Grand Forks City Council member Bret Weber sees a world of opportunity in a fertilizer plant looking for investors near Grand Forks-enough that he thinks it might be time for the state to step in.
Northern Plains Nitrogen is a $2 billion-plus vision, but if it gathers enough investors, it could bring a four-figure number of jobs to the Grand Forks area, Weber said, both from positions at the plant and from the economic growth the region would experience. He argued the regional market is hungry for fertilizer produced locally-without the additional costs that come from shipping it from elsewhere-and that surplus natural gas could help manufacture it.
"It's such a fantastic project, I'd love to see the state's Legacy Fund direct some funding to supporting this project," Weber said, referring to the multibillion-dollar pot of state funds fed by oil and gas revenues. "It's hard to imagine how the state could enjoy a better return on investment than this. We created the Bank of North Dakota and the State Mill, and I think we should have a third one: I think we should have the state nitrogen plant."
Weber made the remarks Monday shortly after a 6-0 vote by a Grand Forks committee to extend city agreements on the project another six months, through the end of December. Those agreements open the door for broad use of city water resources for the operation of the plant-an important factor as leaders with NPN attempt to win investors.
City Council member Crystal Schneider was absent on Monday. The item is expected to be given final approval by the City Council next month.
The project was first announced in 2013. Project manager Calvin Coey said in January the total cost is expected to be $2.5 billion, and though leaders had hoped to open the plant this year, officials with NPN say the project is still looking investors.
Chad Weckerly, a member of the North Dakota Farm Bureau's Board of Directors, said in January the project was facing an uphill battle, beleaguered by low prices on the commodities that use nitrogen fertilizer-like corn and wheat. Farmers are fleeing those in favor of soybeans, he said, which don't use nitrogen.
What's more, he said the strength of the American dollar helps farmers buy imported fertilizer cheaply.
"As a farmer, I'd love to see more nitrogen, I'd love to see more competition in that market, but at the end of the day, for the next five years or so, I don't know how that economic viability is going to look," Weckerly said on Monday. "Long term, I would be bullish, but you have to get through the next five years, which I don't think are going to be bullish."
Larry Mackie, the project COO, said that means the timing is just right.
"You know why? There's one year's worth of engineering to do .. .and three years of construction," he said. "That's four years. Five years is perfect. The best time to build this project is right now."