The skyline of Minnkota’s Milton R. Young Station changed the morning of Sept. 4, 2020. Joining the tall stacks of the coal-based Unit 1 and 2 generators was a new soaring structure – the tower of a test well rig placed just south of the main plant, primed and ready to begin drilling deep into the subsurface for geologic data supporting Project Tundra.
The test well was the centerpiece of an invitation-only event drawing a steady stream of nearly 30 hard-hat-clad visitors to the site that day, including North Dakota’s delegation to Washington, D.C. The crowd of policymakers, industry partners and media was hungry to learn more about the technological progress of Minnkota’s first-of-its-kind carbon dioxide (CO2) capture and storage initiative.
Minnkota’s Stacey Dahl welcomed Sen. John Hoeven, Sen. Kevin Cramer and Rep. Kelly Armstrong with a note of thanks for their efforts in securing the state and federal funding needed for Project Tundra’s research and development.
“We wanted to show you how these dollars are being used and the very promising future of this project,” Dahl said, pointing to the plant. “It’s really dynamic. We’re proposing to capture over 90% of the CO2 emissions from that larger unit on the left.”
The senators, congressman and others followed tour leader Dan Laudal, project manager of Project Tundra, to a table of boxes filled with rock core samples. The cores were collected from the project’s first test well site, drilled this summer four miles to the northwest. “We’re going to collect more of this rock core, some 13-hundred feet, and do a whole lot of well logs to try to get all the data we need to support the permits,” he explained.
Wes Peck, assistant director for subsurface strategies at UND’s Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC), fielded questions from the delegation about the cores before them. Sen. Hoeven pointed to a box filled with porous sandstone. “Is this the one you’re aiming for?” he asked.
“These three,” Peck replied, describing more thoroughly how the solid, uniform geologic layers of North Dakota’s Broom Creek Formation create a safe and stable environment for CO2 injection and long-term storage. “These are full of knowledge, and we’re wringing it out,” he said with a grin.
The tour transitioned from rocks to J-ROC1 (the name given to the test well) with a walking Q&A led by the rig’s drilling supervisor. The delegation climbed into the belly of the rig itself and learned more about the process of drilling 10,000 feet into the subsurface. The data gathered from this well (rock samples, water samples and pressure tests) will be used to complete 3D simulations of how CO2 would move though the potential injection site, a requirement for the next stage of the projects permits.
The visit’s final learning moment came in the form of a more than 50,000-pound vibroseis truck, a massive piece of research machinery that uses a heavy, vibrating plate to send high-frequency sound waves into the earth. The data collected helps create a vibrant seismic map of important subsurface details. Minnkota and the EERC have used this research method in past surveys.
After an hour of rocks, rigs and research, the tour’s guests of honor took time to reflect on how far Project Tundra had come from its conception, and what its completion could mean for the industry and the people of North Dakota.
“There’s never been a time more important than now,” Sen. Hoeven said. “This partnership is vital to the future of coal-fired electricity. It’s so important, not only in terms of the carbon capture piece, but in terms of, really, long-term economic viability.”
Sen. Hoeven described the role of the 45Q tax credit in making carbon capture innovations like Project Tundra economically practical for those willing to take on the challenge of early development. He added that strengthening North Dakota’s energy foundation would in turn strengthen the nation’s energy security and keep great-paying, high-quality jobs in the state.
“You’re making a difference – not just for North Dakota, but for the country. And really, for the world, in terms of being the leader in carbon capture,” he said.
Sen. Cramer echoed the sentiment that “the time is now” for energy technologies that extend the life of coal-based plants like the Young Station.
“We are really at the cross section of innovation, finding the solution that allows the continuing of low-cost, reliable, 24-hour, seven-day-a-week baseload electricity, while finding even more ways to ensure that environmental protection is a priority,” he said.
Cramer commended Hoeven on his tireless work to make the 45Q tax credits a reality. He noted that it wouldn’t have happened without the bipartisan federal support garnered by projects that promote a cleaner environment and responsible energy planning.
“We’re on the precipice, really, of doing some good things, as long as we can let you all do what you do best, and that is find the solution,” he said.
Rep. Armstrong reminded attendees that coal has been a part of the North Dakota landscape for generations and that energy evolution has happened in many forms across the state – from ethanol plants in Casselton and Spiritwood to the oil boom of the Bakken. But, he added, that development doesn’t happen without the right mix of policy and people.
“We can’t do it if there aren’t people willing to take risks, if there aren’t communities willing to accept these types of projects into their neighborhoods,” he said.
Armstrong continued, saying that a part of his role in Congress is to educate people on why the type of power produced in North Dakota is so essential, and to make sure there is an even energy playing field. “Not because it’s just important to us, but why it’s important to them. And this is a part of the energy solution. People all over the world know it,” he said.
“It’s just a fantastic project moving forward, not just for North Dakota, but for the whole country and the whole world. And I have no doubt in my mind we’ll do it right and we’ll do it best here,” the congressman concluded.
Before sending the crowd back through the Young Station gates, John Harju – EERC vice president for strategic partnerships – reminded them how North Dakota’s policy team was integral to the success of Project Tundra from the very start of the state’s carbon capture research.
“I remember [then] Gov. Hoeven helping us put together a bill from the Industrial Commission for the state to put forward comprehensive rules to do exactly what we’re doing out here today,” Harju recalled. He added that Cramer (a Public Service Commissioner at the time) was helping approve resources from the state while Armstrong (a state senator at the time) assisted from Dickinson. “Now, we export that brilliant talent to Washington, and they’re helping make it happen from there. I always like to say great partners make great projects, and this is a perfect example of that.”
Learn more about the science and progress of Project Tundra by visiting ProjectTundraND.com.
Main image: The N.D. delegation is led to the base of Project Tundra's second research test well. (Kaylee Cusack/Minnkota)