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Construction of Hazen urea plant humming along

The urea fertilizer plant under construction at Dakota Gasification Co. remains on schedule for spring 2017, an ambitious schedule helped along by a mild winter. Work so far has been stopped only one day for weather, when ice made conditions too unsafe for the workers. The DGC gasification works are in the background. (Photo by Lauren Donovan / Bismarck Tribune)

HAZEN, N.D. -- Even as western North Dakota watches nervously while its once-booming oil industry wallows in the doldrums, a massive construction project centered around coal is quietly hitting its stride.

A $500 million urea fertilizer plant that will take 750 workers to build and 60 employees to operate can’t take up all the slack let loose in the Oil Patch, but it is providing a pretty good economic spin all its own.

The plant is under construction north of Beulah, adjacent to Basin Electric Power Cooperative’s synfuels plant, which through the wizardry of chemistry turns black lignite into natural gas.

The new plant will combine some of the carbon dioxide and ammonia created in that liquification process to make dry urea pellets used as fertilizer in the production of wheat, soybeans and corn.

Basin is betting the farm, so to speak, that the demand for urea will climb as the next generation of farmers moves away from potentially dangerous and cumbersome cylinders of anhydrous ammonia fertilizer, which it also produces and sells at the synfuels plant.

Fertilizer is huge business: The Fertilizer Institute estimates that growers use 55 million tons annually on crops. By making both products, Basin will be able to ride both ends of the market teeter-totter.

The United States, along with China, India and Brazil, use the most fertilizer of all countries.

The U.S. leads all countries in how much anhydrous and urea it imports, according to the institute. Dakota Gasification Co. plant manager Dale Johnson said a growing market is one reason, but not the overriding one, for adding the production of 380,000 tons of urea annually. He said about half the plant’s anhydrous is shipped elsewhere.

“The cost and risk of that shipping is what is driving us toward urea. It’s easier to store and safer to ship,” Johnson said.

If all goes as planned, Basin’s urea will be available in time for 2017 spring planting in an ambitious three-year build schedule. Jim Greer, project manager, was hired to keep plant construction on a fast track.

That fast track doesn’t just mean working quickly, it means working in circumstances in which the work of several hundred engineers is just a step or two ahead of construction, according to Greer.

“A lot is happening behind the scenes. We’ve produced thousands upon thousands of engineering drawings to be sure the plant is functional. We started construction before we finished the engineering, and it takes a lot of coordination,” Greer said. “Without the fast-track process, we’d add another six to nine months of construction.”

The construction site just to the east of the sprawling gasification complex is a bustling enterprise of men, machines and materials. Best of all — from Greer’s point of view — the urea plant is going vertical. Long-armed cranes swing metal into the framework, where men tied off in safety harnesses move it into place, up to 150 feet at the top.

“It’s going up, level by level, and we’ll add the equipment as we go,” Greer said.

More workers will add to the lively activity through spring and summer: The employee parking lot has a national flavor with license plates issued by states across the union, many from the Gulf region.

A final piece of construction will involve an immense storage building, measuring 700 feet by 200 feet, capable of warehousing about 50 days’ worth of urea production. It’s the equivalent size of the nearby coal handling building, minus the vast subterranean space.

“That’s the last, large piece that’s not awarded yet,” Greer said.

Dakota Gasification Co.-made urea will be the only source in North Dakota. A urea plant planned by Northern Plains Nitrogen at Grand Forks is still, after two years, procuring investors and another project by CHS Inc. at Jamestown was canceled in the fall.

Basin's 380,000 tons would supply the majority of the demand in North Dakota. The North Dakota State University Extension estimates annual urea use in the state is 450,000 tons.