Why North Dakota CO2 Emissions Cut Is Lowest In Nation


Emily Guerin

The Milton R. Young Station in Center, North Dakota burns coal from the mine next door.

The Milton R. Young Station in Center, North Dakota burns coal from the mine next door.

Emily Guerin

The Milton R. Young Station in Center, North Dakota burns coal from the mine next door.

The Obama Administration is spending a lot of time these days defending their so-called Clean Power Plan, which involves new regulations on power plants aimed at cutting carbon dioxide emissions. The idea is to make sure carbon dioxide levels in 2030 are 30 percent lower than they were in 2005.

To get there, the feds assigned each state a target emissions reduction rate. Some states have a lot to cut — over 70 percent in Washington.  Others have much less– in North Dakota, just 11 percent.

The low rate is based on with where North Dakota currently gets its power. This is a coal mining state—one of the top ten in the country. Coal is not the industry that’s creating thousands of new jobs and billions of dollars in tax revenue – it’s oil.

Still, coal is a major player in North Dakota. (To see data comparing North Dakota’s emission rates with other states, check out this post.)

Jason Bohrer is the head of the Lignite Energy Council, a coal advocacy group in the state. He said when North Dakota first started developing an electricity industry it turned to what was most available, which was lignite coal. Today, coal supplies over 80 percent of the state’s electricity.

And that’s partly why, when the EPA was calculating emission targets for each state, it gave North Dakota the lowest target in the entire country.

Kyle Aarons, a senior fellow at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said when the EPA was setting its targets, it looked at how easy it would be for states to switch from coal to natural gas—which emits less CO2.

In some states, such as North Dakota, there are no natural gas plants to be leveraged by that. So because these states don’t have any natural gas to shift to from coal, they end up with very modest total emission targets by 2030.

Aarons says the EPA didn’t just tell North Dakota to build a gas plant – and force it to shift away from coal – because it doesn’t have the authority. “North Dakota is only being required to use its existing resources,” he said.

I wondered if some environmentalists thought North Dakota got off easy. Some states have to cut their 2005 emission levels in half by 2030. Couldn’t North Dakota do better than 11 percent?

But Wayde Schafer, the sole Sierra Club staffer in North Dakota, says the minimal CO2 reductions are a good start:

“This is what the EPA has come up with and I think if North Dakota does their part and the other states do their part, this will put us on the path to getting CO2 levels down to mitigate climate change,” he said.

Schafer may be content, but what about Brian Kalk? He’s a public commissioner in North Dakota – essentially, the guy who has to make sure the lights stay on.

“In North Dakota we have two challenges,” Kalk said. “One is to keep our current grid stable, and the second is to meet our growing energy demands.”

Kalk worries about the reliability of the power grid. Between 2010 and 2013, the state’s population grew by over seven percent, three times the national rate. Kalk says the state needs 3000 new megawatts of power in the next 20 years to meet North Dakota’s growing demand. They’ll have to figure out how to do that and still cut their emissions.