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Changing mission: EERC seeks to find solutions to energy, environmental issues

Tom Erickson, CEO of the University of North Dakota's Energy and Environmental Research Center, shows an image of oil in the Bakken Formation, two miles below the earth's surface. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service1 / 2
John Harju is the vice president for Strategic Partnerships at the EERC. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service2 / 2

GRAND FORKS — As the “braintrust of the Bakken,” the Energy and Environment Research Center is leading research aimed at reducing North Dakota’s carbon dioxide emissions.

The EERC, located onthe University of North Dakota’s campus, employs more than 200 people, has more than 1,300 clients in 53 countries and has an economic impact of $90.6 million a year, according to the facility. It receives nearly $40 million in grant funds annually.

That grant money funds a variety of projects, including projects that deal with the capture and storage of carbon dioxide, water management, coal utilization, alternative fuels and renewable energy and oil and gas.

“We are the go-to research center for solving problems, solving challenges,” Nikki Massmann, communications director for the EERC, said.

The center was founded in 1951 as the Robertson Lignite Research Laboratory, a federal facility under the U.S. Bureau of Mines. It became a federal energy technology center under the U.S. Department of Energy in 1977 and was defederalized in 1983, when it became a part of UND.

The EERC’s focus has changed over time, John Harju, vice president for strategic partnerships at the EERC, said. Under the Bureau of Mines and Department of Energy, the EERC was exclusively a lignite coal research facility. Now coal is less than a third of the center’s portfolio, Harju said. The big three the Center focuses on now are oil, gas and renewables.

“If you look at the way the utility sector has evolved, we’ve evolved as well,” he said. “At one point, coal dominated the electric generation portfolio regionally and that’s considerably down today and the work that we do is reflective of that greater market change.”

One challenge facing the entire globe today is the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, Harju said. Harju noted that at the EERC they are not trying to figure out what the environmental effects of the increased CO2 is doing to the atmosphere, but attempting to find ways to reduce the amount being emitted.

“CO2 in the atmosphere is up considerably, it’s up 10 percent in the last 15 years. That’s considerable,” Harju said. “Whatever its effect on climate change is what other people are figuring out, so we’re very focused on technologically, what can we do to try to mitigate that rising CO2 in the atmosphere?”

Harju said they know CO2 is a “heat-absorbing” gas and greenhouse gas that some are concerned about. This influences policy, which in turn influences research contracts that are available, which influences technology and the industry as a whole, Harju said.

The EERC works on all types of technology, whether it’s renewables, such as wind and water, or whether it’s more traditional fuel systems, like oil and gas, and trying to make them less carbon-emitting, Harju said.

Project Tundra

One of the EERC’s major projects is known as Project Tundra and was recently approved for $15 million by the North Dakota Industrial Commission.

The project, led by Minnkota Power Cooperative with the help of the EERC, would help pay for the engineering and design study for a carbon dioxide capture system at the Milton R. Young Station near Center, N.D. The goals of the project include preserving the use of lignite for power production and using the captured carbon to extend the production of older oil wells.

The captured CO2 would be compressed into essentially a liquid form and stored several miles underground before being transported by pipeline to western North Dakota for use in enhanced oil recovery, which involves injecting CO2 into the well to push out more oil.

Research surrounding the project has also received millions of dollars in grant money from the U.S. Department of Energy, including a nearly $3.5 million grant that will allow the EERC to establish a field laboratory in the South Central Cut Bank oil field in north central Montana to test the geological storage of carbon dioxide, with the goal of advancing similar storage in the Williston Basin.

"The big economic benefit for a state like North Dakota would be that we can still mine our lignite, create power with our lignite, capture the carbon dioxide (and) use that carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery, (which could boost) our oil production out of wells we've already drilled," Charles Gorecki, director of subsurface research and development at the EERC, told Forum News Service earlier this year. "At the end, we have power that has lower carbon. We have oil that has lower carbon, and along the way, we have more jobs and we've also created a lot of tax revenue for the state."

Work with other entities

Great River Energy, like most utility companies in the state, is not large enough to have its own research department, Dave Farnsworth, manager of power generation and engineering with the company, said.

Farnsworth said that in the past, Great River Energy and other utility companies worked with the EERC on mercury control technology and testing as it related to lignite coal.

The EERC is responsible for bringing new technologies to the Bakken over the past decade, Ness said. The EERC is also working on pipeline monitoring projects and projects that deal with the reclamation and mediation of older oilfields in northwest North Dakota that have some solidity issues, he said.

Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said the EERC is the “brain trust of the Bakken” and is not just a key to the energy industry in North Dakota and the region, but the world as a whole.

“They are a world-class research facility right here in Grand Forks, North Dakota,” he said. “We are extremely fortunate to have them here, and across the world they are known for their incredible work they do.”

Sydney Mook

Sydney Mook has been covering higher education at the Grand Forks Herald since May 2018. She previously served as the multimedia editor and cops, courts and health reporter at the Dickinson Press from January 2016 to May 2018.  She graduated from the University of South Dakota with a bachelor's degree in journalism and political science in three and half years in December 2015. While at the USD, she worked for the campus newspaper, The Volante, as well as the television news show, Coyote News. She also interned at South Dakota Public Broadcasting and spent the summer before her senior year interning in Fort Knox for the ROTC Cadet Summer Training program. In her spare time, Sydney enjoys cheering on the New York Yankees and the Kentucky Wildcats, as well as playing golf. If you've got an idea for a video be sure to give her a call!

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