BISMARCK — In the state whose energy sector has recently registered the second most carbon dioxide emissions per capita, Gov. Doug Burgum's challenge to get North Dakota to economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2030 landed as a surprise for environmentalists and fossil fuel leaders alike.
And in the two months since the announcement at the state's largest oil industry conference, both sides have looked for more specifics on what exactly needs to be done to achieve such an ambitious climate milestone in under a decade.
Burgum's carbon target comes as climate change has lately taken the forefront of nationwide political and economic priorities. President Joe Biden opened his administration with a series of warning shots to fossil fuel producers, as well as ambitious climate goals of his own — among them a plan to slash U.S. carbon emissions in half by 2030. At the same time, Wall Street has increasingly prioritized investment in low-emissions and clean energy projects — a trend that has put stress on the funding channels of the world’s leading fossil fuel companies.
Burgum has been clear that North Dakota will reach its target through "innovation, not regulation." And governor's spokesman Mike Nowatzki noted that the 2030 target was issued as "a challenge and invitation" to the state's leading industries — one that doesn't include a rubric or rigid government instructions on how to get there.
Much of the vision fits into steps the state is already taking, measures that Burgum has said could turn North Dakota into a vast carbon sink for the rest of the region.
According to the state's Energy and Environmental Resource Center, North Dakota's distinctive geology has the capacity to store between 76 billion and 252 billion tons of carbon dioxide, potential that Burgum said could be used to absorb the carbon output of other states. With the higher end of that storage range, Burgum noted, North Dakota could store the entire country’s carbon output for fifty years.
On top of this "geologic jackpot," North Dakota is home to a growing list of energy ventures that could chip away at the state's carbon footprint.
“We've got a lot of good things happening here," said Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford. "Hearing all this is what brought the governor to the 2030 goal of carbon neutrality."
Sanford said that to reach the goal, the state will need an all-fronts approach that includes cutting carbon emissions, expanding renewable energy and a major focus on carbon capture.
North Dakota is home to multiple ambitious carbon capture ventures, including the recently unveiled, $1.5 billion plan to retrofit the state’s largest coal-fired power plant, Coal Creek Station. That project would pair the carbon storage technology with new wind energy development, a combo that Sanford called a chance to "have our cake and eat it too."
The importation of carbon from other states is also key to the governor's goal. Two companies, the Iowa-based Summit Carbon Solutions and the Texas-based Denbury Resources, are each planning large-scale pipelines to transport carbon dioxide from out of state, allowing North Dakota to either permanently trap the carbon in the ground or inject it into oil fields to ramp up production in aging wells.
There's not a consistent standard dictating who gets credit for that carbon—North Dakota or the state who produced it—and the governor's office believes shipping carbon across the boarder should factor into the 2030 goal.
"Would it not count for something for us to be sequestering that much CO2?" Sanford asked. "That's got to be a positive on a scorecard for us somewhere."
Government climate goals can vary substantially, and a lack of consensus on how to report progress can lead to confusion when it comes to measuring carbon footprints. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, 23 states have established statutory or executive greenhouse gas emissions targets, encompassing a breadth of different benchmarks and timelines.
Warren Leon, the director for the Clean Energy States Alliance, said the biggest difference between Burgum’s proposal and the goals adopted in other states, “is the almost exclusive reliance on carbon capture and storage.” For most states, carbon capture is expected to play a modest role on the road to 100% clean energy, while Leon observed that in North Dakota the technology is expected to carry the bulk of the load.
Leon and the Clean Energy States Alliance have maintained a state-level clean energy tracker of their own, though North Dakota doesn’t appear on the list because its target wasn’t established through formal means like legislative statute or executive order.
Ben Lilliston, the head of rural strategies and climate change at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minnesota, noted that government climate goals are often criticized for being overly vague and said it's tough to gauge whether North Dakota's target is achievable without seeing a more specific plan. Among other details, Lilliston said he would like to see breakdowns of the relative weight carried by carbon storage versus emissions cuts, more on the implications for energy, agriculture and other economic sectors, as well as regular reporting plans to monitor progress along the way.
"There's a real feeling of urgency that we need to be focusing on cutting emissions," said Lilliston, noting that for many in the environmental community, balancing out emissions with carbon storage isn't enough. "We can't sort of capture our way out of this or sequester our way out of this."
Both Lilliston and Leon said that they are unaware of any other state that has set a timeline for net-zero or carbon neutrality as early as 2030. Among the states that have adopted formal carbon neutral goals, Michigan has set a deadline for 2050 and California aims to reach the mark by 2045, according to the Clean Energy States Alliance tracker.
Within North Dakota's energy and agriculture sectors, Burgum's target has required some smoothing over. Sanford said that part of the process since the announcement has been assuring industry leaders that the target won't disrupt their current business models.
“Frankly, it’s ‘Don’t be alarmed,’” the lieutenant governor said of their message to industry. “This is just accumulating a scorecard for ourselves as North Dakotans of what you are already doing. This is not to put new regulations on you or change what you are already doing.”
For North Dakota's top oil lobbyist who introduced Burgum at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference in May, the governor's announcement came as "a complete surprise."
“The reaction was, I think, well okay, what does that mean?” said Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council.
But Ness added that his organization supports the "fabulous" vision to reduce the carbon footprint of North Dakota oil production — a step he said may prove critical for sustaining financial investment in the state. When it comes to the implications for his industry, it may be too soon to know.
"The nuances of the details of the wording mean a lot to various people, oftentimes very different things,” Ness said. "At this point it's a little early to tell.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.