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.”

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.