North Dakota and coal

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North Dakota's Fort Union Formation holds major amounts of coal in the center and southwestern parts of the state. To date, coal development has concentrated in central North Dakota along the Missouri River.

Coal mine in central North Dakota

On November 10, 2009, Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer spoke in Bismark, North Dakota at an energy seminar and said that clean coal technology will help to generate billions in revenue for Montana and North Dakota. Schweitzer also stated that the new coal plants to be built in the states will be "mine to mouth plants", which are different than the older facilities built decades ago throughout the country.[1]

Citizen activism

Citizen activism on coal issues in North Dakota dates to 1972, with the formation of the United Plainsmen organization. In 1977, citizens in southwest North Dakota organized the Dakota Resource Council, which continues to be active in advocating on behalf of agriculture and the environment in the state. Current coal issues revolve around three areas:

  • Strip mine reclamation: Nearly 30 years after passage of the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in 1977, the two largest mines in North Dakota have yet to release any crop land from bond. Applying for bond release is not a requirement of the law, and North Dakota’s policy of “rolling” bonds has removed all the financial incentive for final bond release applications. Not applying for bond release means coal mines never have to prove the land is as productive for farming as it was before mining began, or that there is sufficient water for livestock. Finally, coal mines purchase most of the land they mine, and a lot of other land as well, and have become the largest landowners in the counties where they operate. They show no interest in selling the land back to farmers, an apparent violation of North Dakota's long-standing law against ownership of farmland by corporations.[2]
  • Siting of new coal plants: Several new power plants are currently being considered, including South Heart Power Project, a major synthetic fuels plant.
  • Pollution from existing plants: Most of North Dakota’s plants were built before the most recent Clean Air Act amendments and are “grandfathered” at higher emissions rates than would be permissible today. The most dangerous emissions come from sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury. Basin Electric and Minnkota Power Cooperative have recently announced plans to modify the Leland Olds and Milton R. Young plants to reduce SO2 and NOX emissions. However, these projects will not be completed for several years.[3]

Citizen actions

  • In October 2008, attorneys for the Dakota Resource Council wrote a letter to the federal Office of Surface Mining, seeking to block construction of a proposed coal drying plant in southwestern North Dakota. The Public Service Commission had previously decided a mining permit was not necessary, which the DRC contends is a violation of state and federal regulations. GTL Energy is developing the plant to remove the water content of lignite coal in order to increase its energy value.[4]
  • In August 2010 a study released by the Environmental Integrity Project, the Sierra Club and Earthjustice reported that North Dakota, along with 34 states, had significant groundwater contamination from coal ash that is not currently regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The report, in an attempt to pressure the EPA to monitor coal ash, noted that most states do not monitor drinking water contamination levels near waste disposal sites.[5] The report mentioned North Dakota's Antelope Valley Station and Leland Olds Station as sites that have groundwater contamination due to coal ash waste.[6]

Legislative and legal issues

In 1995, the North Dakota lignite industry succeeded in convincing the North Dakota legislature to pass a law forbidding the Public Service Commission from considering the cost of “externalities” (including a possible tax on carbon dioxide) in power plant permitting decisions.[7]

In 2007 Minnesota announced that it would add a "carbon fee" to electricity imports from North Dakota (similar to a tax or tariff) of between $4 to $32 per ton of carbon dioxide emitted by the state's coal-fired power plants, to begin in 2012. In early January 2010 North Dakota announced it was in the process of taking legal action against Minnesota, arguing that the law would unfairly tax electricity imports from North Dakota's coal-fired power plants. .[8]

Judge forces EPA to address haze rule in four Western states

On September 30, 2011 a federal judge approved a deal requiring the Environmental Protection Agency to finalize by plans to reduce haze-causing pollution from coal-fired power plants and other sources in four Western states by 2012. The Environmental Defense Fund, WildEarth Guardians and National Parks and Conservation Assocation sued the EPA for failing to address haze-causing emissions, which are required under the Clean Air Act in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and North Dakota.[9]

Coal groups to pay chunk of North Dakota state lawsuit against Minnesota

It was reported in December 2011 that North Dakota utilities as well as coal interests agreed to pay up to $500,000 of the state's cost in challenging a Minnesota law that restricts imports of coal-generated electricity. However, the state of North Dakota will carry most expense.

