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Coverage of energy that moves beyond polarized arguments and emotional debate to explore the points of tension, the tradeoffs and opportunities, and the very human consequences of energy policy, production, use and innovation.Inside Energy is a collaboration of seven public media outlets in the nation's energy epicenter: Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota.

For Many North Dakotans, The Clean Power Plan Feels Like A Raw Deal

Emily Guerin
Inside Energy
The Lignite Energy Council, which represents North Dakota's coal industry, gave away wristbands, T-shirts and stickers at the North Dakota Department of Health's informational meeting about the Clean Power Plan in Beulah, Nov. 12, 2015.

North Dakota may be known as an oil state, but it's the state's coal industry that's feeling the heat from the federal Clean Power Plan. Under the final version of the plan – which targets carbon dioxide emissions from power plants – North Dakota will have to cut emissions by 45 percent, more than any other state except Montana.

So it's not surprising many North Dakotans feel they are being singled out for harsh treatment.

North Dakota isn't a huge coal producing state – it ranks ninth nationally – but the industry has a big impact locally.

Northwest of the state's capital of Bismarck, is the city of Beulah. Here, close to half the students at the high school have at least one parent working at a mine or coal-fired power plant. At a recent meeting at the civic center on the Clean Power Plan, about 700 packed the gym in opposition to the rules. Many had matching T-shirts and wristbands that said, "Coal Keeps North Dakota Strong." Others wore ball caps with logos of the coal mines and power plants for which they work.

It felt more like a pep rally for the local high school football team, the Beulah Miners, than an informational meeting about a new federal environmental regulation.

Christie Obenauer, the CEO of a local bank where 75 percent of the customers have some tie to the industry, was concerned that if "plants and mines can't continue to operate as they do now, they (will) shut down or downsize, and people (will) lose their jobs." She wasn't the only one.

"If you don't have a farm or ranch to go back to, I can't imagine what anybody is going to do here," said Luke Voigt, the business manager for the local boilermakers union, whose members maintain coal-fired power plants.

What about the nearby Bakken oil field? Couldn't laid off coal miners just go work on a drilling rig?

"The Bakken is a job," Voight said shaking his head. "This is a career."

The oilfield booms and busts, he explained. There are only 62 drilling rigs [.pdf] in the state now, down from over 180 in 2014. In comparison, coal is stable.

"The oilfield, you go out and make a lot of good money for a while, and they work the snot out of you," Voight said. "But then when they're done with you, they're done with you. Whereas here, constantly there's work coming, there's retirement and good benefits."

Careers and coal communities – that's what's at stake and it's not clear yet how either will be impacted. At the meeting in Beulah, Dave Glatt, head of the North Dakota Department of Environmental Health and the man in charge of figuring out how to meet the emissions reduction target, was upfront with the crowd.

"This reduced carbon future is something we will be talking about today, tomorrow, 10 years from now," Glatt told the audience. "So we can put our heads in the sand and say, 'This is so much BS, and we should just ignore it.' (But) I don't think we can. We need to take a hard look at this to see what we can do to make this thing work."

He was hopeful that both power plants and coal mines would stay open, but he wasn't able to tell the crowd that with "100 percent certainty, because I don't know what that plan is going to look like."

Glatt is considering turning in a state plan that doesn't actually meet the 45 percent reduction, but keeps the state's coal industry intact. It's a risky strategy, because if the Environmental Protection Agency doesn't like it, they could impose their own plan. If there's one thing North Dakotans really hate, it's being told what to do by the feds, especially when it feels like what they're being asked to do is unfair.

Just ask North Dakota's Attorney General.

"They come out here, they have these public hearings, they pretend they're listening and they pretend they're paying attention to what it is that we're saying and we try to reason with them," said Wayne Stenehjem, "and they ignore us."

Attorney General Stenehjem is suing the EPA, along with 26 other states (like Wyoming and somewhat paradoxically Colorado), over what he sees as an overly harsh and illegal final rule. In the draft version, North Dakota only had to cut its emissions by 11 percent. In the final rule, the state's target more than quadrupled.

"It was like sending your kid off to college and they come back at Christmas and you hardly recognize them anymore," Stenehjem said. "And that's what happened with this rule. It was so totally different from what it was we had commented on."

Even though he's trying to change, delay or overturn the regulation, he doesn't question the science behind it. His lawsuit against EPA makes no attempt to deny that humans are contributing to climate change.

"This isn't a religion, whether you believe in climate change or not, and whether man-made emissions contribute to it," Stenehjem said. "It is either a scientific reality or it isn't. And I think the consensus among those who are experts on it is that it does. But irrespective of that, it is the reality in the world we are going to have to live with. And we're going to have to contend with it, and we can do that."

Inside Energy is a public media collaboration, based in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, focusing on the energy industry and its impacts.

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