Making Jelly From Peanut Butter in the Energy World

Touring a rare North Dakota facility that transforms coal into natural gas.

National Journal
Amy Harder
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Amy Harder
Aug. 28, 2013, 3:30 p.m.

BEU­LAH, N.D. — “I’ll tell you some chem­istry fun­da­ment­als that are really im­port­ant for CO2.”

Al­most everything that Dale John­son, who man­ages the massive in­dus­tri­al fa­cil­ity I was vis­it­ing, said after that I didn’t quite un­der­stand, al­though a few times I ac­ted like I did.

What I did un­der­stand was that this fa­cil­ity, the Great Plains Syn­fuels Plant, is rare — the only one of its kind in the coun­try, in fact — and im­port­ant for a lot of reas­ons, not the least of which is its po­ten­tial im­pact on glob­al warm­ing. It is also up against some very steep odds.

This plant can lit­er­ally trans­form coal in­to nat­ur­al gas and cap­ture the res­ult­ing car­bon di­ox­ide.

While this might have at­trac­ted a great deal more at­ten­tion un­der dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances, the plant is op­er­at­ing at a time when the coun­try awash with shale oil and nat­ur­al gas, and in a loc­a­tion right next door to Amer­ica’s oil boom on the Bakken form­a­tion.

“When we talk about what is hap­pen­ing in North Dakota, we can’t for­get this plant,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who was dir­ect­or of the fa­cil­ity for 11 years un­til last year when she resigned to be­come a sen­at­or. She gave me the tour along with John­son and Mike Eggl, a seni­or vice pres­id­ent for the Basin Elec­tric Power Co­oper­at­ive, the util­ity that has owned and op­er­ated the plant since 1988.

This plant, which at 450 acres is al­most three times the size of Dis­ney­land and draws 7,000 vis­it­ors a year — is most fam­ous for two things: One is its ori­gin­al pur­pose, which was to turn coal in­to nat­ur­al gas (called gas­i­fic­a­tion), and the oth­er is an op­er­a­tion ad­ded 13 years ago that cap­tures the car­bon di­ox­ide from that newly trans­formed gas and ships it to Canada via pipeline, where com­pan­ies in­ject it in­to the ground to de­vel­op oil (known as en­hanced oil re­cov­ery).

“This is the be­gin­ning of the pipeline to Canada,” John­son said, point­ing to a 14-inch pipe labled “car­bon di­ox­ide” that goes for more than 200 miles to our north­ern neigh­bor. Heitkamp and John­son say it’s the most pho­to­graphed pipeline in the world. Now it has to worry about oil pipelines en­croach­ing on it.

“There are some unique chal­lenges out West, with all this pipeline de­vel­op­ment,” Heitkamp said. “We have to make sure we don’t run in­to each oth­er.”

Be­cause the United States is sud­denly pro­du­cing so much shale nat­ur­al gas, the plant’s gas­i­fic­a­tion ef­forts aren’t what ac­tu­ally pays the bills. The fa­cil­ity man­u­fac­tures a whole host of oth­er in­dus­tri­al products such as fer­til­izers, tar oil (not to be con­fused with tar sands), and Krypton/Xen­on (the stuff used in fancy light bulbs).

“The year we star­ted, about 92 or 93 per­cent of our rev­en­ue was gas,” John­son said. “This year, we tipped the scale where more than half our rev­en­ues are from products oth­er than gas. Gas prices are low and oth­er com­mod­it­ies are high­er, like fer­til­izers.”

The plant man­u­fac­tur­ers these products to stay in busi­ness, even though the gas­i­fic­a­tion and car­bon di­ox­ide pipe — which does make some money — get all the at­ten­tion. The fa­cil­ity has already gone bank­rupt once, but more on that in a mo­ment.

“It’s done out of eco­nom­ic ne­ces­sity,” Heitkamp said. “At some point, you have to di­ver­si­fy to cre­ate a real hedge. And that’s what we’ve done.”

