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
See more stories about...
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.

What We're Following See More »
WITHER TRUMP?
Jon Stewart May Debut on HBO Before the Election
2 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"Jon Stewart could arrive on HBO in time for the November presidential election. In a Paley Media Council interview Thursday with CNN’s Brian Stelter, HBO CEO Richard Plepler was asked whether viewers could expect to see Stewart, former host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” on HBO before the general election. 'Yeah, I’m hopeful,' Plepler said."

Source:
ALL RIDERS TO BE AFFECTED
Metro to Begin Rolling Closures Next Month
5 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Beginning next month, Metro will begin a series of "about 15 separate large-scale work projects," each of which will close down stations and/or sections of track for up to weeks at a time. The entire initiative is expected to take about a year. The Washington Post has a list of the schedule of closures, and which lines and stations they'll affect.

Source:
ANOTHER MEETING WITH PRIEBUS
Trump to Meet with Ryan, Leadership Next Week
5 hours ago
THE LATEST

A day after saying he could not yet support Donald Trump's presidential bid, House Speaker Paul Ryan has invited the billionaire to a meeting in Washington next week with House leadership. Ryan and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus will also meet separately with Trump. 

Source:
‘EXACTING STANDARDS’
Obama on Trump: ‘This Is a Really Serious Job’
5 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"President Obama used the White House podium on Friday to dismiss Donald Trump as an unserious candidate to succeed him, and said leading the country isn't a job that's suited to reality show antics." At a briefing with reporters, the president said, "I just want to emphasize the degree to which we are in serious times and this is a really serious job. This is not entertainment. This is not a reality show. This is a contest for the presidency of the United States. And what that means is that every candidate, every nominee needs to be subject to exacting standards and genuine scrutiny."

Source:
MORE EXECUTIVE ORDERS
Panama Papers Spur White House to Crack Down on Evasion
8 hours ago
THE DETAILS

In the The White House on Thursday night unveiled a series of executive actions to combat money laundering—"among the most comprehensive response yet to the Panama Papers revelations." The president's orders will tighten transparency rules, close loopholes that allow "foreigners to hide financial activity behind anonymous entities in the U.S., and demand stricter “customer due diligence” rules for banks.

Source:
×