Bismarck Tribune Walks a Tightrope

Carbon series balances concerns for climate and local economy

Global warming, as the name implies, is a whole-Earth problem. The climate does not differentiate between greenhouse gases produced in the United States and those produced in China. Because of this, the press tends to focus on national and international solutions, such as domestic fuel economy standards or a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

The effects of such solutions are much more local, however, and The Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota deserves a tip of the hat for recognizing as much in a series of articles about carbon dioxide this week. Between Sunday and Tuesday, the paper published ten articles (almost all of which appeared on the front page) focused on various aspects of carbon and the very real possibility that nations around the world will begin to use less of it for their energy needs. If that happens, “states like North Dakota will feel the biggest immediate impact,” reports Jonathan Rivoli in one of the series’ introductory articles. The reason? North Dakota is brimming with coal, the world’s cheapest, but dirtiest, fuel:

The production of all this coal-generated electricity energizes the region’s economy. In Oliver and Mercer counties, the heart of coal country, the industry accounts for nearly 41 percent of all employment and 66 percent of wages earned, according to data compiled from Job Service North Dakota and local economic development officials. It pumps more than $43 million in wages alone into those counties’ economies.

Indeed, coal is the lifeblood of places like Washburn and Underwood, where the nearby Coal Creek Station Power Plant and Falkirk mine are at the center of life.

That the Tribune balances the reality of manmade global warming against the reality of mitigation and adaptation’s inevitable costs is what makes the series so appealing. The articles fall prey neither to climate alarmism nor the argument that moving toward a more efficient energy regime will ruin the economy. The first articles in the series were very introductory in nature, with headlines such as, “Just what is carbon dioxide?” “Tax or cap-and-trade?” and “A look at the basics of carbon sequestration.”

Sequestration is of particular interest to North Dakota because it reduces the environmental impact of burning or gasifying coal. Given that renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, have a long way to go before they become economically competitive with fossil fuels, many scientists and policy experts argue that “clean” coal technologies are absolutely integral to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Environmentalists and others, on the other hand, contend that alternative energy sources would come to market much more quickly if considerable resources weren’t put into developing “clean” coal technologies. For North Dakota coal companies, however, capturing carbon dioxide (either in the normal burning or gasification processes) is not only a way to reduce emissions, it is also a way to boost profits.

According to the Tribune, “Bismarck’s Basin Electric Power Cooperative owns a coal-gasification plant near Beulah that captures more CO2 than any other single source in the world.” It then pipes nearly 9,000 tons of the gas to Canadian oil fields (for an undisclosed price in the “millions”) where it is pumped underground to be sequestered and increase the yield by forcing more oil out. Another article has it that North Dakota farmers are being paid not to till their croplands so that carbon will remain sequestered in the soil. And one of the series’ breaking-news pieces reports that another energy company, Great Northern Power Development, recently decided to build a coal gasification (rather than a traditional coal-burning) plant because of the expectation of impending carbon-capture legislation.

Indeed, such legislation (whatever form it takes) seems to be on the minds of many North Dakotans. According to the Tribune, the state gets 93 percent of its electricity from coal, has four coal mines, seven coal-fired power plants, and generates 37 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, though not all of it from the energy sector. (Unfortunately, the Tribune flubs the numbers here-it calls the 37 million a “fair share” of the “2.7 billion tons produced” in the U.S every year. Actually, the U.S. produces about 5.8 billion tons annually and the worldwide total is about 27 billion tons.) Thus, North Dakota’s carbon dioxide represents less than one percent of the national total, but makes up a much greater share of the state’s concerns for its energy future.

“Rick Steffenson puts food on the table with a giant metal scoop shovel,” begins one piece in the series. It is an excellent lead by Tony Spilde, who authored a number of the articles. He goes on to explain that Steffenson, “runs a 3,400-ton dragline for a living, scraping away topsoil in monstrous chunks from the Missouri River basin,” searching “tirelessly for some of the world’s least efficient coal-low-grade lignite.” Big coal is the most important employer in many parts of the state, Spilde notes:

So you see why it might be difficult for some folks to quietly nod along while outsiders talk about carbon footprints and global warming. All the tree-huggers in the world couldn’t squeeze tight enough to make anyone in Coal Country forget where their bread is buttered.

Such boldly worded news reporting is one the series’ strengths. That said, one of its few disappointing aspects is that the articles are not aggregated in a single, semi-permanent location on the paper’s Web site (but readers can find all the articles there, including those not linked here, by searching for “carbon”). This is too bad, because the series is best appreciated in its multi-faceted entirety.

“Our point wasn’t to say ‘Carbon dioxide is causing global warming and we all better watch out.’ Not at all.” Spilde told me by way of e-mail. “Rather, it was to note that, no matter what your view on global warming, no matter what is scientifically happening, no matter whose facts you use to bolster your argument, a chain of events has begun in Washington that can have major ramifications in North Dakota. Energy is a big deal here.”

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.