if you include the jobs to be lost at the adjacent Falkirk Mine, are evaporating. This will be devastating to those families and the communities in which they live.

But McLean County did have the opportunity to soften the blow, temporarily for some families and permanently for others. Erickson and the county commissioners over which he holds sway chose instead to tell Great River Energy to take a hike for reasons which still aren't entirely clear.

In a Bismarck Tribune article summarizing the debate over the amendments , Erickson said he opposed the new power lines because they would be problematic for farmers and crop dusters in the area. And certainly there's an argument to be made that putting powerlines near the Missouri River and Lake Sakakawea, even crossing them, is an eyesore.

But much of what seems to be emanating from McLean County and other coal-dependent locales in North Dakota is a defiant, go-to-hell attitude toward Great River Energy and the fact it's a Minnesota-based (evil liberals!) company. I've seen it on social media, I've seen it in print and I've heard it from some people I've talked with in McLean County and Bismarck who know the vibe.


I was even told by one person that there are those in McLean County, including in positions of power, who don't believe Coal Creek Station is losing money, that Saggau and the company are lying to cover up for their decision to close the plant.

The number floating around is that Great River Energy was losing $150 million-$170 million annually on Coal Creek Station. When I asked a company spokesman how much the plant was losing, he said those figures are confidential.


"The all-in costs of Coal Creek Station have not been entirely recovered in the energy market for the last decade. Over the last five years, that disparity has grown significantly," he said.
The stance the county took on Coal Creek and the clapback Great River has received seems detached from reality. Coal has been uneconomical for years and is growing moreso. Plants and mines have been closing rapidly around the country, mostly because of the abundance of cheap natural gas and renewables. The plant had no long-term future in any scenario.

If the county's decision to stop Great River from building wind-energy transmission lines was some sort of attempt to coerce the company into keeping the plant open, or to teach it a lesson, the McLean County commission and Erickson were only hurting the county. There was no chance the plant was going to stay open and Great River Energy easily moved on to find its wind energy elsewhere.

My bet is that North Dakota's legislature will follow McLean County's lead when it convenes in 2021.

My prediction: The Republican-dominated body, already pro-coal/anti-renewables by nature, will introduce a moratorium on new wind energy — at least temporarily — as a way to support the fossil fuel industry and to play into the anti-wind sentiment already roiling the central part of the state.

Some Republicans lawmakers, including now-U.S. Rep. Kelly Armstrong, pushed a temporary moratorium on new wind energy during the 2017 legislative session. It failed, but the call will be renewed next year given the impending closing of Coal Creek Station. Strike while the iron is hot, so to speak.


One person to watch, if he is successful in Tuesday's Republican primary and wins a seat in the state House, is Dave Nehring. The Burleigh County resident has been in the headlines recently because he is Gov. Doug Burgum's choice to unseat sitting Republican Rep. Jeff Delzer in a big-money, intra-party kerfuffle.

Nehring has been a vocal opponent of wind power for several years, founding a non-profit called North Dakota Visionkeepers. The firm's filing with the secretary of state's office says its mission is "to support North Dakota residents in opposing wind development."

While Nehring told the Forum News Service last year he got involved in being anti-wind energy because a project was slated for an area near his home , he also believes the industry is wrongly propped up by tax breaks.

"The more I found out, the angrier I became," Nehring told FNS.

One thing that might keep Nehring from being so straightforward about his opposition to wind energy if he reaches the legislature willl be his relationship with Burgum. The governor is a proponent of the so-called "all of the above" energy strategy, although in North Dakota he must be more beholden to oil and coal more than renewables.

Would Nehring propose an anti-wind bill against Burgum's wishes immediately after the governor helped get him elected?

If it's not Nehring, it'll be somebody from that part of the state. And this time it will be successful, I predict. The wind is blowing that direction, one might say.

Even if North Dakota is thirsting for new technology development dollars, especially given the contraction of the oil and coal industries recently.




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.
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