Project Tundra responds to concerns of carbon dioxide leakage at landmark permit hearing
Minnkota Power Cooperative's ambitious venture to capture and store carbon dioxide off of a coal plant in central North Dakota appeared before state regulators on Tuesday, in a hearing that focused in part on concerns that carbon dioxide could escape from the subterranean vault targeted by the company.
BISMARCK — Scientists and executives behind Project Tundra appeared before North Dakota regulators Tuesday, Nov. 2, to discuss permitting of the high-profile carbon capture proposal in a hearing that focused in part on the safety of the company's underground storage process.
Grand Forks-based Minnkota Power Cooperative’s Project Tundra, the billion-dollar plan to retrofit Milton R. Young coal plant in Oliver County for carbon capture, would be the largest facility of its kind in the world if it succeeds, and state leaders hope it could also provide a blueprint for the decarbonization of other coal-fired power plants in North Dakota and beyond.
“We believe, and I think our membership believes, that we’re gonna live in what we call ‘a carbon-managed world,’” Minnkota President Mac McLennan told regulators with the North Dakota Oil and Gas Division on Tuesday, in an explanation of the impetus for Project Tundra. “We’re gonna live in a world where we're gonna have to manage the carbon out of our assets or replace those assets.”
A sparsely used technology, carbon capture and storage is the process of stripping carbon dioxide molecules off of emissions and injecting them deep into the earth, preventing their warming effect in the earth’s atmosphere. Carbon capture built momentum in recent years as companies from ethanol producers to coal plants looked to the expensive technology as a way to make their businesses cleaner and more economic for the long-term.
Project Tundra aims to remove 90% of the carbon dioxide from Young Station’s emissions and inject it several thousand feet into the earth, where it would be trapped permanently as a vast plume in a sandstone formation known as Broom Creek. The majority of that space would be leased from private landowners, though the North Dakota Board of University and School Lands last week approved a plan to authorize a relatively small 640 acres in state property for underground storage, as well.
Regulators fielded testimony from Minnkota representatives and scientists with the University of North Dakota’s Energy and Environmental Research Center, which has led research on carbon capture projects in the state, on the technical processes of storing the carbon dioxide underground, as well as several letters raising concerns about possible leakage of the carbon dioxide stored underground.
Those concerns were dismissed as "rank hearsay" by Minnkota attorney Lawrence Bender, a Bismarck-based oil and gas lawyer.
A 17-page letter submitted by Houston-based geoscientist and carbon capture consultant Daniel Zebrowski argued Minnkota's application does not comply with North Dakota laws regarding safe carbon storage, oversights that he said risk leakage into drinking water sources near the earth's surface.
Zebrowski, who submitted his letter on behalf of some surface landowners in the storage area, called on regulators to reject Minnkota's application, though he argued the problems could be remedied with more time and research.
The environmentalist Dakota Resource Council also submitted a letter calling underground carbon dioxide storage “incredibly risky,” and citing research out of Stanford University that found small earthquakes triggered by the injection process could break the seal and allow carbon dioxide to escape.
“The release of injected (carbon dioxide) is antithetical to the mission of project Tundra,” wrote Dakota Resource Council director Scott Skokos. “If this were to become a chronic problem, it could potentially derail the entire project, thus wasting millions in taxpayer dollars.”
Representatives from Minnkota and the EERC said they are confident carbon dioxide will remain fixed in the targeted geological formation.
Though Minnkota plans to use several monitoring wells to make sure the carbon dioxide stays in place, Amanda Livers-Douglas, a principal geoscientist with EERC, told regulators impermeable rock layers above and below the storage location would prevent its escape. The nearest drinking water source is located thousands of feet above the storage area, Livers-Douglas said, noting a higher rock formation would catch any escaped molecules in the unlikely case of a leak.
The nearest historically identified earthquake occurred about 40 miles away from the storage area, Livers-Douglas said.
If approved by the Oil and Gas Division, Project Tundra’s storage area will still need final clearance from the North Dakota Industrial Commission, a three-member panel chaired by Gov. Doug Burgum that regulates business in the state. Minnkota’s project is the second carbon capture proposal in the state to reach this regulatory stage, behind the much smaller venture at Red Trail Energy’s Richardton ethanol plant that received final clearance from the Industrial Commission last month .
Project Tundra and Red Trail are part of a growing roster of carbon capture ventures in North Dakota that have cropped up in response to a federal tax credit that pays companies to permanently bury their carbon dioxide.
Minnkota faced criticism in the last year from environmental groups who argue their project will draw on large amounts of taxpayer funding for a low probability of success.
Last month, the watchdog Environmental & Policy Institute published quarterly reports submitted by Minnkota to the U.S. Department of Energy, which has funded early engineering phases of Project Tundra. The reports found Project Tundra faced higher-than-expected engineering costs and delayed timelines.
Shannon Mikula, an attorney with Minnkota, told regulators on Tuesday that Project Tundra expects to make its decision about moving forward with financing in late 2022, a delay of about a year from timelines previously disclosed by the company.
Young Station produces around six million tons of carbon dioxide per year, Mikula told regulators, and Minnkota aims to inject about four million tons of carbon dioxide into the earth annually when Project Tundra begins. So far, nearly 80% of landowners in the storage area consented to the project, clearing the bar needed for the project to move forward.
Mikula also told regulators the company is keeping an eye on potential options for selling captured carbon dioxide to boost oil production in the Bakken further down the road. That process, known as "enhanced oil recovery," was central to Project Tundra's revenue model early on, but Minnkota abandoned the plan in favor of simple storage, which receives higher payouts from the federal tax credits.
Earlier this year, members of the North Dakota Legislature established $250 million in low-interest loans intended for Project Tundra . The first deadline for that funding came and went on Monday without an application from Project Tundra, Minnkota spokeswoman Stacey Dahl confirmed, though she said the company may pursue the funds when they finalize engineering costs next summer.
The company has also cleared the first phase of a Department of Energy loan application program, Dahl said, where it is seeking $700 million in federal funding.
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