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Project Tundra moves forward as North Dakota approves underground carbon dioxide storage

North Dakota's flagship, $1 billion carbon capture venture moved a step forward Friday with a key greenlight from top state regulators.

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Minnkota Power Cooperative's Milton R. Young Station, near Center, N.D., burns lignite coal to generate electricity for customers in eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota. In 2017, North Dakota coal-fired power plants produced 2.7 million tons of coal ash, which must be properly disposed of and monitored.
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BISMARCK — In a step forward for North Dakota’s flagship carbon capture venture, state leaders approved plans Friday, Jan. 21, for a Grand Forks electric co-op to store millions of tons of greenhouse gases stripped off an Oliver County coal plant deep inside the earth.

The regulatory clearance for Minnkota Power Cooperative’s Project Tundra, granted in a unanimous vote by the North Dakota Industrial Commission, marks the second carbon capture project to receive the state’s green light for underground storage, following approval last October for a much smaller venture at a Richardton ethanol plant.

Department of Mineral Resources director Lynn Helms told the three-member Industrial Commission that Minnkota’s effort is a “hugely important project" and noted its ramifications for the lifespan of the state’s coal industry and for North Dakota’s ambitions of becoming “the hub for carbon storage in the Midwest.”

A process of stripping planet-warming carbon dioxide molecules off of emissions and burying them deep underground, carbon capture and storage is an expensive and so far sparsely used technology that North Dakota leaders have embraced as a way to make industries like coal and ethanol cleaner and more economic for the long-term.

Minnkota is aiming to pull four million tons of carbon dioxide off of emissions from Milton R. Young Station, a coal-fired power plant in Oliver County, and inject them thousands of feet into the earth, where they are expected to remain permanently, preventing their warming effect on the earth’s atmosphere.

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If successful, the roughly $1 billion Project Tundra would be among the largest carbon capture and storage operations active worldwide, Helms told the commission. The origins of Minnkota's venture date back close to 12 years, Helms said, though today the early-mover is among a growing roster of projects looking to bury emissions in the state's geology, some even larger than Tundra.

Still, a long road remains for Minnkota, which has not made a decision yet on whether to move forward with financing for its project. Recent engineering delays have pushed that major decision point back by about a year.

Minnkota said in a statement Friday that it expects to make its decision on whether to move forward with the financing phase by the end of this year. If it goes forward, the co-op said it would expect to have the carbon capture process operating by 2026.

Gov. Doug Burgum, who chairs the Industrial Commission, praised the regulatory clearance as "not only a great day for North Dakota but a great day for the country," noting that Project Tundra could provide a model for the decarbonization of coal plants around the country.

Friday’s regulatory approval comes after Minnkota executives and scientists from the University of North Dakota’s Energy and Environmental Research Center appeared before the Department of Mineral Resources in November for a lengthy hearing on the mechanics and security of their underground storage process.

The state fielded several letters of concern about the safety of Minnkota’s plans ahead of that hearing, including one from the Dakota Resource Council, an environmental watchdog group, and another from a Houston-based carbon capture consultant. Both stressed the possibility for carbon dioxide to escape from the subterranean chambers targeted by Project Tundra, an outcome they warned would pose environmental hazards like the contamination of drinking water.

Helms told the Industrial Commission on Friday that some concerns flagged by the Dakota Resource Council, like the possibility of a tubing leak, are “expected" to happen, but he noted Project Tundra has built-in safeguards to ensure that when such an incident does occur it won't result in the escape of carbon dioxide.

He also said that scientists from the EERC sufficiently addressed all of the issues flagged in the Houston consultant’s 17-page letter during the November hearing.

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“Our findings are that none of his conclusions or recommendations are on the mark,” Helms said. “Everything was satisfied by the experts at EERC and Minnkota.”

To bury the carbon dioxide from Minnkota’s coal plant, Project Tundra would pump a compressed form of the greenhouse gas down multiple injection wells near its coal plant and into deep subterranean rock formations. The project's targeted formations are insulated by thick layers of shale, protective walls that EERC scientists said will ensure the buried carbon dioxide stays in place.

The project’s underground storage zone encompasses a vast area of about 40 square miles. Minnkota has reported that 79% of the landowners in that area consented to storage beneath their property, clearing the legal threshold required by the state. Landowners who have not given their permission would be merged into the sequestration zone anyway, though Helms said all would receive the same level of compensation.

Minnkota has said that it is pursuing a roughly $700 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy to help finance Project Tundra.

The co-op did not apply last year for a low-interest loan program that state lawmakers established in part for Project Tundra , but Minnkota spokesperson Ben Fladhammer said they are "strongly considering" submitting this year.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com .

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