UND Today

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EERC celebrates 40th anniversary

Energy & Environmental Research Center continues to evolve as leader in scientific solutions, safe energy

Signing of the Cooperative Agreement, 1983. From left to right: Jan W. Mares, Thomas J. Clifford, and North Dakota Senator Mark Andrews.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on March 1, 2023, on the EERC Solutions website.

Feb. 28 marks the 40th anniversary of the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC). In 1983, the Grand Forks Energy Technology Center (GFETC) was transferred from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy to the University of North Dakota. The 28th of February 1983 also happened to be the University’s 100th anniversary: a momentous shift befitting such an occasion.

Although the EERC did not become a research extension of UND until 1983, the EERC’s roots date back to the 1890s. Early work done at the University by Earl Babcock, a chemistry professor at UND who studied the state’s lignite coal resources and investigated potential uses for them, helped pave the way for the Bureau of Mines laboratory to be established on the University campus in 1951. The facility was designated a federal laboratory when DOE was formed in 1977, but by 1983, the EERC had been defederalized, becoming part of the University.

A cooperative agreement was signed with DOE in 1983, making this the defining moment when we became a center of energy R&D expertise, providing focused R&D services to a wide spectrum of clients, rather than being dedicated exclusively to and funded exclusively by the federal government.

But what caused the defederalization? Rewinding to 1980, 3 years before the cooperative agreement was signed, then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan had just taken office and was implementing major energy reforms. In 1982, DOE decided to defederalize three of its Energy Technology Centers in Laramie, Wyo.; Grand Forks; and Bartlesville, Okla., because of anticipated sharp decreases in the fossil energy budget. DOE sought legislation authorizing the transfer of the Laramie and Grand Forks centers to their respective universities, citing potential budget savings as well as a desire to encourage the private sector to pursue the type of research conducted at the centers.

The Interior Department and Related Agencies Appropriations Act for the fiscal year of 1983 included specific authority to defederalize the centers.

Article from the groundbreaking of the Grand Forks Lignite Laboratory

The cooperative agreement signed in 1983 by then-UND President Thomas J. Clifford and DOE Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy Jan W. Mares stated that DOE would continue to fund ongoing research on low-rank coal at UND. Furthermore, this agreement created new opportunities for research that went beyond low-rank coal. This agreement provided an opportunity to help industry develop and cope with technological change through direct contract research; to assist the University in teaching and training future technical leaders through more direct involvement in academic, continuing education, and outreach programs; and to improve the performance of government-funded research by leveraging the funds with private industry and state clients, ultimately, the research’s eventual users.

“I am delighted to mark the 40th anniversary of the EERC,” said UND President Andrew Armacost. “The dedicated group of researchers have time and again shown themselves to be scientific problem solvers for the state and nation as they develop new approaches to deliver clean, reliable, and sustainable energy. They are pioneers in addressing concerns for the state’s energy sector, in areas such as flaring reduction, pipeline safety, efficient lignite use, and increasing oil recovery, while addressing environmental concerns.”

The cooperative agreement has remained in place since its defederalization and has assisted the EERC in evolving to conduct research on all fossil fuels, as well as renewable and alternative fuels, and has helped the EERC become a world leader in the field of pollution prevention. “We’re grateful for our relationship with UND,” says Charlie Gorecki, EERC CEO. “We’ve grown from a cooperative agreement into a mutually beneficial partnership dedicated to providing energy solutions. It’s amazing to realize how far we’ve come in the last 40 years, and I’m excited to see where the next 40 years will take us.”

“We are thankful for all the advances the EERC team has accomplished over the decades and are proud to have such an institution as part of our campus community,” Armacost said. “I also appreciate the foresight of the State Legislature in designating the EERC as the State Energy Research Center. Not only are they leaders in new energy and environmental technologies, but they’re also leaders in service to the state. I have no doubt that leadership will continue for another 40 years and beyond.”