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Meridian’s Davis Refinery has cleared yet another hurdle, with a favorable ruling this week by the North Dakota Supreme Court upholding its air quality permit as a minor synthetic source.

The plaintiff in the case, National Parks Conservations Association, had argued that Meridian is underestimating the amounts of carbon monoxide and other volatile organic compounds that will be released by the facility, which is located less than 3 miles away from Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Meridian, meanwhile, has said many times that it intends to use technology to make its plant the greenest in the nation, if not the world, to show what a thoroughly modern refinery can accomplish in terms of reduced emissions.

North Dakota’s Department of Environmental Quality defended its permitting in the suit, as well as its monitoring requirements. The department is requiring a leak detection system that will use optical imaging to detect emissions. It is also requiring monitors at the perimeter of the facility to look for benzene.

This leaves one more lawsuit with the North Dakota Supreme Court, involving the jurisdiction of the facility. A decision on that case is still pending.

Meridian officials have told the Williston Herald previously about their plans to permit the Davis Refinery as a minor synthetic source, and the technology that will be involved.

Fuel gas coming into the plant will be scrubbed for sulfur, so that SOx compounds won’t be produced to any appreciable degree, and it will use ultra low burners, to help prevent formation of NOx compounds. There will be a catalyst in the stack itself, to help reduce carbon dioxide and monoxide emissions, or COx.

Optical gas imaging is going to be used to monitor the system around the clock for fugitive hydrocarbon emissions or volatile organic compounds, commonly referred to as VOCs.

Many older refineries are just using a handheld sensors for this purpose, inspecting manually on a regular basis. But that means days can go by where greenhouse gases are unintentionally escaping. An optical sensor means the inspections are running constantly, and can immediately sense fugitive emissions, so they can be stopped sooner.

With these measures in place, Meridian estimates it will produce less than 100 metric tons of pollutants per year, which qualifies it to be a synthetic minor source.

William Prentice, CEO and Chairman of Meridian told the Williston Herald Thursday that the company is working steadily on designs for the plant, and it is positioning itself to move forward as quickly as it can once both suits have been resolved.

Lawsuits, he added, seem to be the new normal for large energy projects. And that was one reason for the smaller size of the project. Keeping it small ensures it can meet the requirements for a minor synthetic source, and also ensures it will be dealing with state rather than federal officials.

“We would rather deal with the state of North Dakota,” Prentice said. “Politics affects every level of government, but the state answers more directly to (people in) North Dakota, who want jobs. We felt we would get a fairer hearing.”

Meridian’s other projects in Texas and Oklahoma are following the same model, Prentice said.

The pandemic has not jeopardized the future of the refinery, Prentice added, though it is changing the landscape of the energy industry in ways that could make the Davis refinery more profitable than its original conception.

“We’ve done a lot of things never before done in one place, so it is a totally different kind of refinery,” he said. “The industry is ready to change now, and what has happened with COVID-19 has just accelerated that.”

Indeed, Continental Resources and many other Bakken energy companies this year announced they were pursuing environmental stewardship statements along with the North Dakota Petroleum Council. The American Petroleum Institute also recently issued a climate statement that echoes the same type of refrain.

Prentice believes that Davis presents a viable way forward for the oil and gas industry, one that features dramatically reduced emissions and a much smaller environmental footprint than perhaps its opponents believe is possible.

“It is incredible what you can do when you really put your mind to it,” he said. “The technology that is available now, the fugitive emissions and things you can do to restrict them, track them, correct deficiencies. All that has been incorporated into our design.”

COVID-19 has also changed the list of potential investors, Prentice said.

“It’s not really more difficult,” he said. “Financing a billion project is never easy. But the landscape has changed. A lot of the people we had been talking to for quite some time on a preliminary basis are just no longer in the market.”

Prentice said he believes there will always be a place for oil and gas businesses that seriously commit to reducing their environmental impacts using the latest technology. The world’s growing demands for energy are simply too great to be met solely through renewable sources.

“You are smoking something if you think you can have a sustainable energy industry in the United States without fossil fuels, but the other side of that is fossil fuel has to be done properly,” he said. “It has to be cleaned up. The refinery we are going to build has 1/10th of the total air emissions and 1.2 less of greenhouse gas emissions as compared to the average U.S. refinery. If you replaced half the refinery capacity with the Davis-style project, you’d reduce carbon emissions by almost 90 million tons per year.”

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