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McLean County ethanol plant drilling carbon storage test well

McLean County ethanol plant drilling carbon storage test well

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Midwest Ag Energy CEO Jeff Zueger talks on Tuesday about the test well for Blue Flint Ethanol's carbon capture project in McLean County. Researchers will study rock samples removed in the drilling process to gauge the feasibility of storing the plant's carbon emissions underground.

UNDERWOOD -- A McLean County ethanol plant is drilling a test well in which the facility’s carbon emissions could be injected underground for permanent storage.

The “Carbon Zero” initiative at Blue Flint Ethanol is the third such carbon capture and storage project to advance to this stage in North Dakota.

The plant emits 200,000 tons per year of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. The facility, part of Midwest AgEnergy, seeks to capture that gas and inject it thousands of feet down a well into a rock formation.

The plans are the crux of the ethanol plant’s effort to ensure that “the life cycle of that fuel will have no carbon impact on the environment,” CEO Jeff Zueger said.

“This project is an important part of Blue Flint’s future and our ability to continue to process local corn into low-carbon fuels to meet the world’s demand for those products,” he said during an event Tuesday at the drilling site.

Social and political pressure to reduce the transportation sector’s carbon footprint is increasing, Zueger said. California, for example, has enacted a low-carbon fuel standard that aims to reduce the carbon intensity of transportation fuels.

“Certainly that market attracts projects like this,” Zueger said.

Blue Flint’s carbon emissions are the result of its fermentation process. The facility grinds up corn and uses enzymes to break down the starch into glucose, Zueger said. Yeast then converts the glucose to ethanol, and carbon dioxide is released in the process.

Ethanol plants produce a nearly pure stream of carbon dioxide that requires little processing before it’s injected.

Midwest AgEnergy also operates another ethanol plant, Dakota Spirit near Jamestown, and is looking at the feasibility of transporting its carbon dioxide to the Blue Flint site for injection.

The test well should be complete in about 45 days. Rock samples from the Inyan Kara Formation at 4,500 feet underground and the Deadwood Formation at 10,000 feet will be removed and analyzed by the Energy & Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota. That work will help determine the feasibility of injecting the carbon dioxide in those layers of rock.

The test well, which is west of Blue Flint, could be used as the injection well down the road, Zueger said.

The EERC’s work should be complete in early 2021, at which point Midwest AgEnergy would decide whether to continue moving forward with the project, he said. It would then need to secure a permit from the state Industrial Commission for the injection well and begin engineering and design work.

Zueger estimates the project will cost $35 million and injections could start in late 2022. The Industrial Commission this summer authorized a $3.4 million matching grant in “advanced energy technology funding” for the project to help facilitate the test well. The money stems from oil and gas production taxes, coal severance taxes and the state Strategic Investment and Improvements Fund.

The project also seeks to make use of a federal tax credit for carbon storage, an issue U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., has pursued within the federal government. The goal, he said, is getting the technology to commercial viability.

“When we crack that code here in North Dakota, they’ll adopt that around the rest of the country and beyond,” he told attendees of Tuesday’s event. “That is how we address CO2.”

Carbon capture and storage is a hot topic in North Dakota, not just within the ethanol industry but within the coal industry. It’s seen as a potential way forward for the state’s coal-fired power plants as they operate in a world where pressure to address carbon emissions is growing.

The coal industry hopes to learn more about the feasibility of carbon storage in the area from the research underway at the Blue Flint project.

“This is a big deal for the coal industry to be able to drill and put CO2 into the ground, regardless of what the source is,” said Jason Bohrer, president and CEO of the Lignite Energy Council, a trade group for the state’s coal industry.

Carbon capture technology for coal is in its infancy and can be costly. The most high-profile effort in North Dakota, Project Tundra at Minnkota Power Cooperative’s Milton R. Young Station in Center, is expected to cost at least $1 billion.

Coal-fired power plants produce a stream of exhaust gas of which carbon dioxide is just one component. The carbon dioxide must be isolated before it’s injected underground, a major undertaking that drives up the cost relative to the process at an ethanol plant.

Carbon capture efforts at Project Tundra and another ethanol plant, Red Trail Energy in Richardton, are advancing. Both facilities drilled their first test wells earlier this year.

There’s also chatter among state officials and coal representatives about a potential carbon capture system at Coal Creek Station, North Dakota’s largest power plant that’s slated to close in 2022. Operator Great River Energy is searching for a buyer for the facility, which faces financial woes competing in a marketplace saturated with cheap natural gas and renewable power.

Coal Creek is next to Blue Flint, and the ethanol facility uses steam and water from the coal plant to power its own processing. Zueger said that while it’s unlikely a future owner for Coal Creek would ever use the same injection wells as Blue Flint, the coal plant could target the same rock formation the ethanol facility identifies as most viable for carbon storage.

Should Coal Creek ultimately close, Blue Flint is evaluating other means of powering its facility, including using natural gas or biomass such as wheat straw, Zueger said.

Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8252 or amy.sisk@bismarcktribune.com.

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