North Dakota sued Minnesota in federal court, saying that a law enacted in 2007, which bars utilities from buying power from new plants that would raise carbon dioxide emissions, illegally restricts business between states. They also claim that the law encroaches on Congress' power to regulate interstate power sales and CO2 emissions.[10]

USDA approves loan for Antelope Valley CO2 capture

In January 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a loan of up to $300 million to Basin Electric Power Cooperative for the development of a demonstration project to capture carbon dioxide emissions at its Antelope Valley Station in Mercer County. Basin Electric is partnering with Powerspan Corp. and Burns & McDonnell to demonstrate CO2 removal from the flue gas of a lignite-based boiler. The project would capture about a million tons of CO2 per year from part of the plant's exhaust stream and send it to oil fields along the pipeline used by the plant.[11]

In July 2009, the project received up to $100 million from the Department of Energy's Clean Coal Power Initiative.[12]

On December 17, 2010, Basin Electric Cooperative and its board of directors decided to postpone the Antelope Valley Station CO2 Capture Project due to the results of a FEED (front end engineering and design) study coupled with the necessary additions that would have to be made to the power plant in order to implement the CCS technologies.[13]

Mon-Dak Energy Alliance

Energy representatives announced in March 2009 that Montana and North Dakota would come together to discuss the potential for future energy development between the two states. Known as the Mon-Dak Energy Alliance, which is made up of oil, gas and mining operators in the two states, have proposed to build a topping plant that would develop up to 22,000 barrels of crude oil per day. In addition, once completed, the facility will include an oil refinery, ethanol plant, bio-diesel, wind farm and a coal-to-liquids conversation center.[14]

On December 8, 2009 fundraising for the project began. Initial costs to build the facility are $180-200 million dollars. Construction of the plant, to be built between Williston, North Dakota and Sidney, Montana, may begin as early as summer 2010.[15]

Great Northern Power Development cancels mine

In March, 2009, Great Northern Power Development withdrew its application for a new coal mine near South Heart, North Dakota. The company said it acted in response to a complaint filed at the North Dakota Public Service Commission by Plains Justice on behalf of Dakota Resource Council and local landowners. The complaint challenged the construction of a new coal preparation plant.[16]

The complaint was filed against GTL Energy for failing to obtain a coal mining permit before starting to build a coal preparation plant near South Heart. State and federal law define coal preparations plants as “surface mining operations” when they are associated with a mine. The proposed plant, which has been under construction since October 2008, would be adjacent to the proposed South Heart coal mine, which has a mining permit pending, and is expected to treat coal from the mine.[16]

North Dakota Drying Plant to Process New Zealand Coal

A new drying plant in southwestern North Dakota operated by GTL Energy USA Ltd will remove water from over 1 million pounds of coal transported from New Zealand. The plant will remove water from the low-quality but abundant lignite coal and then ship it back to its country of origin. The plant is designed to process 240,000 tons of lignite annually. It is the first commercial coal-drying facility in the world.[17]

Proposed coal plants



Citizen groups

Coal lobbying groups

Power companies

Mining companies

  • Dakota Coal Company
  • BNI Coal Ltd.
  • Falkirk Mining Company
  • Westmoreland Coal Company

New Mine Proposed

On March 31, 2010 South Heart Coal LLC (South Heart Power Project) announced that they were seeking a mining permit that would cover almost 4,600 acres near South Heart in southwestern North Dakota. In April 2010 North Dakota officials deemed the mine deficient, forcing South Heart Coal to resubmit its application. In November 2010 the company resubmitted its application for a state mining permitIf all permits are approved, the mine could be North Dakota's first in 30 years.[18]

The mine would produce approximately 2.4 million tons of coal each year for 30 years. The North Dakota's Public Service Commission is reviewing the company's second application.[19]

On November 30th, the ND Public Service Commission deemed that South Heart Coal LLC's most recent mining permit had 10 deficiencies. The company is expected to address these deficiencies by the start of 2011. [20]

January 11, 2011: PSC deems coal mine application complete.[21]

January 12, 2011: PSC issues public notice of receipt of permit application, listing the end of comment period to be March 15, 2011.[22]

March 28, 2011: Following a technical review, the PSC reclamation division determined that the South Heart Mining Permit has 376 deficiencies. [23]

Existing coal plants

North Dakota has 15 coal-fired generating units totaling 4246 megawatts (MW).[24] See map here.

