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Study aims to find out if carbon storage will work in eastern North Dakota

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Dakota Spirit Ethanol

The Dakota Spirit ethanol plant is located east of Jamestown.

An ethanol producer wants to figure out if the geology is right in eastern North Dakota to store carbon emissions underground, the way a number of projects aim to do in the western part of the state.

If signs point toward yes, Midwest AgEnergy would look to build a system to capture the carbon dioxide emitted from its Dakota Spirit ethanol plant east of Jamestown and bury it in rocks a few thousand feet below the earth’s surface.

That process, known as carbon storage or sequestration, has gained huge interest in North Dakota in recent years among the state’s ethanol and coal industries. Efforts so far have focused on central and western North Dakota. There, rock layers that could potentially store a plume of carbon dioxide permanently are deep and thick and seem to have the right characteristics to make such a feat successful.

The rock formations become shallower as they extend east toward Jamestown and the Red River Valley.

“There appears to be at least a chance carbon sequestration on some scale could work there (by Dakota Spirit),” said Adam Dunlop, director of regulatory and technical services for Midwest AgEnergy. “We don’t have enough data.”

Dakota Spirit is about 10 miles east of Jamestown. Farther east, experts believe the rock layers are too shallow to make carbon storage feasible.

The North Dakota Industrial Commission recently approved a $325,000 matching grant to fund a seismic study of the geology near Dakota Spirit. The money comes from the state Renewable Energy Fund, which includes money from oil taxes and interest on the repayment of water project loans.

The study will begin later this summer using trucks and plates that shake the earth. Strategically placed equipment monitors the response from the vibrations and collects data that will be analyzed to learn about the characteristics of the rock underground.

Midwest AgEnergy plans to gather data in several directions around Dakota Spirit at various distances up to 20 miles away. Such seismic studies are a common practice, and crews performing the work will take steps to avoid doing it near places such as homes and water wells, Dunlop said. 

“It should be non-eventful,” he said.

Midwest AgEnergy will share the data gathered through the study with the state, and it could be of use to the operators of other industrial facilities with carbon emissions in eastern North Dakota, Dunlop said.

Gov. Doug Burgum, who chairs the Industrial Commission, said the study is important given its potential to benefit a variety of industries. He challenged North Dakota's energy industry earlier this year to work toward achieving carbon neutrality as a state by 2030, particularly by deploying technology to capture carbon emissions and prevent them from entering the atmosphere, where they contribute to climate change.

Ethanol plants are pursuing carbon storage projects in part to make their fuel more marketable to places such as California, where state policy values fuels with a low carbon intensity. The projects seek to use a federal tax credit that would make them more financially feasible.

Midwest AgEnergy also operates the Blue Flint ethanol plant next to Coal Creek Station in McLean County, and it’s further ahead in a similar effort there to capture and store carbon dioxide. The Blue Flint project is expected to cost around $40 million.

“All signs point toward go,” Dunlop said.

Several other major projects are in the works near Dakota Spirit, which is located next to Great River Energy’s Spiritwood Station power plant.

A greenhouse is slated to go in nearby that would use about 2% of the 200,000 tons of carbon dioxide the ethanol plant produces annually, Dunlop said. A soybean crushing plant is also planned for the area.

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

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