- Associated Press - Friday, February 28, 2014

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - The head of the Environmental Protection Agency faced tough crowds Friday during stops in North Dakota, where coal and ethanol continue to be a big part of the oil-rich state’s energy mix.

EPA administrator Gina McCarthy met with the state’s congressional delegation and industry officials to address recent EPA proposals and regulations for coal-fired power plants, biofuels and corn-based ethanol.

“The EPA needs to work with us, not against us,” Republican U.S. Sen. John Hoeven told McCarthy at a meeting in Bismarck with renewable fuels officials and farm groups. “The best way for that to happen is for the administration to see what we do here.”

McCarthy met with Gov. Jack Dalrymple on Thursday and farm groups and renewable fuel officials Friday morning in Bismarck. She later traveled to Beulah, home of Dakota Gasification Co., which operates a massive factory that makes natural gas from lignite, a low-grade but abundant coal in North Dakota.

McCarthy called it a listening session and said the visit to North Dakota - her first as EPA’s top official - was a chance to observe “intended and unintended consequences of our actions.”

She assured officials that “in no way do I want anything I do to slow down” North Dakota’s booming economy. She also said that the Obama administration’s “all-of-the-above” energy strategy “is not just rhetoric, it’s policy.”

McCarthy traveled to the state at the invitation of Democratic U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, who served as a member of the board of directors at the synthetic natural gas plant in Beulah until she was elected senator in 2012. Heitkamp, Hoeven and GOP Rep. Kevin Cramer have been highly critical of President Barack Obama’s energy policies toward coal and his failure to approve the Canada-to-Texas Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would take about 100,000 barrels of domestic oil daily from North Dakota’s Bakken region.

The delegation also has strongly opposed proposed changes to a renewable energy policy that would reduce the amount of ethanol blended into gasoline.

North Dakota has four ethanol factories and one under construction. Deana Wiese, executive director of the North Dakota Ethanol Council, said the state’s ethanol factories have the capacity to produce 400 million gallons of the fuel annually, a tenfold increase since 2005.

The EPA announced in November it was proposing reductions by nearly 3 billion gallons in the amount of biofuels required to be blended into gasoline in 2014. The EPA has said the additive had become less necessary in light of fuel-efficient engines and lower fuel demand.

Political leaders and energy officials said the proposed change to the Renewable Fuel Standard will cost jobs, hurt investment in the industry and slow the economy.

The formal comment period has closed, but McCarthy said the EPA is open for additional feedback before the proposal is finalized, which could come in June.

While renewable fuels have seen huge increases in North Dakota over the past few years, coal has been a cornerstone of North Dakota’s economy for decades. North Dakota has seven coal-fueled electric power plants. The state’s lignite mines in west-central North Dakota produce close to 30 million tons of fuel annually. Almost 70 percent of electricity produced from North Dakota’s lignite-fired power plants is exported to surrounding states to more than 2 million customers.

A proposed EPA rule, part of a Climate Action Plan released by Obama last year, would cap emissions at existing coal-fired power plants and set limits for emissions on all future coal plants. If adopted, future coal plants built would be limited to 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per megawatt hour of electricity they generate. The average for coal-fired plants is about 1,700 pounds per megawatt hour at present.

Dalrymple said the proposed rules must be practical and based on technology that is commercially viable and cost effective. He said the state’s coal-fired power plants continue to reduce emissions, and that “unattainable standards would undermine the nation’s energy security and could lead to higher utility rates for customers and lost jobs.”

McCarthy told reporters that coal will continue to play a role in the nation’s energy future but challenges remain to reduce greenhouse gasses.

“The climate is changing and we have to work on this together,” she said.