Red Trail Energy and EERC near commercialization of CO2 storage technology
After nearly 20 years of researching and developing carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies as a means of mitigating climate change, the UND Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) is on the verge of seeing the science put to commercial use in North Dakota.
An ethanol plant in Richardton operated by Red Trail Energy (RTE) LLC could become the first facility in North Dakota to commercially capture and permanently store carbon dioxide (CO2) underground. It came a step closer to reality last month when RTE submitted a permit application to the state’s Department of Mineral Resources (DMR).
“Going forward with this Red Trail Energy project and working all the way through the feasibility, design and now permit submission, we have set up a framework other companies could follow,” said EERC CEO Charlie Gorecki. “In addition, North Dakota has the policy framework in place to facilitate CCS and the authority to regulate the injection of carbon dioxide.”
Reducing CO2 emissions enables ethanol producers to be more competitive in states that have low-carbon fuel (LCF) programs. CCS technology, coupled with LCF program benefits, allows for permanently stored CO2 in a safe and cost-effective manner because it provides a means to reduce the carbon intensity of ethanol.
RTE CEO Gerald Bachmeier said, “We’re excited to submit the first application in the state for safe, permanent, geologic storage of carbon dioxide. Using CCS to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions of our ethanol ensures the long-term viability of RTE in a highly competitive global market.”
The DMR, in consultation with the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, will evaluate the permit application to determine whether approval should be granted. This first-time regulatory process is estimated to take 8–12 months and includes a public comment period and hearing.
Work on CCS technology began in 2003 with the EERC’s Plains CO2 Reduction (PCOR) Partnership program.
“It really laid the groundwork for where we are with CO2 storage opportunities in the PCOR region, which now includes 10 states and four Canadian provinces,” Gorecki said. “We looked at where you could store CO2 based on the geology.”
Keeping ethanol competitive
With the support of the North Dakota Industrial Commission (NDIC) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), RTE and EERC have investigated many aspects of commercially available CCS technology to reduce CO2 emissions associated with ethanol production. Reducing these emissions enables ethanol producers to be more competitive in states with alternative fuels mandates or low-carbon fuel (LCF) programs, such as California and Oregon.
“The California Low-Carbon Fuels Standard provides a benefit or incentive for proving that your fuel has a lower carbon footprint or, as they call it, carbon intensity,” explained Kerryanne, an EERC principal engineer and project manager of the RTE project. “There’s also the IRS tax incentive program – section 45Q – that provides a tax credit for carbon capture and storage.”
CCS technology – coupled with LCF program benefits – allows for permanently stored CO2 emissions in a safe and cost-effective manner.
“For CCS to be a commercial reality or at least make economic sense, these fuel standard programs, tax credits or sale of carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery are what is going to make carbon capture projects a reality,” Gorecki noted.
Much of the EERC’s research has focused on identifying geologic formations to serve as permanent underground storage for CO2. The Willison Basin in western North Dakota features permeable sandstone sandwiched between layers of dense shale, making it an ideal area in which to inject CO2 for underground storage. In addition to gathering existing drilling data, RTE drilled two holes more than 6,400 feet deep to collect geologic data, rock and fluid samples.
More than 950 feet of rock, as well as fluid samples, were collected and analyzed by researchers to develop a model of the subsurface and evaluate its ability to accept and contain CO2 captured from RTE’s ethanol processing. EERC researchers also used a geophysical survey to project sound waves from the surface into the subsurface to analyze the reflected signal.
The analyses led to the creation of computer models of the subsurface in the RTE study area, providing a geologic template for CO2 injection simulations that predict movement during storage. The target storage layer below the RTE plant is called the Broom Creek Formation.
Getting the site right
EERC researchers evaluated the geologic structure of the area around Richardton, looking for faults, fractures, seismic activity and potential mineral resource zones. The results showed that the Broom Creek and its shale seals have the ability to safely and permanently store nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 captured and injected annually by RTE during decades of operation.
“With a point source such as Red Trail’s ethanol facility, we had already characterized the region in a broad sense, and we knew it sat on top of some of the best storage opportunities,” Gorecki said. “It made sense when Red Trail contacted us six or seven years ago. We already knew a lot about their site and its promise for CCS.”
The results of these efforts were used to prepare the required North Dakota permit application for commercial CO2 injection and storage. Another advantage for the project in North Dakota is that the state has the regulatory structure in place for CCS.
“The EERC and all of our industrial partners have the technical and commercial knowledge with the state and with other states,” Gorecki said. “North Dakota has the policy framework laid out and primacy to regulate the injections. We have the pieces all together.”
EERC researchers are continuing to improve and refine CO2 injection and storage strategies, and are continuing to develop reservoir surveillance technologies to monitor, verify and account for injected CO2 storage as close to real time as possible.
“We’re currently involved in several projects to study ways to reduce the cost of long-term monitoring on the site,” Leroux said. “It’s validating that the CO2 has stayed put. We’re trying to make monitoring more economical and more time responsive.”
North Dakota’s CCS developments have attracted attention in other states. Gorecki has testified before legislatures in North Dakota, Minnesota and Nebraska. The possibility of a CO2 pipeline connecting ethanol production facilities in Minnesota and Iowa to underground storage in North Dakota has also sparked interest, he said. In addition, there are also potential CCS opportunities in other states with similar geologic formations.
“Reducing carbon intensity and reducing carbon emissions to the atmosphere is certainly in focus right now in the media and politics,” Gorecki noted. “It’s become a big hot-button issue with a lot of interest One of the best ways to reduce these emissions is through carbon capture, utilization and storage.”