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Air quality or diesel fuel quanity?

Trucks hauling Bakken crude oil line up on Friday afternoon as drivers wait to drop off their product at the Bakken Oil Express Rail Hub west of Dickinson.

A public comment period is now open for a proposed project that would place a diesel refinery -- which could pump as much as 160,000 tons of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere annually -- between Dickinson and South Heart.

The North Dakota Department of Health has published notice of its intent to issue an air pollution control permit for the refinery, which would be constructed by WBI Energy and rest on a 274-acre plot of land four miles southwest of Dickinson. The land was rezoned as industrial last summer in a move that was approved by the Stark County Commission.

The 30-day public comment period ends on Feb. 4. As of Thursday, Craig Thorstenson of the DH said no comments had been offered. He added that a public hearing on the proposed refinery would take place -- likely in Dickinson -- if enough public interest is there.

"Due to the relatively low level of emissions, the impact on the air quality in Dickinson or South Heart -- which are both approximately four miles away -- is expected to be minimal," Thorstenson said. "The impact on air quality for the Theodore Roosevelt National Park is expected to also be minimal. The facility is expected to be a minor source of all "criteria" pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, sulfur dioxide and so on."

As of now, North Dakota is home to just one refinery -- in Mandan -- although plans for a number of new refineries in the state are in the works, including one being proposed by the Three Affiliated Tribes near New Town. WBI Energy, a business arm of MDU Resources Group, and Calumet Refining LLC would share an equal partnership for the Dickinson refinery.

MDU Resources spokesman Tim Rasmussen said the approximately $300 million refinery could bring as many as 100 full-time "good paying jobs" to Stark County.

"If this was a baseball game, we'd be in the top of the second inning," Rasmussen said. "There's a lot of work ahead, but much has already been done. Land for the proposed plant has been purchased, engineering studies and the pre-construction work is in high gear. This is a good project and we're aggressively moving forward to get this built."

The plant would be a crude oil topping facility designed to process 20,000 barrels of oil per day from the Bakken, Rasmussen said.

"A topping plant is a refinery that strips out the easily refined petroleum components from crude oil and processes them," Rasmusssen added. "In our case those would be diesel or kerosene fuels. We would then ship the remaining components off to other refineries for further processing. Topping plants are typically smaller than full-scale refineries."

The plant would also process naphtha (a liquid similar to gasoline) and atmospheric bottoms (ATB). Rasmussen said that, if everything continues as he expects, construction of the plant could begin this spring. Construction is expected to take up to 20 months.

Public meetings took place in Dickinson and South Heart last spring. The plant -- which would be a 24/7 operation -- would add 50 to 60 outbound trucks carrying fuel on area roads daily, according to county officials, who have expressed concerns about the added traffic. Crude is also expected to be carried to the refinery via pipeline.

Not everyone, however, is convinced the project is a good idea. TRNP Chief of Interpretation and Public Affairs Eileen Andes said park officials are concerned about how the proposed refinery would affect air quality in TRNP.

"We're very concerned with air quality and the continued growth of the industrial footprint in the gateway area of the park," Andes said. "We monitor our air and under the Clean Air Act, all national parks are classified as Class I areas, which are required to have the cleanest possible air. We're very dedicated to protecting and preserving our park for the American people."

Thorstenson said despite the fact that the Federal "major source" level for greenhouse gas emissions is 100,000 tons per year, or more than 60,000 tons less than what the proposed refinery is expected to release into the air, the DH is not concerned.

"Although greenhouse gas emissions from the facility are expected to be greater than the federal major level, these emissions are small from a global standpoint," Thorstenson said. "Carbon dioxide emissions from the facility will be minimized by combusting primarily refinery fuel gas and natural gas at the facility. Both of these fuels are considered to be clean fuels from a carbon dioxide emissions standpoint."

Sierra Club spokesman Wayde Schafer said the environmental organization opposes the opening of the plant.

"We believe that building more refineries is the wrong direction to go" Schafer said. "We'd like to see much more of a commitment to renewable energy sources. We need to be smart about energy exploration and production in western North Dakota. The Sierra Club is not in support of this project and we will be commenting."

Andes said 647, 155 people visited TRNP in 2012, representing the most since 1982.

"We're worried that people will see the industrial development around the park and they won't want to stay in the area," Andes said. "This is something that we're paying close attention to. We're going to be ramping up our efforts to protect the park."

A copy of the of air pollution control draft permit is available for review at the Stark County auditor's office in Dickinson. A copy can also be obtained by writing a request to the DH Division of Air Quality or by emailing Thorstenson at

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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