North Dakota is Wrong on Coal

“North Dakota can now embark on any business undertaking it wants to.”
Arthur Charles Townley 1916

There is a peculiar connection between the states of North Dakota and Minnesota with each other’s fate intertwined in an often-contentious relationship. Early in North Dakota’s history, its growth depended greatly on transportation and finance barons often located in the Twin Cities. North Dakota farmers felt like they were under the thumb of individuals like James J. Hill, leading to a political revolt under the title of the Non-Partisan League in 1916 that teetered on socialism. The League captured the governorship and both bodies of the legislature in an amazing turn of fortune with the main villain being the St. Paul railroad baron Hill.

The architect of that revolt was Arthur Charles Townley. Born in Minnesota near Browns Valley around 1880, he would eventually find his way to North Dakota. After failing at farming in 1914, he took to the back roads of the Dakota prairies in a borrowed Model-T Ford and began organizing the League. His organizational and speaking abilities allowed his star to burn bright as the League surprised the nation in their amazing electoral victory in 1916, but his star faded fast with the lack of ability to see the changing political landscape before him. He essentially became a gadfly political drifter careening from one failed endeavor to another. He even ran for governor in Minnesota in 1934 – failing miserably. He ran for U.S. Senate in North Dakota twice in the 1950s, resulting in his less than stellar performance becoming more known for the resulting libel suit brought against him by the North Dakota Farmers Union whose leaders he labeled communist conspirators.

Now I know I’m biased as a Minnesotan, but the present-day political leaders of North Dakota seem to be about as blind to the changing electric energy landscape as Townley was to North Dakota’s political landscape a century ago. Instead of seeing the reality that electricity generated by coal is about in the same place as a buggy whip factory in 1916, they have decided to go all in with the coal industry. When Minnesota developed a national leading energy policy in 2007 moving away from dirty polluting coal generation, our slightly more frigid Dakota neighbors should have seen the wisdom in developing their natural gas resources to supplement the growing wind and solar energy. Instead, they’re drilling away at their oilfields, burning off natural gas as if it’s not worth anything.

To make matters worse they decided to sue Minnesota, claiming our landmark 2007 Minnesota law that bans new power generation from dirty coal somehow regulates business activities of their dirty coal burning power plants in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause. Unfortunately U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson was fooled by North Dakota’s lack of vision when she ruled Minnesota could not limit our utilities from purchasing out of state electricity that comes from new coal-fired plants. North Dakota policymakers could’ve partnered with Minnesota in building this region as a long-term energy powerhouse by recognizing the need to diversify electricity generation. Unfortunately, they’ve chosen the old failed ways of leadership and simply sued us to try to force us to buy their dirty coal. Maybe next they’ll sue us to make us by buggy whip from them too.

Thankfully, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton told the Star Tribune that we will “oppose North Dakota’s intentions with every means at our disposal.” In the long run Minnesota is on the right side of history when it comes to dirty coal generation. In the end we are confident Minnesota will win just like our Gopher hockey team shocked North Dakota on a last-second goal in the NCAA hockey tournament a couple weeks ago. When the final score is tallied clean energy will win over dirty coal.

About John Tuma

John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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