Does the Future of 'Clean Coal' Start in North Dakota?

Does the Future of 'Clean Coal' Start in North Dakota?

By Nick Fouriezos


Because coal represents one of the greatest opportunities to beat climate change.

By Nick Fouriezos

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Wade Boeshans doesn’t talk the way you’ve been told a coal energy executive talks. Driving a pickup truck past acres of coal land mined over the past four decades, he waxes poetic, pointing out the sweet-smelling Russian olive shrubs, the haystacks and crested wheatgrass. “All of this land has been mined and reclaimed,” says the president of BNI Energy, a North Dakota coal subsidiary of Minnesota-based Allete, a diversified water and energy company.

Wind turbines dot the horizon, and a river flows past the power plant where coal from the mine is prepared for energy conversion. If Boeshans has his way, there will be an additional step in that process — the creation of a scrubbing facility that would capture up to 90 percent of the plant’s carbon output before it escapes into the atmosphere. “As a company, we believe we are going to live in a carbon-constrained world,” he says. 

Companies like Boeshans’ are far from the only ones racing to find a coal solution that fits into an increasingly environmentally conscious global framework. Similar industry-leading carbon reclamation efforts include the Petra Nova project in southeast Texas and the Boundary Dam project in southern Saskatchewan, Canada. But North Dakota is noteworthy for two reasons: its ambition — it seeks to nearly double the scrubbing capacity (3 million to 4 million tons of carbon dioxide annually) of the Texas project — and its coal type. The Great Plains state sits atop the world’s largest reserve of lignite coal, with roughly an 800-year supply of the plantlike, low-grade coal derivative.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry told clean-coal scientists in July that they had “really worked to change the world.”

Lignite is easier on landscapes when mined, as compared to hard coals like anthracite, but when burned it’s worse in terms of carbon emissions, making such scrubbing technologies even more necessary. And while the Saskatchewan project also uses lignite, design issues cause it to operate around 40 percent of the time as of late 2015, according to internal documents made public by Canada’s New Democratic Party. A major energy exporter, North Dakota has the technology and experts to take on the issue in a way that smaller states — and some provinces and emerging nations — cannot, industry leaders argue.

As a result, North Dakota is doubling down on coal at a time when much of the country is avoiding it. Only one of the state’s eight coal plants has announced plans to shut down, compared to the 250 nationwide that have shuttered from 2010 to 2014 alone. Significantly, the plant that’s closing is the only one in North Dakota that doesn’t use lignite as a feedstock. During its most recent legislative session, the state allocated approximately $20 million for lignite research and development, including a zero-emissions plant that would process coal into synthetic natural gas. It’s a process that possibly could be replicated elsewhere at a much larger scale than was achieved by prior projects in other states.

Other carbon-capture-related research requests have come from the regional power cooperative Great River Energy and the Minnkota Power Cooperative. What’s more, the state is developing technologies and infrastructure to use the captured carbon to pump additional oil from North Dakota’s many oil fields, which would further reduce the carbon footprint — just another sign that the state still has its “pioneering spirit,” says Mike Holmes, head of research at the Lignite Energy Council.

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Workers scoop up lignite coal at the BNI Energy mine in Center, North Dakota.


The idea of clean coal has its skeptics, of course: In recent years, two federally funded projects — the Kemper Project, a lignite plant in Mississippi, and the much-maligned FutureGen endeavor in Illinois — failed to reach their goals and succumbed to severe budget constraints (although the federally aided Petra Nova project, so far, seems to be a success, and earned the praise of Energy Secretary Rick Perry in April). “Scarce dollars supporting clean coal could go to a variety of other on-the-cusp technologies,” the editorial board for theWashington Post wrote in July. Others worry that without the regulatory pressure of the Obama administration, such carbon capture efforts will quickly be abandoned as soon as they get too costly.

But those in the industry say presidential turnover hasn’t changed their strategy, just their breathing room: “We really don’t think the societal, or long-term, expectations have changed,” Boeshans says, although it has “bought us some very valuable and necessary time to allow these technologies to catch up with where regulations are likely headed.” At the National Energy Technology Laboratory in West Virginia, Perry told clean-coal scientists in July that they had “really worked to change the world,” adding, “what you do here matters.” Yet some fear the Trump administration will actually hurt the fuel’s long-term prospects. Perry has proposed a 54 percent cut to the Energy Department’s Office of Fossil Energy, which aids such labs and research efforts. 

Looking past the United States, the work being done here in North Dakota could help minimize the carbon impact of countries around the globe. Coal still accounts for more than half of the world’s energy consumption — and most of it is low-grade coal, like lignite. Emerging economies continue to use and abuse coal, and China has built a number of coal plants that will pump carbon into the skies for decades to come unless an effective capture method is created (more recently, China has changed tack, with its energy regulator halting 100 new coal projects, and, globally, new coal-powered projects fell by nearly two-thirds last year, according to a report by Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and a research network called CoalSwarm).

While coal might be one of the biggest contributors to man-made pollution, it also offers the greatest opportunity to make a dent in climate change — if scientists can crack the code on coal.