Carbon capture technology has generated a lot of controversy–but little private investment–due to its lack of profitability and efficiency. So why is a proposal to retrofit an aging coal-powered plant in North Dakota with smokestack scrubbers receiving millions of federal taxpayer dollars?
Ask Senator John Hoeven (R-ND), who has directed more than $30 million in Department of Energy funding to Project Tundra.
The project would install a carbon capture system at the Milton R. Young Station, a two-unit plant that has run on lignite coal from the nearby Center Mine since it began operating in 1970. The captured carbon would then be piped to the Bakken region for injection into oil wells in a process known as Enhanced Oil Recovery.
Hoeven recently secured a $10 million DOE grant that will go toward a preliminary engineering study for Project Tundra. State and coal industry sources have also contributed, with the aim of keeping the coal industry alive in North Dakota. Other help will come from tax incentives for carbon capture projects that Congress passed in 2018.
Project Tundra already enjoys tax benefits at the state level. A bill eliminating taxes for oil extracted by carbon dioxide derived from lignite coal combustion was passed into law last year.
Yet all that money may be for naught, given the track record of similar projects.
Project Tundra was pushed by the Lignite Energy Council, which Hoeven is close to — the Council donated $21,000 to his reelection campaigns since he first ran for the Senate in 2010.
That may not sound like much these days, but he's one of their top recipients, and he has spoken at their annual meetings.
Other partners in the project include the Minnkota Power Cooperative, which operates the plant; the University of North Dakota's Energy and Environmental Research Center, originally founded as a lignite research laboratory under the U.S. Bureau of Mines; and the North Dakota Industrial Commission, which authorized a $15 million grant from its Lignite Research Fund. Minnkota external affairs manager Stacy Dahl estimated the total cost of the project at $1.3 and $1.6 billion.
Press materials on the project say it will replicate successful carbon capture projects such as Boundary Dam in Saskatchewan, Canada and the Petra Nova plant in Texas. But neither of these projects are great models. Petra Nova is run on a different type of coal that reacts better with the solvent used to capture gas. The Boundary Dam Station installed carbon capture technology on one of its six units with the intent of expanding, but abandoned the effort in 2017 because the costs outweighed the benefits.
Project Tundra's boosters are frank about the project's intent: To maintain coal's primary role in North Dakota's energy mix. “It really is about finding a path forward for coal in a carbon-managed world,” Dahl told the Bismarck Tribune. Neither Minnkota nor Hoeven responded to DeSmog’s requests for comment.
But the technologies taxpayer dollars are funding aren’t managing carbon produced from coal any better than renewable sources of energy, experts say. Michael Barnard, Chief Strategist of the energy consultancy TFIE, has written several analyses of the economics behind carbon capture and monetization. The studies all conclude that carbon capture–particularly involving Enhanced Oil Recovery–amounts to what he calls “expensive greenwashing.”
“It’s a very expensive band-aid for local economies dependent on fossil fuels,” Barnard told DeSmog. He cites studies showing that it takes a ton of carbon to extract anywhere from ¼ to 1 ton of oil from wells, so that when the carbon produced by the process is factored in, it’s “a carbon multiplier.”
This is the same message as a report produced last year by Mark Z. Jacobsen of Stanford University, which concluded that carbon capture cannot compete with renewables in terms of carbon removal.
Local community development organizations say state and federal funding is better spent helping communities rebound from the inevitable closure of coal-fired plants like the Beulah Station, where workers lost their pensions after the company that operated the station went bankrupt.
“Projects like this should be financed by private money only,” said Scott Skokos, Executive Director of the Dakota Resource Council. “If companies want to do it, fine, but it’s too risky to waste taxpayer money that could be used for job retraining and economic redevelopment for communities that will be impacted by potential coal plant closures.”
Image credit: Ross M. Perkins via Flickr CC