Gov. Doug Burgum surprised the oil and gas industry when he announced his net carbon neutral goal at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference this year. But perhaps they should not have been so surprised.
North Dakota has been working on carbon capture since at least 2003 — long before the state’s current governor stood at a podium to outline a vision that positions its oil and gas industry as not just surviving, but a key part of a viable low-carbon world.
To understand the shape of things to come for the oil and gas and coal industries, the Williston Herald visited with Lynn Helms, Director of the Department of Mineral Resources. In part two of this three-part series, we look at what net carbon neutrality means for the state and for oil and gas, and how the West will play a vital role in achieving this ambition. In part three, we’ll look at the state’s efforts — which appear to be going national — to plug and reclaim abandoned wells. Those are an ongoing reality in the roller coaster market for oil and gas.
North Dakota’s work on carbon capture and sequestration technology really began with the Plains CO2 Reduction Partnership in 2003. That partnership now includes 10 states and four Canadian provinces, who, with the help of the EERC, have been successfully seeking out appropriate geological formations to store carbon dioxide and quantifying not just how much, but how to safely and efficiently capture and store carbon dioxide underground.
EERC has been helped in this mission with a variety of Department of Energy grants, state grants, and industry partners to conduct the research, filling in all the technical details, as well as verifying that these processes do work to keep carbon sequestered. EERC has also advised the state on what kinds of regulations and policies to implement.
As we’ve previously reported, a lot of the ideal geology for carbon capture is right here in the West. That gives the Oil Patch a big role in achieving the state’s ambitious goals.
“It’s remarkable how visionary North Dakota’s policy makers and scientists are in terms of reading the tea leaves and kind of seeing what direction everything is moving,” North Dakota Director of Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms told the Williston Herald. “We’ve got the rules, regulations, and policies, tax proposals, and everything in place to take advantage of that.”
The result being that at just the right moment in time, Gov. Doug Burgum could take to a podium at the state’s premier oil and gas conference and issue a net carbon neutral challenge with complete confidence in a “geologic jackpot” that will not only take care of North Dakota’s carbon sequestration needs, but positions the state to be that solution for other states who don’t have pore space or a regulatory framework in place to allow carbon dioxide sequestration.
“I think it helps a lot for people to know that this is a statewide total balancing number, not entity by entity like gas capture,” Helms said. “I think each entity has a different role to play. So you know, when he’s talking to the oil and gas folks, he’s encouraging them to reduce flaring. And to get on the enhanced oil recovery bandwagon, because a large amount of CO2 can be stored in the Bakken and Three Forks and our other oil-producing formations as part of enhanced oil recovery.”
From EERC models, it’s clear that Cedar Hills and the Weyburn can store lots of carbon dioxide, all as part of a process that displaces oil from shale reservoirs.
“The challenges will look a little different for each industry or entity,” Helms said. “Coal, their pathway to carbon neutrality is the carbon capture side of the equation. They need to capture their CO2 emissions. And then it’s going to be up to either this new (hydrogen) industry, which is the carbon storage area, or the oil industry to put that CO2 in the ground.”
North Dakota is already running full steam ahead on its first carbon capture and storage permits. Redtrail energy in Richardton is furthest along in the process, followed closely by Minnkota Power with Project Tundra.
“We have to actually do a couple of these projects and work some of the kinks out,” Helms said. “And then we have to go through a rule-making on how we’re going to handle the financial assurance part of carbon dioxide coming here from out-of-state entities. And then, of course, our coal operators have to figure out an economic way of capturing their CO2.”
Carbon dioxide capture from ethanol plants is a more straightforward process, Helms explained, since a majority of that stream is all carbon dioxide. In coal plants, a large part of the waste stream is nitrogen and then water or steam. Separating only the carbon dioxide from that for sequestration has been done, of course, but doing so economically is the key.
That proved to be the downfall for Petronova in Texas, which was capturing carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery. When oil markets crashed during the pandemic, the plant shuttered its carbon capture project.
That project has been pointed to by critics as evidence that North Dakota’s Project Tundra is destined for a similar fate, and that the vision Burgum has laid out for net carbon neutrality is just a pipe dream.
The $1 billion project will retrofit the Milton R. Young Station to capture more than 90 percent of its carbon dioxide emissions using essentially the same technology that was used at Petronova and also at Boundary Dam in Saskatchewan.
It’s a process that begins with chemical “scrubbers” that remove impurities and lower the temperature of the flue gas. After that, the gas enters an absorber, which contains a liquid-based amine solution to bind to carbon dioxide. Heat is applied to release the gas from those amines and the gas is then compressed. After that, the gas can either be stored or used for enhanced oil recovery. Unlike Petronova, Minnnkota is not relying on enhanced oil recovery as part of its economic model. It plans to put its liquid carbon dioxide into sandstone rocks a mile beneath the lignite coal mine, and will take advantage of 45Q tax credits for carbon capture and storage.
Project Tundra has received several grants along the way to help it with this visionary project. The latest included $250 million in loan funds from the North Dakota legislature.
North Dakota lawmakers also created mechanisms for funding venture capital to help sort out clean energy technologies, banking on innovations to pave the way for economically viable CCUS.
While some question the viability of Project Tundra, it’s worth noting that the Great Plains Synfuels Plant has already been capturing carbon dioxide emissions from its coal-based generation facilities for two decades now. Last year in November, the company announced it had reached a milestone. It had captured 40 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.
The plant can capture 3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, a large portion of which goes to Saskatchewan for enhanced oil recovery. This level of carbon capture already makes the plant the world’s fifth largest operational CCUS facility.
It has recently proposed substantially increasing its carbon capture capacity by building a carbon dioxide pipeline to six geologic sequestration wells. There’s a hearing for that in July.
That project is not directly related to the announced hydrogen hub project that is still being negotiated for the Synfuels plant. It, too, seeks to take advantage of the 45Q tax credits.