McFeely: N.D. coal plant closing a failed Trump, Cramer promise

Republican politicians said cutting Obama regulations would save jobs, even though market forces were aligned against them

President Donald Trump and then-Rep. Kevin Cramer share an embrace on Wednesday, June 27, 2018, at Scheels Arena in Fargo. David Samson / The Forum

Donald Trump promised to save coal and his boy Kevin Cramer was right there with him, 100 percent. They mocked Democrats who said the best future for those in the industry was job re-training . They promised hopeful coal workers that stripping Obama-era regulations would lead to a resurgence.

They lied.

Nearly four years later, with Trump in the White House and Cramer in the U.S. Senate, the coal industry continues to die. The number of coal-mining jobs in the United States has fallen, coal-fired power plants continue to close and other sources continue to take a larger chunk of the energy market.

U.S. coal-fired power plants shut down at the second-fastest pace on record in 2019 under Trump, second only to 2015 when Barack Obama was president.

That trend continues, with devastating consequences close to home. The huge Coal Creek Station in central North Dakota will close in 2022, the third time in recent years a power company has announced its intentions to shutter a coal-fired plant in the state.


It's an unfathomable economic blow to about 750 workers at the plant and the adjacent Falkirk Mine. It is tragic for those families and the area in which they live.

It is also a promise broken.

The vast majority of voters in McLean County, home of the plant and the mine, chose in 2016 to put their future in the hands of Trump and, two years later, Cramer. Nearly three in four voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton. About 66% chose Cramer over Heidi Heitkamp.


  • North Dakota's largest coal-fired power plant will shut down in 2022 unless new buyer can be found The announcement came after failed attempts by Great River Energy, which serves 1.7 million electricity customers in Minnesota and parts of Wisconsin, to sell or even give away Coal Creek Station.
  • Port: Despite regretful public tone about Coal Creek Station closure, behind the scenes executives were spiking the football
  • Plain Talk: State's Attorney says if Great River closes their coal power plant, they should take down their transmission line too

They made their votes for many reasons, presumably, but one of them had to be the Republicans' promise that their jobs would be saved. That's a powerful drug, especially when played against the Democrats' realistic pitch that coal jobs were going away, so it's best to prepare for that future.
Trump, as he so often does, made his followers believe he could wave a magic wand and change the future.

He and Cramer knew loosening regulations would temporarily stem the decline of the coal industry, but they couldn't have believed it would promote long-term growth. They sold voters a bill of goods for purely opportunistic political reasons.

Coal was dying for years before Trump took office for many reasons. Politics and pressure from environmental groups didn't help, but its demise goes much deeper.

Energy companies made business decisions that renewables and natural gas could provide power in a cheaper, more climate-friendly way. They believe their money is better invested in sources of power that have a future, instead of re-tooling obsolete coal plants.


They are also listening to their customers, both corporate and individual, who want their energy from a cleaner source than coal. They know climate change is real and they are making business decisions based on it. This includes, by the way, power companies in both Republican- and Democratic-leaning states.

The death of coal is complex and bipartisan. It's also something people like Trump and Cramer knew was coming, even as they were making promises to the contrary to attract voters.

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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