BISMARCK — Speaking to oil industry operators and executives, Gov. Doug Burgum announced a goal Wednesday, May 12, to get North Dakota to carbon neutrality by 2030 while retaining the core position of its fossil fuel industries.
Many states have set their own carbon neutrality or net emissions goals, though they differ on the specifics, and Burgum said North Dakota can meet its ambitious timeline by capitalizing on emerging carbon storage technology to reduce or offset the climate footprint of the state's large energy and agricultural sectors.
"This may seem like a moonshot goal, but it's actually not," the Republican governor told attendees at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference that brought more than 2,000 oil industry representatives to Bismarck this week. "It's actually completely doable, even with the technologies that we know that are available today."
Shifting national political and Wall Street winds pushed some big players in the fossil fuel industry to adopt climate-focused business goals to stay competitive amid the transition toward renewable energy. President Joe Biden's administration set national aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
But unlike climate goals touted by the White House, Burgum's vision of carbon neutrality does not involve a transition away from oil, natural gas or coal production — all large industries in North Dakota. Instead, Burgum laid out lofty ambitions to clean up the state's fossil fuel and agricultural sectors by capturing, storing and repurposing their carbon output.
Wayde Schafer, a spokesman for the North Dakota chapter of the Sierra Club, said his organization supports the governor's carbon neutrality pledge but added it was light on specifics.
"The devil's in the details," he said. "How are we gonna get there?"
Schafer said banking on an unproven technology like carbon capture as a "silver bullet" would give him pause, and the goal would be more realistically achieved by transitioning away from fossil fuels to renewables.
"The real problem with Burgum's line of thinking is he wants to solve the problem on the back end," Schafer said of the carbon storage plans. "It would be a lot better to just leave that in the ground and use alternative sources of energy (like wind and solar)."
North Dakota officials often tout carbon capture as critical development for making the fossil fuel industries cleaner and more economic for the long term. A prospective buyer of North Dakota's largest coal-fired power plant, Coal Creek Station, teased a large carbon capture effort there, and Project Tundra, the proposed $1.1 billion carbon capture venture in central North Dakota, is currently fundraising.
Achieving carbon neutrality by the end of the decade, Burgum said, would happen through large-scale innovations like these, not "federal mandates and state regulations." He also trumpeted state officials' hopes for a major carbon storage market in North Dakota that would capitalize on what he called the state's "geologic jackpot," and noted the recently announced plan to construct an interstate pipeline for the importation of carbon from other parts of the country to North Dakota.
North Dakota produces 56 million metric tons of carbon annually, 1% of the national share, according to a 2019 estimate by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Burgum said the state has the capacity to store up to 250 billion tons in the ground, a calculation provided by the University of North Dakota's Energy and Environmental Research Center.
Burgum's spokesman Mike Nowatzki noted carbon imported from out of state and sequestered in North Dakota would be factored into the state's calculations of carbon neutrality.
Though Schafer said he hopes to see more specifics on this plan, he questioned the practice of counting carbon imported from other states toward North Dakota's carbon neutrality aims.
"It's hard to see how that helps North Dakota," he said.
State officials also noted the possible use of captured carbon for the practice of enhanced oil recovery or injections of carbon dioxide into oil wells to boost production. With the development of a robust carbon storage industry, Burgum predicted North Dakota could become the first "carbon negative" state.
Readers can reach reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at firstname.lastname@example.org.