Seven of these units are larger than 50 MW.[25]

For a map of existing coal plants in the state, see the bottom of this page.

Drinking water contaminated with hexavalent chromium from coal may cause cancer

A report released by EarthJustice and the Sierra Club in early February 2011 stated that there are many health threats associated a toxic cancer-causing chemical found in coal ash waste called hexavalent chromium. The report specifically cited 29 sites in 17 states where the contamination was found. The information was gathered from existing EPA data on coal ash and included locations in Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Massachusetts, North Carolina, North Dakota, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virgina and Wisconsin. In North Dakota, the Basin Electric Power Cooperative's WJ Neal Station Surface Impoundment in Velva was reported as having high levels of chromium seeping into groundwater.[26]

As a press release about the report read:

Hexavalent chromium first made headlines after Erin Brockovich sued Pacific Gas & Electric because of poisoned drinking water from hexavalent chromium. Now new information indicates that the chemical has readily leaked from coal ash sites across the U.S. This is likely the tip of the iceberg because most coal ash dump sites are not adequately monitored.[27]

Major coal mines

As of 2010 there were approximately 4 active coal mines in North Dakota with production of approximately 28,949 short tons per year.[28]



  1. "Coal rush reverses, power firms follow," Associated Press, November 11, 2009
  2. "Dirty Coal," Dakota Resource Council fact sheet, accessed May 2008
  3. "Dirty Coal," Dakota Resource Council fact sheet, accessed May 2008
  4. "Enviro group seeks federal help in coal project," Associated Press, October 4, 2008.
  5. "Study of coal ash sites finds extensive water contamination" Renee Schoff, Miami Herald, August 26, 2010.
  6. "Enviro groups: ND, SD coal ash polluting water" Associated Press, August 24, 2010.
  7. "Dirty Coal," Dakota Resource Council fact sheet, accessed May 2008
  8. "First Carbon Tariff Will Tax CO2 at the Border," Susan Kraemer, Scientific America, January 1, 2010.
  9. "Judge OKs deal on "haze" pollution in West" Associated Press,, September 30, 2011.
  10. "Coal groups paying $500K for lawsuit" Dale Wetzel, Associated Press, December 28, 2011.
  11. "USDA approves loan for CO2 capture project," Basin Electric Power Cooperative, January 15, 2009.
  12. "DOE provides stimulus cash for 'clean coal' plants," E&E News PM, July 1, 2009.
  13. "Basin Electric Postpones CO2 Capture Project - Basin Electric Power Cooperative." Home - Basin Electric Power Cooperative. Web. December 17. 2010.
  14. "" Sidney Herald, March, 31 2009.
  15. "Topping Facility Planned for Montana/North Dakota Border" Big Sky Business Journal, December, 8 2009.
  16. 16.0 16.1 H. Stone, "North Dakota Coal Dealt Setback," Twin City Indymedia, March 30, 2009
  17. "N.D. drying plant to process New Zealand coal", James MacPherson, The Jamestown Sun, December 7, 2009.
  18. "Coal plant permit back on table iStockAnalyst, November 5, 2010.
  19. "Company seeks new coal mine in southwest ND" Associated Press, March 31, 2010.
  20. "PSC: Coal mine near South Heart lacks proper permits" Associated Press November 30, 2010.
  21. [1]
  22. [2]
  23. [3]
  24. Existing U.S. Coal Plants
  25. Power Plants in North Dakota, accessed May 2008
  26. [ "EPA’s Blind Spot: Hexavalent Chromium in Coal Ash"] Earthjustice & Sierra Club, February 1, 2011.
  27. "Coal ash waste tied to cancer-causing chemicals in water supplies" Alicia Bayer,, February 1, 2011.
  28. "Coal Production and Number of Mines by State, County, and Mine Type, 2010" U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), 2010.


Existing coal plants in North Dakota

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