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North Dakota regulators approve first carbon storage project in 'landmark day'

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Gerald Bachmeier, chief executive officer of Red Trail Energy, is shown on July 31, 2018, at Richardton.

North Dakota regulators granted several approvals Tuesday for what's expected to become the first carbon dioxide storage project in the state at an ethanol plant near Richardton.

The project at Red Trail Energy aims to capture the facility's carbon emissions for underground storage. The gas from the ethanol plant will be compressed and injected down a 6,400-foot well, then form a plume within the rocks that make up the Broom Creek formation.

"This is a landmark day," State Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms told the Industrial Commission.

The Red Trail project is one of many carbon storage efforts that could come to fruition in North Dakota as officials tout the state's favorable geology. Researchers say the state's rocks could store as much as 250 billion tons of carbon dioxide

Red Trail produces a small fraction of that amount each year, 180,000 tons. The approvals granted by the Industrial Commission on Tuesday have to do with underground storage below Red Trail's proposed injection site in Stark County.

Most projects announced so far in North Dakota aim to store carbon emissions from ethanol producers and coal-fired power plants. Ethanol plants produce a nearly pure stream of carbon dioxide, so capturing emissions from them is a cheaper endeavor than doing the same from coal plants. A coal plant would need to separate out the carbon dioxide from the rest of its emissions before the gas could be injected underground.

Minnkota Power Cooperative's Project Tundra aims to do that at its Milton R. Young Station, a coal plant near Center. Another major project in the works is Summit Carbon Solutions' pipeline that would extend through several Midwestern states into North Dakota, picking up carbon dioxide from ethanol plants along the way. Midwest AgEnergy is also working on storage projects for its ethanol plants near Washburn and Jamestown, and Basin Electric Power Cooperative is planning to divert carbon dioxide from its Great Plains Synfuels Plant for storage near the Beulah facility. None of those projects have advanced through the permitting process as far as Red Trail's.

Red Trail leaders see potential to market the plant's ethanol to California where state officials have enacted policies to reduce the carbon intensity of transportation fuels as a way to address climate change. The ethanol would receive a premium value once its emissions are captured and stored.

CEO Gerald Bachmeier told regulators earlier this year that the project was a way to "differentiate ourselves from the rest of the industry," particularly as the nation's ethanol supply exceeds demand and forces plants to idle.

Company officials and researchers working with Red Trail went over the technical details of the storage site at a lengthy hearing before the North Dakota Oil and Gas Division in August. Helms said the data the company provided was adequate to ensure the plume will stay underground where it's meant to remain forever. The plume is expected to form below a 100-foot impermeable rock layer, and the company plans to monitor its size and location.

A federal tax credit is driving interest in carbon capture and storage projects. Research into the feasibility of establishing such projects in North Dakota has taken place over the course of nearly two decades.

North Dakota was the first state to assume permission from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to permit projects like Red Trail's. The historic nature of Tuesday's Industrial Commission meeting came up several times before the three-member panel chaired by Gov. Doug Burgum approved the orders related to the ethanol plant.

"This vote would not have been possible without years of work by a lot of people," the governor said.

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

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