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RICHARDTON — A western North Dakota ethanol plant is working to reduce its carbon footprint to meet West Coast fuel standards.

Red Trail Energy, a natural gas-fired ethanol plant near Richardton, is proposing to inject carbon dioxide into a deep underground storage well rather than emit it into the atmosphere.

The project could bring a better price for the plant’s ethanol by opening it up to more markets. The plant aims to make its product more competitive by targeting low carbon fuel standards in California, Oregon and British Columbia.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who toured the facility Friday, said Red Trail Energy is leading the way on implementing carbon capture and storage technology.

“These guys are pioneers in how we’re going to actually capture CO2 and create a revenue stream so it becomes economically viable,” Hoeven said during a roundtable discussion with energy industry leaders, agriculture producers and local officials.

The Energy and Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota studied the viability of the project, which would involve injecting about 180,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year into an underground well.

Charles Gorecki, director of subsurface research and development for the EERC, said the geology underneath the plant is ideal for an underground injection well.

The carbon dioxide would be compressed and injected about 6,400 feet below ground into the Broom Creek formation, a salty formation unsuitable for drinking water, Gorecki said. Above that formation, there are thousands of feet of shale that would prevent the carbon dioxide from escaping, he said.

The carbon dioxide produced during the ethanol fermentation process is nearly pure and requires little work before it is compressed, Gorecki said.

“This site happens to be ideal,” he said.

Red Trail Energy CEO Gerald Bachmeier said the project could not move forward without the recent announcement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to allow North Dakota to regulate Class VI wells, or injection wells that can permanently store carbon dioxide underground.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt signed the proposed rule in May after North Dakota's request was stuck in a “pending” status under the Obama administration, Hoeven said.

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The rule, which would allow the North Dakota Industrial Commission to regulate the carbon dioxide wells, still needs to go through a comment period before it’s final.

The Industrial Commission would regulate the injection wells similar to how the agency monitors oil and gas wells, using state regulations developed to protect underground drinking water sources.

Without that regulatory certainty, Bachmeier said it would be too risky to proceed with the project, estimated to be a $29 million investment.

Additional steps are still needed, including getting states on the West Coast to approve the plant’s operational plan to qualify for the low carbon fuel standards, according to Bachmeier, adding installation likely wouldn't begin until 2020.

The EERC also is studying the use of captured carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery in the Bakken. Red Trail Energy won’t do that, choosing instead to store the carbon dioxide permanently underground, but this could pave the way for future carbon use projects, Bachmeier said.

“We can learn a lot from this project to expand into other industries, such as oil and gas and coal,” Bachmeier said. “I think it has a lot of potential.”

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