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Stanton Station site, Leland Olds

While crews work at the site of the old Stanton Station, a coal-fired power plant that shut down in 2017 (left), Basin Electric Power Cooperative's Leland Olds Station operates nearby.

Dwight Berger recalls when Stanton Station shut down in 2017, ending his 35-year career at the coal-fired power plant.

“I think everyone was in denial — ‘It will never happen to us’ — but it did,” the former control room operator said.

He had been thinking of retiring anyway, so that’s what he decided to do. He said many of the 60 or so others who worked with him have moved on to other jobs with power companies in the area.

Berger spoke about his experience earlier this month following an event focused on building resilient communities in coal country. He and 40 others from the Mercer County area gathered in Beulah’s civic center to hear from several speakers who have worked with small towns navigating shifts in the natural resource industries that drive their economies.

Berger — and many other attendees — had a similar takeaway.

“We need to be proactive instead of reactive,” he said.

Coal’s longevity

Despite the fate of Stanton Station, which closed after the facility started operating only when market prices made it economical, North Dakota’s coal industry has largely avoided widespread bankruptcies and layoffs that have plagued other coal-rich places like Wyoming and Appalachia.

Federal data shows that coal production in North Dakota has held steady in recent years, even climbing slightly in 2018 to 29.6 million tons.

Last year, however, Basin Electric Power Cooperative announced that more than 300 workers would take buyouts, due in part to financial woes at its Beulah-based Great Plains Synfuels Plant, which produces synthetic natural gas and other products from coal. That prompted the Dakota Resource Council to start talking with its members and others in coal-producing Mercer and Oliver counties, and the environmental group ultimately decided to host the event in Beulah earlier this month.

“We thought there was an opportunity to have a discussion about what the future is in a way that’s not confrontational, meeting people where they’re at,” Executive Director Scott Skokos said.

Amid the shale fracking boom and rise of renewable energy over the past decade, natural gas, wind and solar have emerged as cheap competitors to coal. That competition has contributed to the retirement of more than 500 coal-fired power units nationally since 2010, according to the Energy Information Administration.

North Dakota’s coal industry has been somewhat insulated from that trend, thanks in part to the nature of the state’s abundant lignite coal supply. Lignite, the kind of coal mined here, is heavy with a high water content, making it uneconomic to transport long distances by train. Utilities save on costs by locating power plants next to mines.

Still, market forces are in part responsible for the one other coal plant slated to close in North Dakota. Montana-Dakota Utilities plans to shutter Mandan’s Heskett Station, which employs more than 40 people, by 2022. The company is replacing it with a gas-fired power generator to accompany another already at the site.

While some people at the Beulah event wondered aloud how long before more closures would come, others who work in coal offered reassurance that the industry is doing all it can to ensure its longevity in the state.

One attendee brought up a project funded by the federal government, in conjunction with a variety of coal companies and groups, at the University of North Dakota to extract rare earth elements from lignite for use in electronics.

And the university’s Energy & Environmental Research Center also is researching the feasibility of capturing carbon dioxide from power plants and injecting it underground, either for storage or to squeeze more oil out of old oil wells. Such technology would help address climate change while keeping coal plants running.

Skokos said his group isn’t trying to come into coal country to shut the industry down.

“It’s more like it’s up to the community to find solutions that make sense for them,” he said. “Plan for the future, even if coal stays.”

A look at economic diversification

Antoinette Heier has watched from afar as the small eastern Montana town where she used to live grapples with the impending shutdown of half the coal-fired units at a nearby power plant.

Her old apartment window looked out on the facility in Colstrip. The power plant is one of the largest in the western United States.

“It’s really near and dear to my heart, and it’s scary to think what if that happens to Beulah and Hazen,” she said.

Heier is now the executive director of the Hazen Chamber of Commerce, and one of the initiatives she focuses on is providing resources for business owners on how to be better entrepreneurs. While coal provides thousands of jobs in the area, she said, the town has a number of other employers -- places like Roughrider Electric Cooperative, Sakakawea Medical Center, West River Telecom and other smaller companies.

“One goal I continue to thrive on is the importance of giving local businesses a chance, first and foremost,” she said.

Economic diversification came up more than once at the event in Beulah, which she attended. It’s something that Jack Morgan, a program manager with the National Association of Counties, spoke about at length.

“A big point of emphasis we have throughout this process is to really think about your assets -- every community has assets -- and to not dwell on the gaps,” he said.

He used a baseball metaphor to describe instances in which a community experiences a big shock -- like a major employer closing its doors.

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A good path forward, he said, is to “hit a bunch of singles to advance the runners, and bring runs in that way.”

“Even if it is two jobs, four jobs at a time,” he said. “You’re not going to be able to get 400, 500 jobs back all at once, and that’s OK. We want to celebrate those small singles, those small victories.”

Elected officials weigh in

The Beulah event gave several Mercer County commissioners in attendance a chance to brainstorm about how to plan for the area’s future.

Berger, who used to work at Stanton Station, sits on the commission. He’s concerned about a potential drop in tax revenue from the coal industry. Already, over the past two decades, he estimates that the county has doubled local property taxes to make up for changes in the way the state distributes coal taxes to counties.

“I’m thinking when is it going to come that people can’t afford to live in Mercer County?” he said.

Fellow County Commissioner Merlin Dahl said he feels a lot rides on the 2020 presidential election, as he thinks the Democratic party seems to want to do away with coal. He encouraged community members to get involved politically to try to prevent that from happening.

“Coal’s going to hinge on it,” he said.

He and Commissioner Marv Schwehr both said they envision the community having more conversations like the one in Beulah earlier this month.

“To me, it’s a catalyst,” Schwehr said.

He was impressed by something one of the speakers mentioned. Kelli Roemer, a Ph.D. student at Montana State University who has worked with resource-rich communities through major transitions, spoke about how Richland County in eastern Montana responded to the shale fracking boom.

People from all facets of government and business held meetings at churches and other local venues on a regular basis. They built a community network to mitigate the impacts of the influx of people working in the oil patch.

That sort of collaboration seemed like a good idea to Schwehr, so that various entities within a community aren’t moving forward in different directions.

Maybe, even, it’s a path forward for his county.

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Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8252 or amy.sisk@bismarcktribune.com.

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