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North Dakota ethanol plant becomes nation's first to capture, store carbon emissions underground

Red Trail Energy in Richardton injects carbon dioxide from fermenting ethanol more than a mile underground into the Broom Creek Formation — an achievement officials say shows North Dakota is blazing the trail for renewable energy's future.

After starting operations in 2007, Red Trail Energy LLC of Richardton, N.D., is debt-free and has paid out $25 million to its shareholders as dividends. Mikkel Pates / Forum News Service
After starting operations in 2007, Red Trail Energy LLC of Richardton, North Dakota, is debt-free and has paid out $25 million to its shareholders as dividends.
Mikkel Pates / Forum News Service
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RICHARDTON, N.D. — The Red Trail Energy ethanol plant has become the first facility in the United States to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions deep underground.

The milestone was announced Monday, July 18, although the injection of carbon dioxide captured from the plant started on June 16. Every day, the plant will capture about 500 metric tons of carbon dioxide produced by fermenting corn to make fuel.

North Dakota officials ballyhooed the development as a major step forward in the state’s efforts to demonstrate the commercial effectiveness of capturing carbon emissions to store carbon dioxide.

“By capturing and storing carbon from ethanol production, Red Trail Energy is helping to pave the way for the long-term viability of current energy sources in North Dakota with innovative and environmental stewardship,” Gov. Doug Burgum said.

The North Dakota Industrial Commission gave approval for Red Trail Energy to commercially capture 180,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.

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“This is a tremendous example of how our state continues to pave the way for this critical energy technology, starting with the regulatory framework that we put into place nearly 15 years ago,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.

In 2018, North Dakota became the first state in the nation to secure authorization from the Environmental Protection Agency to inject carbon dioxide deep underground for permanent storage. Wyoming followed later that year, but no other states have federal approval.

“The future of responsible energy development and innovation runs through North Dakota,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. “This is a huge milestone, and we should celebrate.”

The carbon dioxide captured from the Red Trail Energy plant is injected 6,276 feet — more than a mile — underground into the Broom Creek Formation, a porous layer of rock sandwiched between “impenetrable” rock layers that will permanently store the greenhouse gas in the earth.

Gerald Bachmeier, chief executive officer of Red Trail Energy, said the carbon capture and storage project is the result of six years of research, development and investment.

“Our success establishes a trail for other industries in the state to follow,” he said.

Officials credited the Energy and Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota for doing work that demonstrated the feasibility and potential of carbon capture and storage in the state.

"It is rewarding to see this carbon capture and storage project begin in North Dakota," said Charlie Gorecki, the center's chief executive officer.

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The Energy and Environmental Research Center's researchers estimated North Dakota can safely store more than 252 billion tons of carbon dioxide.

Red Trail Energy's stored carbon dioxide is continuously monitored by carbon fiber installed in the injection well and adjacent monitoring well.

The company's ability to capture and permanently store 100% of its carbon emissions makes it eligible for lucrative carbon credits in a market created by the state of California, said David Ripplinger, an economist at North Dakota State University who studies the biofuels industry.

“It is a very big deal,” Ripplinger said of Monday’s announcement. “We’re essentially using corn to harvest CO2 from the air,” he said. As a result, the carbon footprint Red Trail Energy produces is substantially less than standard ethanol, which is less than ordinary gasoline, he said.

The value of the tax credits fluctuates with market conditions, but it could mean the plant can earn a premium of 10 cents per gallon on any ethanol it sells under California's low carbon fuels standard, Ripplinger said.

Red Trail Energy produces 59 million to 64 million gallons of ethanol per year, according to the company, made from 21 million to 23 million bushels of corn. Each bushel of corn produces 2.8 gallons of ethanol.

“They’re really at the forefront,” Ripplinger said of Red Trail Energy. “They are the pioneers. They’re the first to do this. Now, there’ll be dozens more.”

Summit Carbon Solutions , for example, is working with more than 30 ethanol plants in five Midwestern states to capture carbon dioxide emissions and pipe them to North Dakota for underground storage.

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Other states are following California’s lead, including Oregon, Washington and Colorado, as are western Canadian provinces and Canada as a nation, so the market will expand, Ripplinger said.

“We’re seeing a lot more renewable fuels coming online,” he said. North Dakota has all of the key ingredients — crop production, favorable geology and a supportive regulatory environment — to become a leader, he said.

“North Dakota is extremely well placed to take advantage of decarbonization,” Ripplinger said.

Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address: pspringer@forumcomm.com
Phone: 701-367-5294
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