Big deal on Capitol Hill

EERC’s John Harju testimony before Congress on curbing climate change attracts bipartisan raves

The Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) at the University of North Dakota has been an active player in the research, development and commercialization of technologies to capture, store and use carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

In his first time testifying before members of Congress, John Harju with the University of North Dakota Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) last Thursday entered a hearing room in which senators on both sides of the aisle were in bipartisan agreement.

Harju, the EERC’s vice president for strategic partnerships, has testified dozens of times before North Dakota legislative committees, but he’d never done it in Washington, D.C. In this case, he was one of six witnesses who presented testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources related to the Enhancing Fossil Fuel Energy Carbon Technology (EFFECT) Act of 2019.

John Harju, EERC vice president for strategic partnerships.

“It’s a lot like you see it on television,” Harju said. “The setting is very formal and very stately. You feel the history when you’re in there.”

Unlike television news, the interaction between the senators and the witnesses during the hearing lacked the fireworks often associated with Washington politics.

“This isn’t exactly the kind of thing that ends up in prime-time viewership – probably because it’s not so controversial,” Harju noted. “Because of bipartisan support, it tends to sail under the radar.”

Ranking committee member Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., who introduced the EFFECT Act with bipartisan support, noted that China and India will be using coal to supply more than half their energy needs for the next 20-30 years.

“If we acknowledge that fossil fuels are going to be part of the global energy mix – and we do call this global climate, not North American climate – then we need to figure out how to use them in the cleanest way we can,” he said. “It’s a fact that our country has the greatest resource of all, brilliant researchers and entrepreneurs.”

The role of carbon capture tech

Harju explained that technologies for carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) are recognized as a practical approach counter climate change and have enjoyed strong support from the legislative and executive branches of the federal government for the past 16 years. Witnesses testified that the equivalent of millions of cars have been taken off the road with systems capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions for underground storage or for such uses as enhanced oil recovery, cement, plastic and soft drinks.

“I’m confident that we can manage carbon efficiently and in a way that’s positive to our economy, as opposed to a drag upon it,” Harju said. “Any solutions we offer for carbon management need to recognize that we can’t have a negative impact on the economic drivers of our region.”

Technologies to capture, store and use CO2 emissions produced by fossil fuels are considered one of the primary methods to counter climate change. Photo by Kari Suedel/EERC.

Committee chair Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, questioned Harju about including Alaska in a proposal to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) aimed at developing regional CCUS partnerships. Thanks to a meeting between Murkowski and Harju arranged several weeks earlier by committee member Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., Harju informed the senator that Alaska would indeed be included in the EERC’s proposal.

“I think there is so much that we can learn from one another with this regional approach,” Murkowski said. “We might be frustrated that we’re not seeing as much commercialization as quickly as we would like because of the cost, because of the learning curve. There’s a sense of urgency, so we urge you to be more creative, more nimble, more malleable as you work to build out what I think are some very exciting opportunities for us.”

Since 2003, the EERC has led the Plains CO2 Reduction (PCOR) Partnership, which includes nine energy-producing states and four Canadian provinces. The EERC’s latest proposal to a $20 million DOE solicitation is intended to accelerate the deployment of CCUS technologies. Harju expects the proposal to be submitted soon and DOE to announce the winners in late summer or early fall.

“I think we have the right parties at the table with us,” Harju said. “It’s a competitive process, but we’re cautiously optimistic that we have a high likelihood of securing the funding.”

Ongoing projects

In his testimony, Harju outlined some of the projects in which the EERC is currently involved, which include:

  • Working with Red Tail Energy, a North Dakota-based ethanol producer, on field implementation of geologic CO2 storage.
  • Project Tundra with Grand Forks-based Minnkota Power Cooperative, which will capture and store more than 50 million tons of CO2 from the cooperative’s Milton R. Young Station near Center, N.D.
  • Commercial-scale evaluation of CO2 storage and enhanced oil recovery at the Denbury Resources Bell Creek oil field in southeastern Montana.

For the past 16 years, UND’s EERC has led the Plains CO2 Reduction (PCOR) Partnership, which includes nine states and four Canadian provinces. Photo by Kari Suedel/EERC.

Harju also noted that through PCOR’s work with other North Dakota stakeholders, the state developed comprehensive geologic CO2 storage regulations and remains the only state granted primacy for this activity by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In addition to an introduction by Hoeven that Harju said made him blush, the EERC was singled out by Julio Friedmann, senior research scholar with the Center for Global Energy at Columbia University, for building partnerships in which monitoring is clear, robust and transparent.

“It has been our experience over the past 18 years that engaging communities and engaging stakeholders early is essential to get there,” Friedmann explained. “There’s kind of no substitute for that and, actually, the EERC has been an exceptional example of the right way to go about doing that.”

Harju said he appreciated the comments, noting that Friedmann had been the EERC’s contact on CCUS technologies in the DOE during the Obama administration.

“If you look at trying to reduce carbon emissions in a meaningful way on a global basis, CCUS is one of the critical tools to do it,” Harju said. “It’s right up there with renewables and energy efficiency and other technologies. It’s why CCUS has such strong bipartisan support, and we’ve had tremendous industrial support on this as well. It really hasn’t mattered whether it’s red states or blue states.”