North Dakota's coal industry addresses concerns

North Dakota's coal industry is facing the pressure of increasing costs, decreasing demand and growing regulations. While many are looking for ways to improve the situation, some at the state Capitol are looking for alternatives.

The transition from coal and fossil fuels to renewable energies isn't a new conversation. But industry leaders now find themselves needing to fight harder than before.

North Dakota makes nearly 4 percent of the nation's coal output, according to the Energy Information Administration. But coal production has been decreasing in the last 20 years.

And now, industry leaders are feeling the heat.

"Things are changing so fast that we forget how this big picture goes together and how electricity is marketed and distributed out to the people,” said State Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner.

Electrical Power providers say they're fighting nation-wide battles from environmental groups and state regulations that are diving their costs up, during a time when power prices are decreasing. And now it's leading to industry in-fighting.

"Primarily because we're at historically low natural gas prices right now. So that's really the competition and the tension in the market is more coal versus gas as far as who's competing to stay online,” said Brian Tulloh of Midcontinent Independent System Operator, Inc.

They also noted a nation-wide decrease in demand for electricity. But some legislators are asking if that's a sign of struggle or a sign of the times.

"Don't we as a state have an obligation to look into 'okay, what can we do to deliver what the customer wants without... I know we don't want to put our current industry in jeopardy, but don't we have to look to the future?" said Sen. Merrill Piepkorn, D-Fargo.

This all comes at a time as North Dakota sits on top of the industry's largest known deposit of lignite; an estimated 351 billion tons, according to the Energy Information Administration.

North Dakota is already in the midst of renewable energies on larger scales. Just a few months ago, a wind farm in Glen Ullin went online with 43 turbines for 55,000 homes.