Tribune editorial: Coal Country residents can mold future

Tribune editorial: Coal Country residents can mold future

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When public hearings on proposed power plants were being held in Coal Country in the 1970s, there were concerns about the impact on Mercer and Oliver counties. Now, residents worry about what will happen if plants continue to close.

A Sunday story by reporter Amy R. Sisk shows that residents aren’t ready to throw in the towel.

The plants have been beneficial to the area. For years, the area has ranked among the highest incomes in the state. When the Great Plains Synfuels Plant was being constructed, it drew workers from South Africa, Germany and other places. Overall, coal has been very good for the area.

In 2017, the Stanton Station closed after more than 50 years years as a coal-fired power plant. Basin Electric Power Cooperative said in 2018 that more than 300 workers would take buyouts, partially because of financial problems at the synfuels plant. The plant produces synthetic natural gas and other products from coal.

Not all the Basin workers taking buyouts will come from Coal Country. Despite the Stanton Station closing and other bad news, coal production has remained steady in the state, rising slightly last year to 29.6 million tons.

The industry and government hasn’t been idle as the changes occurred in coal production. The North Dakota Lignite Energy Council created the Lignite Vision 21 program to pursue clean-coal technology. There is Project Tundra that involves post-combustion technology to retrofit power plants. Another project, the Allam Cycle, involves technology for new coal and natural gas plants to increase efficiency and allow emissions to be captured.

Efforts at carbon capture continue. The University of North Dakota’s Energy & Environmental Research Center is studying the feasibility of capturing carbon dioxide from power plants and injecting it underground, either for storage or to get more oil out of old wells.

The Dakota Resource Council, an environmental group that hasn’t always been seen as a friend to coal, also has become involved. It held an event in Beulah this month to discuss what the future may hold and steps that can be taken.

Scott Skokos, the group’s executive director, said organizers wanted to hold a session that wasn’t confrontational. The discussion looked at economic diversification, a potential drop in tax revenue and collaboration in the community to address problems.

These types of meetings can be helpful in setting a direction for a community, a county and the state. The discussions could result in proposed legislation or ways to attract new businesses. There will be disagreements, but the sessions should strive to be nonpartisan. They should be solution-driven.

Many of the workers who came to Coal Country for jobs have since retired. A good number have remained in the area because it became home. The different projects underway, whether local, state or federal, could provide a bright future for the retirees and the other residents.

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