Throughout the two-hour tour, I tried to fo­cus on the per­spect­ive from 30,000 feet and not on mind-numb­ing sen­tences like this: “We’re gas­i­fy­ing coal in the pres­ence of pure oxy­gen, rather than burn­ing coal in the pres­ence of air,” which John­son said at one point to de­scribe the pro­cess. I asked him to re­peat it in hopes I could un­der­stand it bet­ter the second time (I did a little). Eggl, who has a mas­ter’s de­gree in pub­lic ad­min­is­tra­tion and no form­al edu­ca­tion in chem­istry, was there to trans­late.

“When things need to be dumbed down, they call me,” he said. “We al­ways ap­pre­ci­ate that,” chimed in Heitkamp, who kept up with John­son in the chem­istry con­ver­sa­tions, des­pite hav­ing no form­al edu­ca­tion in the field her­self.

“Once you break that car­bon down, it’s a big chem­istry set,” Eggl said. “You can go a lot of dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tions.”

I didn’t want to lose sight of the big pic­ture, which is key to un­der­stand­ing both where this plant has been and where it might go.

It was built, with both pub­lic and private money, in the 1980s, after Pres­id­ent Carter vowed to wean the U.S. off for­eign oil. He wanted to build more than 20 plants twice as big as this one that could make li­quid fuels from Amer­ica’s plen­ti­ful coal re­sources. This plant is the fa­cil­ity left stand­ing from the largely un­suc­cess­ful and now-de­funct Syn­thet­ic Fuels Corp., which used gov­ern­ment dol­lars to de­vel­op gas­i­fic­a­tion tech­no­lo­gies like the type em­ployed here.

The plant struggled a great deal, for reas­ons both mar­ket-driv­en and oth­er­wise. It went bank­rupt al­most im­me­di­ately after it went in­to op­er­a­tion in 1985. The En­ergy De­part­ment bought it for $1 bil­lion in 1986 (it had cost al­most $2.5 bil­lion to build). Cit­ing the 700 jobs it would save, Basin Elec­tric bought the fa­cil­ity in 1988 and shared the profits with the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment un­til three years ago. Today, Basin, the En­ergy De­part­ment, and the Ca­na­dian gov­ern­ment are work­ing to­geth­er on one of the biggest in­ter­na­tion­al stud­ies on car­bon se­quest­ra­tion.

“The prom­ise of this plant was to demon­strate this tech­no­logy that could be used as we looked for sources of en­ergy in­de­pend­ence for the coun­try,” Heitkamp said. “This was be­fore shale oil, but this has paid off in spades in terms of tech­no­logy.”

Today, the fa­cil­ity is fight­ing to be timely and rel­ev­ant as the oil and gas boom erodes its eco­nom­ic ne­ces­sity. Some­times it seems a bit stuck in the past. In the vis­it­or’s cen­ter sits a 1,200-square foot mod­el of the plant, which in 1981 cost $9 mil­lion to build.

“You would do it on a com­puter today,” Eggl said. “This is nev­er done any­more. You can’t even buy parts to these any­more.”

But is there an­oth­er, en­vir­on­ment­al, ne­ces­sity for this plant? Un­der the right mar­ket and policy con­di­tions, the tech­no­logy it uses could be em­ployed to com­bat­ing glob­al warm­ing.

By turn­ing coal, the world’s dirti­est fossil fuel, in­to nat­ur­al gas, which is half as dirty, the plant pre­vents more car­bon emis­sions from get­ting in­to the at­mo­sphere. By cap­tur­ing car­bon di­ox­ide and pip­ing it to Canada (and po­ten­tially oth­er places) to be in­jec­ted in­to the ground, it is also pre­vent­ing more CO2 from be­ing emit­ted.

But for now, private com­pan­ies are not in­vest­ing in this plant’s tech­no­lo­gies be­cause of cli­mate change. 

“What ori­gin­ally drove our CO2 pro­ject was not cli­mate change,” said Eggl, who worked for then-Sen. Byron Dor­gan, D-N.D., for eight years.

“The oil patch in­ves­ted in ex­cess of $1 bil­lion,” John­son said. “They wouldn’t do that to se­quester CO2. It is to re­cov­er oil. The se­quest­ra­tion is a won­der­ful be­ne­fit, but it’s not their primary busi­ness drivers.”

On that prag­mat­ic if not en­vir­on­ment­ally dis­mal note, we con­cluded our tour — and the most in­ter­est­ing chem­istry les­son I have ever had.

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