Mike Jacobs: Finding a path forward for North Dakota energy

Carbon sequestration, natural gas pipeline are two ideas being discussed in North Dakota to slow climate change.

Mike Jacobs, Grand Forks Herald columnist.

When the family drove out from Grand Forks to help put away the garden, I greeted them with a suggestion: If global warming would make each October day as beautiful as Sunday, which was Oct. 17, I could get used to it.

Unfortunately, global warming doesn’t work that way. Instead, it creates extremes of pressure, which means more violent storms, with more wind and heavier rain – and snow, as we experienced in October 2019, when the place Suezette and I share northwest of Grand Forks got more than two feet of heavy, wet snow.

So, Sunday’s conversation included discussion of such exigencies as a generator, because despite global warming, we know that winter can be cold. Very, very cold. The coldest I’ve experienced at our place, which is west of Gilby, was 40 below – but that was soon after we moved following the Red River Flood of 1997. At that time, some climate scientists suggested that the record snow and the resulting flood were evidence of global warming. And that was 14 years ago.

Of course, these weather anomalies were extremes, but they took place against a background of steadily rising average seasonal temperatures. This is reflected on the landscape in the Red River Valley. Corn has replaced hard red spring wheat on thousands of acres in eastern North Dakota. Wheat is a short season crop. Corn needs more time to mature. Similarly, soybeans have been planted on many thousands of acres more than was the case a quarter century ago, and the state has moved near the head of the pack in soybean acreage among the states.

A more diversified agriculture must be counted as a net plus, but climate change isn’t the whole story. New varieties of staple crops have proven superior in viability and yield. Larger equipment and greater use of such inputs as fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides has increased energy consumption on farms. Nor are the changes all for the good. As ag tech – mechanical and horticultural – has improved, farms have grown larger while rural communities have shrunk.


North Dakota is also an important energy-producing state. The state’s mantra about energy is an “all of the above” approach encompassing coal, oil, wind, solar energy. The entire state is windy – though some exposed elevations are windier than the flat landscape of the Red River Valley. Nevertheless, wind towers have become commonplace throughout the state – the flat valley lands so far excepted.

By contrast, both oil and especially coal are regional in scope – though their impact is statewide. North Dakota’s current wealth can be attributed directly to oil production and the tax structure put in place to spread oil’s impact around the state.

Oil, and especially coal, are so-called “dirty fuels.” They produce emissions that contribute to global warming, mostly because they are carbon rich. There are three ways to deal with this. One is to stop using coal and oil, a choice that would be devastating to North Dakota’s economy (not to mention the difficulty of turning the American economy away from oil and coal). Coal might be replaceable, but probably only by increased oil and natural gas production.

There may be another way, carbon sequestration, and it’s being tested in North Dakota. Some have attacked the idea as an expensive cop-out. That’s a rush to judgment, in my opinion – and I write as someone who has long been wary of carbon fuels, especially coal. I published a book attacking coal development in North Dakota way back in 1975. It was called “One Time Harvest.”

In my senescence, however, it seems to me that oil and coal will continue to be important sources of energy, and the focus must be on ways to reduce their impact on global warming. At this point, carbon sequestration seems to be the most viable way to do that. In the simplest terms, sequestration means extracting the carbon at the end of the refining process and pumping it deep underground.

As it happens, North Dakota’s deep stratigraphy – the fancy way to say “way underground layers” – provides room to store carbon. Gov. Doug Burgum has made this notion a central part of his plan to make North Dakota carbon neutral. There’s potential, he has said, to continue to extract carbon-based fuels without increasing the amount of carbon released in the atmosphere.

This issue will get attention at the short session of the state Legislature set to begin in early November. Besides the new legislative district map, lawmakers will consider proposals to use federal funds diverted to states to offset impacts of the COVID pandemic. One of these – put forward by Burgum – would build a pipeline to move natural gas from the Bakken oil formation in the northwestern part of the state to the Red River Valley and points between. This creates potential for new businesses, new jobs, and population growth along the Highway 2 corridor across the state.

More important, in the context of global warming, the pipeline would eliminate the need to flare natural gas that’s emitted as a byproduct of crude oil production. For that reason, it should have a significant role to play in reducing carbon emissions and relieving global warming – not of course a cure-all, but a step.


Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.

Related Topics: MIKE JACOBS
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