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North Dakotans Feel Singled Out In Clean Power Plan's Compliance Mandate

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

When the Senate voted last week to block legislation at the center of President Obama's climate policy, it came at an awkward time just ahead of next week's Paris climate talks. And one of the Democrats leading the charge against the Clean Power Plant is North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. Emily Guerin of Prairie Public Broadcasting explores why North Dakotans are so opposed to the new rule.

EMILY GUERIN, BYLINE: Only in North Dakota would a public meeting about the Clean Power Plan feel like a church supper.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi, Shirley. Would you like a burger or a brat?

GUERIN: It's a cold November night in Beulah, the heart of North Dakota's coal country. Men and women wearing jackets and hats embroidered with coal company logos are waiting in line for a free meal before the meeting started. Christie Obenauer is handing out Styrofoam cups of coffee, and she says talk of the Clean Power Plan is..

CHRISTIE OBENAUER: Dominating the coffee shop talk right now, as it should be.

GUERIN: Obenauer runs a local bank here, where about 75 percent of her customers have some tie to the coal industry. No one thinks of North Dakota as a coal state. All you ever hear about is the state's booming, now busting, Bakken oil field.

OBENAUER: Well, that has to do with media.

GUERIN: Fair enough, so I asked her, what would you want people to know about North Dakota's coal industry.

OBENAUER: The energy that we create here goes outside of the North Dakota's borders and supports people's lives in other parts of the country.

GUERIN: Sixty percent of the electricity generated in North Dakota is used by people in other states. Yet because of how the Clean Power Plan is drafted, North Dakota is held responsible for other states' consumption. The state has to cut its carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 45 percent, more than any other state except Montana.

DAVE GLATT: This is the most potentially catastrophic rule that I've ever had to deal with in my 33 years.

GUERIN: That's how Dave Glatt with the North Dakota Department of Health describes the Clean Power Plan to the crowded Beulah.

GLATT: At the end of the day, I'm hopeful the power plants stay open and coal mines stay open, but I can't tell you that with 100 percent certainty because I don't know what that plan's going to look like.

GUERIN: All six of North Dakota's coal-fired plants just spent millions of dollars to comply with other new environmental rules. So people here are pretty fed up with the EPA. Attorney generals in 27 states, including North Dakota's Wayne Stenehjem, are suing EPA over the rule.

WAYNE STENEHJEM: They come out here, and they have these public hearings, and they pretend they're listening, and they pretend they're paying attention to what it is that we're saying, and we try to reason with them, and they ignore us.

GUERIN: What's most puzzling to opponents here is that North Dakota's emissions target quadrupled between draft and final versions of the plan. Stenehjem says that's both unfair and illegal. Jeremy Richardson, a senior energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, says the Clean Power Plan is just a start.

JEREMY RICHARDSON: This rule is really just a way of getting us on track to getting those deeper reductions that are required in order to protect the planet's climate.

GUERIN: North Dakota officials accept that those reductions are coming, if not with the embattled Clean Power Plan, then with something else. What they're hoping for is that their state isn't singled out. For NPR News, I'm Emily Guerin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.