BISMARCK — Top North Dakota regulators gave a greenlight Tuesday, Oct. 19, for the underground storage of carbon dioxide captured off of a Richardton ethanol plant, the first project of its kind to get approval in the state.

The clearance for Red Trail Energy by the North Dakota Industrial Commission marks an early milestone in the state's mission to establish itself as a national leader in carbon capture and storage, a technology that built momentum in recent years as a way to counteract the emissions driving climate change.

“This is a landmark day,” Department of Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms told state leaders during Tuesday’s Industrial Commission meeting.

Carbon capture and storage, a sparsely used technology so far, is the process of stripping carbon dioxide molecules off of emissions and injecting them into the earth, where they remain forever.

Executives at Red Trail Energy plan to inject the carbon dioxide generated as a byproduct of their ethanol production at a well site in Stark County, where the molecules would be stored more than a mile underground.

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Ethanol plants like Red Trail have looked to use carbon storage to capitalize on California's clean fuel standard, while a federal tax credit has also drawn investment into carbon capture by many industrial and coal companies as a way of making their businesses cleaner and more economic for the long-term.

Large-scale carbon capture projects can be expensive, with dramatically different costs for ethanol producers than for coal-fired power plants. Carbon capture on ethanol plants can cost tens of millions of dollars, while the announced carbon capture projects at coal plants in North Dakota, like Minnkota Power Cooperative’s Project Tundra, have estimated total costs north of a billion dollars.

A growing roster of ethanol producers and coal-fired power plants have announced carbon capture and storage projects in North Dakota in recent years, though none is as far along in the process as Red Trail.

North Dakota leaders note the state's geology could give it an advantage in a national market for carbon storage. While projects in almost every other state have to get clearance from the federal government to store carbon underground, North Dakota is one of just two with the jurisdiction to independently regulate the practice.

Helms noted Red Trail’s planned annual injection of 180,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year is much smaller than the volumes planned for some of the other projects lining up in the state. The next project in line for permitting, Helms said, has 20 times the storage volume of Red Trail, “and the one behind that probably twice that size, and the one behind that probably three times that size.”

“We’re happy that we’re starting out small,” he said. “This is drops, for a starter.”

The Energy and Environmental Research Center, which led North Dakota’s research into carbon capture, estimated the state has a total storage potential of up to 252 billion tons, enough to store the United States’ carbon output for 50 years. That estimate provided the basis for Gov. Doug Burgum’s target, announced earlier this year, for the state to reach carbon neutrality by 2030, an ambitious target that will depend heavily on the success of carbon capture and storage.

Helms noted research into North Dakota's regulatory jurisdiction for carbon storage began 18 years ago, the start of a long process that led to Red Trail's approval on Thursday.

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