DICKINSON —The likelihood that a new coal mine will ever be developed near South Heart depends more on politics than the emotions of the people who live there.
Not one ton of coal will leave the ground unless a new federal energy policy creates credits for carbon capture, and the will to get that done shifts with political and economic winds.
Still, the process to get an approved mining permit grinds on, with both developers and opponents willing to stay the course for however long it takes.
Both were present Tuesday at an informal conference in Dickinson on Great Northern Project Development’s application to open a coal mine southwest of South Heart. The “conference” is a legal phase that will end with a recommendation to the state Public Service Commission from the administrative law judge who conducted the hearing.
It started Tuesday morning, picked up again Tuesday evening and was scheduled to start up again this morning if necessary.
Great Northern owns vast coal reserves that date back to territorial times when the railroads were granted land and minerals to open and cross the continent.
The company plans to develop some of its North Dakota reserves by opening a 5,000-acre coal mine and build a plant to gasify the coal and use extracted hydrogen to create electricity.
“We designed the plant in view of carbon capture. Without it, this plant will not be built,” said Great Northern’s environmental vice president, Rich Southwick. Without the plant, the company won’t mine coal, either.
That could be good news for some, at least the members of Neighbors United who have been working hard to defeat the coal mine and the associated power plant.
They were saving their testimony for Tuesday evening, and Mary Hodell of South Heart, a founding member of the group, said they have been practicing for a long time for that opportunity by speaking out at local zoning and county meetings.
“This is the Public Service Commission. It’s what we’ve been practicing for four years,” she said. “We’ll stand and fight every step of the way until we hear they (the company) go back to Texas.”
Hodell said the United Neighbors members believe the coal development will interfere with the aesthetics of nearby Theodore Roosevelt National Park and impact the South Heart farm neighborhood for decades, if not forever.
At least 10 farmers will be in the way of the coal mine and others around it would have to deal with access roads and other impacts, she said.
Steve Merrill, a retired soil scientist, said the mine will destroy an alluvial plain of the Heart River south branch and ruin a subsurface water supply.
“It’s a terrible sacrifice,” he said
Mark Trechock, director of the Dakota Resource Council, told the law judge that reclamation law should be rewritten before any new mines are permitted.
He said changes in performance bond requirements don’t provide enough incentive for coal mines to sell or return the land once it’s reclaimed.
Less than 2,000 mined acres has been returned to private ownership and Falkirk Mining Co., the second-largest mine operator in the state, has yet to release one acre, Trechock said.
“It’s an injustice to South Heart to permit a new mine under these circumstances,” he said.
Southwick said Great Northern would reclaim land behind mining and comply with rules. “To the extent that we could hasten that (release), we would,” he said.
So far, after 10 years of planning, various permits and applications submitted and rewritten, the project still has no customers for the electricity and only some for the carbon dioxide byproduct that could be used to force more oil out of surrounding oil fields as they start to age.
Its initial mine permit application contained nearly 400 deficiencies, which will have to be resolved separately from the informal conference.
Despite the decade of time and millions of dollars spent to staff and develop a project that exists only on paper and in documents so far, Southwick said the company will keep going.
“We are in this for the long haul. We believe coal has a place in the nation’s energy portfolio,” he said. The plant would have world-class pollution controls, he said.
The power plant is estimated to cost at least $3 billion, and 300 workers would be hired between the mine and the plant, Southwick said.
“We like to think it will change (the South Heart neighborhood) in a good way, improving the infrastructure and the community,” Southwick said. “We acknowledge that the neighbors who don’t want to see coal development will be unhappy.”
Great Northern still has months before any final action is taken on its permit.
(Reach reporter Lauren Donovan at 220-5511, or firstname.lastname@example.org.)