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A peek into the Great Plains Synfuels Plant

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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