Long before North Dakota tapped its oil, there was lignite coal mining. And a century ago, the state engineer was tasked with inspecting those mines and building a report.

From 1908 to 1911 lignite production increased about fifteen percent each year. Sixty-five mines were in operation in 1908, up to 100 by 1911. Almost eleven hundred men worked the state’s coal mines in the winter of 1911, and over three hundred through the summer, averaging six months out of the year in the mines.

Amy Sisk / Prairie Public

Officials across coal-rich states are cheering an announcement that the Environmental Protection Agency will withdraw the Clean Power Plan. Now, attention turns to how the nation will address greenhouse gas emissions going forward.

The rule put in place by the Obama administration would have required North Dakota to reduce its carbon emissions 45 percent by 2030. The state’s coal industry worried this would force utilities to shut down some coal-fired power plants and, subsequently, the coal mines that feed lignite to these facilities.

Amy Sisk / Prairie Public

North Dakota’s lignite coal industry has ambitious -- and pricey -- plans to capture carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, which industry leaders highlighted Thursday at a conference in Bismarck.

Amy Sisk / Inside Energy



If the coal industry is to survive, its savior may be something often touted by President Donald Trump when he talks energy.

“We’re going to have clean coal, really clean coal,” he said earlier this year in announcing an executive order to roll back the emission-targeting Clean Power Plan.

Lignite Energy Council 'Teachers' Seminar' underway

Jun 13, 2017
Dave Thompson / Prairie Public

The Lignite Energy Council is holding its annual Teachers’ Seminar at Bismarck State College.

It’s been holding this summer event for the past 32 years.

"The idea is, people who are teaching will include information about the lignite industry when they're teaching about math. science, the history of North Dakota," said the Council's Steve Van Dyke. "The lignite industry is the 5th largest industry in the state, and it plays a votal role."

Van Dyke was the first speaker at the seminar. He totled his talk, "Lignite -- North Dakota's Best kept Secret."

Scorpions in North Dakota? Yes, there are

Jun 5, 2017
Image courtesy State Geologist Ed Murphy

When you think of scorpions, you may think of those poisonous desert-dwelling creatures from the southwestern part of the US.

Chances are, scorpions don’t come to mind when you think of North Dakota.

But they’re here – in areas with lignite coal.

"They live primarily in the cracks of coal," said State Geologist Ed Murphy. "We found out very early, working on coal in the 1980s, it wasn't unusual to have a scorpion hanging upside down on the bottom of the chunk of coal."

In North Dakota, Will Wind Keep The Lights On?

May 16, 2017
Amy Sisk / Inside Energy

Steven Somsen’s farm has looked the same his entire life -- it’s flat, with wheat and soybeans that will soon grow as far as the eye can see.

But the 61-year-old’s view changed last year.

“Those are the closest ones to us, but they’re not our towers,” he said, pointing to several nearby wind turbines. “That’s the neighbors’. Ours are way, way off in there.”

One hundred wind turbines dot the farmland around his rural community of Courtenay in eastern North Dakota. Somsen has three on his land.

Amy Sisk / Inside Energy

The coal industry is breathing a sigh of relief with Donald Trump about to enter the White House.

He campaigned on an energy platform that would strip away Obama administration regulations on the fossil fuel industry. Chief among them: the Clean Power Plan.

While average wages in North Dakota have dropped slightly – by about two percent, primarily due to the slowdown in the oil industry – wages in coal country continued to rise.

"They generally range between $70,000 and $80,000 at the mines and the power plants," said Steve Van Dyke of the Lignite Energy Council. "And they continue to be some of the best-paying jobs in North Dakota."

The Lignite Energy Council is again sponsoring its Lignite Education Seminar.

As Prairie Public’s Dave Thompson reports, it gives teachers a chance to learn about the state’s coal and power generation industries.

Owen Owens is a teacher in Surrey.

“I teach earth science and geology.”

Owens was introduced to his fellow teachers as someone who is very knowledgeable about coal – something he says is a little bit of an over-statement.