GOLDEN VALLEY — A rare drilling rig is at work in central North Dakota this week, but crews aren’t looking for oil.

They’re drilling two exploratory wells in the middle of coal country to help researchers determine the feasibility of storing carbon dioxide deep underground rather than emitting it into the atmosphere.

It’s part of a study nicknamed Project CarbonSAFE, led by the University of North Dakota’s Energy and Environmental Research Center and funded, in part, by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Researchers will investigate the geology more than a mile underground to determine if it is suitable for the storage of carbon dioxide captured from coal-based energy facilities, said project manager Wes Peck.

“It’s all for the long-term benefit of coal country,” Peck said.

The study will not involve the injection of carbon dioxide, but it will provide researchers with more information about the geology. Researchers will then take that information for sophisticated computer modeling.

Last week, crews began the process of drilling a vertical well north of Golden Valley. They are targeting the Broom Creek Formation, a porous rock layer about 6,000 feet below ground. They also are studying the rock layer above that formation, an impermeable layer geologists believe will keep the CO2 in the storage zone.

Scientists have some information about the geology in that area of central North Dakota as a result of 12 unsuccessful oil wells that were drilled in the area, Peck said.

The Department of Energy study is looking to determine the feasibility of injecting 2 million tons of carbon dioxide per year for 25 years.

North Dakota emitted 37.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2016 from both coal plants and other sources, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Researchers’ ultimate goal is to use carbon dioxide captured from coal-based facilities for enhanced oil recovery in the Bakken, allowing oil producers to extract even more oil from existing wells.

“When they get that code fully cracked, that could be a huge benefit to the state to take the unbelievable oil play and enhance its production by using CO2,” said Mike Holmes, vice president for research and development for the Lignite Energy Council.

Underground storage of carbon dioxide could be a good backup plan in the event that an oil producer isn’t in need of carbon, Holmes said.

Landowners John and Leona Flemmer said they were happy to rent about 5 acres of crop land for the research project.

“I’m amazed at the technology and what they will get out of it,” said John Flemmer as he toured the drilling site last week.

A second exploratory well near Center is scheduled to be drilled in January.

After research is completed, the wells will be filled with concrete and the drill sites will be restored to their original condition.

The $13.8 million project is funded with more than $8.7 million from the Department of Energy, $1.5 million from the state through the North Dakota Industrial Commission’s Lignite Research Program and nearly $3.6 million from the energy industry.

On Friday, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Saskatchewan signed a memorandum of understanding to share research on carbon capture utilization and storage. The agreement was reached at the Western Governors’ Association meeting in Arizona.

“In a carbon-constrained world, improved CCUS technologies will enable our lignite industry to provide reliable baseload generation for decades to come, while also potentially helping us recover billions of barrels of oil through enhanced recovery methods — turning carbon dioxide from an unpopular byproduct into a valuable product,” Gov. Doug Burgum said in a statement.

(Reach Amy Dalrymple at 701-250-8267 or Amy.Dalrymple@bismarcktribune.com)

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