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  • Writer's pictureU.S. Carbon Capture

By Christopher Helman, Forbes Staff

Today in Fargo, North Dakota, at the Tharaldson Co. ethanol plant, billionaire Harold Hamm will make one of the most unusual announcements in the 50-year history of his oil company, Continental Resources. A champion of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, Hamm usually crows about his breakthroughs in pumping ever more petroleum and natural gas out of rocks deep underground. But now, at age 76, Hamm is making a big bet on a course reversal—instead of pulling fossil fuels out of the earth, he finds himself working on ways to put the carbon in. Publicly traded Continental (80% owned by Hamm and his children), will invest $250 million toward a $4.5 billion project to capture 8 million tons per year of carbon dioxide (the most copious fossil fuel by-product), move it across five states via a 2,000-mile pipeline and inject it into a highly porous and permeable rock formation more than a mile beneath North Dakota farmland.

“No one knows the geology better than we do,” says Hamm, who has been drilling in North Dakota for decades, for oil. He explains that the carbon dioxide will be injected 7,000 feet underground into a 300-foot-thick layer called the Broom Creek sandstone. Because sandstone is highly porous—just compacted sand—it’s relatively easy to inject CO2 into it. What’s more, above the sandstone layer is a cap of impermeable rock, plus the whole setup is far from any seismic fault lines that could allow the CO2 to somehow seep out. Neither are there any water aquifers to worry about, and “it’s not near an oilfield at all,” says Hamm.

No need to just take Hamm’s word for it. According to Fatih Birol, director of the International Energy Agency, capturing and storing carbon “is a necessary bridge between the reality of today’s energy system and the increasingly urgent need to reduce emissions.” Worldwide, some 4 million tons of carbon dioxide are sequestered in sandstone each year. Geologists at the University of North Dakota have been studying the Broom Creek sandstone for more than a decade.

Continental’s partner in the project is Summit Agricultural Group. Its CEO, Bruce Rastetter, has been working for years to convince the owners of 31 corn ethanol plants across five states to capture and contribute 8 million tons per year of carbon dioxide. The emissions occur during ethanol fermentation—when bacteria feast on vats of corn mash, they transform carbohydrates into alcohols and emit carbon dioxide as a byproduct.

By sequestering this bacterial flatulence underground rather than letting it waft into the skies, the ethanol producers will generate carbon credits that will enable them to market their output as greener, cleaner biofuel. In time, Summit anticipates expanding to 14 million tons per year of CO2. That would be the nation’s biggest carbon sequestration operation, though still modest compared with the nearly 5 billion tons per year of U.S. emissions (10% of global total).

Perhaps most excited about the project is North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who says deep geologic sequestration of carbon dioxide is a cornerstone of his ambition to make North Dakota “carbon-neutral” by 2030. “We believe in innovation over regulation as the way to solve the energy challenges facing our country,” says Burgum. A software pioneer who made a fortune selling Great Plains to Microsoft two decades ago, Burgum is now a cheerleader for North Dakota’s rocks. “This is the geologic jackpot,” he says of the Broom Creek sandstone, which scientists say has enough capacity to store 250 billion tons of CO2—a half-century of U.S. emissions. Burgum is convinced by Hamm’s assertion that once the gas is injected, it won’t be escaping: “Not only will it be confined to this reservoir, any migration would be awful slow.”



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