Going underground

 Fueled by $17M in DOE funding, UND researchers work with industry to launch next phase of major CO2 storage project

Minnkota Power Cooperative’s Project Tundra, a carbon capture, utilization and storage R&D project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and others, is testing technology to remove and store carbon dioxide from the cooperative’s Milton R. Young Station near Center, N.D. Photo courtesy Minnkota Power Cooperative.

UND’s Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) is moving ahead with the third phase of a project designed to remove millions of tons of greenhouse gases from the emissions of industrial facilities to mitigate climate change.

The EERC was awarded nearly $17 million in April from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Fossil Energy for a project that will directly support Project Tundra, a carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) research and development project led by Grand Forks-based Minnkota Power Cooperative.

Another $7.9 million in non-DOE funding from the North Dakota Industrial Commission (NDIC), through Minnkota, as well as Computer Modelling Group Ltd. and Schlumberger, brings the total funding to $24.9 million for the CarbonSAFE Phase III project. DOE recently awarded a total of $131 million for cost-shared R&D CCUS projects in the U.S.

Charles Gorecki

“We’ve been really fortunate to be part of Minnkota’s team and help them work on Project Tundra for a number of years,” said EERC CEO Charlie Gorecki. “We’ve been awarded the Phase III effort, which looks at storage options for Minnkota, should they choose to go forward with capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the Milton R. Young power plant near Center, N.D. If that happens, we would continue to have reliable power from North Dakota lignite coal that has very low carbon emissions.”

DOE and NDIC also awarded Minnkota a front-end engineering and design (FEED) study project for Unit Two of the cooperative’s Milton R. Young Station. Through the acquisition and analysis of additional geologic information, the EERC will build upon previous feasibility studies that confirmed the viability of the storage complex in central North Dakota.

“Taking the next step in this research shows that North Dakota is well-positioned to bring a carbon capture and storage facility, like Project Tundra, into commercial operation,” said Mac McLennan, Minnkota president and CEO.  “We are pleased to continue work with the energy experts at EERC because of their in-depth understanding of our industry and North Dakota’s unique geology.”

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who has backed federal support for Project Tundra, called the DOE award “a tremendous boost to the good work of the EERC and its partners, helping bring Project Tundra significantly closer to completion.”

Hoeven said the CarbonSAFE Initiative was a key priority in recent appropriations bills that will help develop and demonstrate CCUS technology in North Dakota.

“Efforts like this will help ensure our nation continues to harness all of its abundant energy resources, including affordable, reliable and resilient fuels like coal,” he said.

The UND Energy & Environmental Research Center recently received a $17 million award from the Department of Energy to study carbon storage options for Minnkota’s Project Tundra. Photo courtesy of EERC.

Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette said adapting new carbon-capture technologies for industrial emissions is an example of using innovation rather than regulation to reduce CO2, while continuing to use sources of reliable energy.

“These advancements mark another milestone for the department, which has been developing and improving the technology across the CCUS value chain for over 20 years,” he said.

In 2018, Congress passed the federal “45Q” tax credit, providing an incentive to increase the amount of CO2 being stored underground in geologic formations. It’s intended for power plants and other industrial facilities interested in extracting greenhouse gases from their emissions to reduce the impacts of climate change.

Gorecki sat down with UND Today for a Q&A session providing additional details on Project Tundra. The interview has been edited for clarity.

What is the relationship between Minnkota and the EERC on Project Tundra?

Project Tundra is a Minnkota-led effort with partnership from many groups, including the EERC. We’ve had several different projects in the past working with Minnkota on assessing the feasibility of carbon capture and storage at the Milton R. Young power station. We are a subcontractor to Minnkota on the FEED study, which is assessing the carbon capture portion of Project Tundra. The EERC is the lead on the CarbonSAFE effort, which is a facet of the project that is looking at CO2 storage options for Project Tundra.

Is the goal to take CO2 out of the power plant’s emissions and pump it into a geologic formation for storage?

Absolutely. We’ve been assessing the potential for geologic storage in this region for about two decades, starting with the Plains CO2 Reduction (PCOR) Partnership Program from 2003 until the end of 2019. The original PCOR Partnership Program evaluated the potential for carbon storage. We looked at all the major point sources of carbon dioxide emissions and studied the storage potential in oilfield formations, saline formations and unmineable lignite.

From 2005 through 2009, we conducted four pilot-scale projects where we injected carbon dioxide or evaluated terrestrial storage. Through this whole process, we’ve learned how to effectively store carbon dioxide in subsurface geologic formations.

The EERC also participated in a commercial-scale demonstration, as part of the PCOR Partnership Program, where we monitored the injection and storage of over 5 million tons of carbon dioxide in the Bell Creek oil field of Montana, in conjunction with Denbury Resources.

These projects led up to our efforts with Minnkota and looking at the potential for storing carbon dioxide from its Milton R. Young power facility.

What is the current timetable for Project Tundra?

Project Tundra is currently in the advanced research and design phase. If the project moves forward, construction will commence in 2022–2023. We’ll work with Minnkota to seek a state-issued CO2 storage facility permit, and one or more CO2 injection permits, as part of the CarbonSAFE effort. In addition to the carbon capture, the injection and storage permits are key pieces Minnkota needs to help it decide if it will move forward with further phases of Project Tundra and to secure project financing.

At the same time, Minnkota is leading the FEED study for the CO2 capture portion of the project. It’s to determine what the capture facility would look like, along with its cost, and then decide if it’s an economically viable project.

Is there potential for using this captured CO2 for enhanced oil recovery (EOR)?

Yes.  Any company or organization that captures carbon in proximity to an oilfield might decide to capture it and use it for enhanced oil recovery or permanently inject it for dedicated storage. In the case of dedicated storage, the organization could receive a tax credit for the storage of $50 per ton of CO2, and if the organization sells it for EOR, they could receive a tax credit of $35 per ton of CO2, in addition to the price received for the sale of the CO2.

In the end, capturing carbon dioxide and storing it results in electricity with a lower-carbon footprint, and using captured carbon dioxide in enhanced oil recovery produces oil with a lower-carbon footprint as well.

Is it difficult to find good places for geological storage? Does there have to be a specific set of conditions to make it work?

We do need a specific set of conditions. What we’re looking for are geologic sedimentary basins. The Williston Basin, for example, is a prime sedimentary basin for CO2 storage because of its geologic makeup and seismic stability.

There are many sedimentary basins around the world, often places where you find oil and gas. The target storage formations for CO2 are sandstones and carbonate reservoirs, overlain by shale formations with very low permeability (referred to as “cap rock”). These target storage formations have properties in which you could inject fluids, such as CO2, permanently and safely.

The cap rock layers that we look for are similar to those layers that have trapped oil and gas in the subsurface for millions of years. North Dakota also has comprehensive regulations in place for the safe and permanent storage of CO2, including the regulatory authority over injection well and storage facility permitting.