BISMARCK — Plans for a major, ethane-fueled power plant near Williston were announced this week, a large-scale project that its developer said will bring stable, long-term jobs to the area and put a substantial dent into harmful natural gas flaring in North Dakota's oil patch.
The $400 million plant, announced earlier this week by Bakken Midstream Natural Gas, is slated to begin construction in 2022 and would be the largest facility of its kind in the world, according to the company's CEO Mike Hopkins.
The Williston Basin Energy Center would use ethane gas produced by Bakken oil wells to manufacture electricity and provide a local use for a natural gas component that has been expensive and challenging to export to markets in other parts of the country.
"At this time, ethane is a problem. It's not a high value commodity," Hopkins said. "So it makes a great deal of sense. It's unique to North Dakota."
Natural gas flaring wastes money and resources while helping to drive global warming, and North Dakota has often struggled to meet its own goal to reduce flaring to 9%. The state is producing around 350,000 barrels of ethane a day, according to Justin Kringstad, director of the North Dakota Pipeline Authority, and shipping ethane out of the state by pipeline typically comes at a net loss.
As Bakken oil wells mature over the next few decades, Kringstad estimated the amount of ethane produced will double, increasing the need for efficient ways to use the product locally.
Hopkins predicted the Williston Basin Energy Center, which has an expected lifespan of around 30 years, will contribute a valuable asset to the state's gas capture goals.
"We would be a large consumer of ethane, like, tens of thousands of barrels of ethane," Hopkins said. "We're talking a material reduction in flaring."
The plant would be a baseload power provider, contributing around-the-clock electricity for "thousands" of homes, according to Hopkins, at rates he projected will be the cheapest of any North Dakota utility.
In a statement, Gov. Doug Burgum endorsed the project. "Utilizing our state’s abundant natural gas resources for ethane-fueled power generation right here in North Dakota is truly a game-changing development that will support long-term construction projects, create high paying jobs and diversify our economy," he wrote.
While some smaller ethane-fueled plants are already online in Asia, Hopkins said no other ethane-powered plant in the world has been completed on the projected scale of the Williston Basin Energy Center. North Dakota was nearly beat out in this bid by a similar project in Pennsylvania, he said. That proposed ethane power plant, which was far along in its development, was nixed after an enormous plastics-manufacturing plant developed by Royal Dutch Shell ate up the local ethane market.
Hopkins noted there is no such project on the horizon in North Dakota.
Construction of the Williston plant will bring "well over 100 jobs" to the area, Hopkins said. Long-term jobs in the plant will be fewer than 100, though he noted they would be more permanent and stable than the boom-and-bust oil work typical to the Bakken region.
Funding for the development phase of the project is in place, Hopkins said, and the next financing benchmark will come near the end of this year as Bakken Midstream looks toward the start of construction. Both the plant and an accompanying natural gas pipeline will have to be cleared by state regulators before breaking ground.
Slated for construction on the Mountrail-Williams Cooperative territory just north of Williston, the plant will be co-owned by Bakken Midstream and an unannounced utility partner, which will also operate the facility.
Separately, Outrigger Energy announced Thursday, Jan. 14, the completion of its new gas processing plant and pipeline, a project that developers said would also contribute to flaring reduction in the northern Bakken region.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.