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McFeely: Will taxpayers be left out in the cold by Project Tundra?

Carbon capture project boosted by Hoeven, others is a long shot to succeed given history of similar propositions

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Minnkota Power Cooperative's Milton R. Young Station, near Center, N.D., burns lignite coal to generate electricity for customers in eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota. In 2017, North Dakota coal-fired power plants produced 2.7 million tons of coal ash, which must be properly disposed of and monitored. Special to The Forum
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FARGO — U.S. Sen. John Hoeven's office regularly brags about the federal money he's helped secure for Project Tundra , North Dakota's desperate attempt to save its coal industry. A recent press release said the total is up to $43 million.

Bringing home the bacon for pet projects is still the hallmark of a politician, no matter how misguided those projects might be.

And make no mistake. There is mounting evidence that Project Tundra is misguided.

Project Tundra is an attempt by Minnkota Power Cooperative, the University of North Dakota's Energy and Environmental Research Center, the North Dakota Industrial Commission and the Lignite Energy Council to install a carbon capture system at the Milton R. Young Station, a coal-fired power plant near Center, N.D.

The belief is that by reducing carbon dioxide emissions, aging coal plants are made more palatable as climate change becomes a bigger issue.

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Hoeven has been the project's top political cheerleader, funneling taxpayer money toward it as a member of two powerful Senate committees. He's also championed federal tax credits for carbon capture. The state's Industrial Commission pitched in $15 million.

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Who says fossil fuels don't get subsidized?
The stated goal behind Project Tundra is to retrofit North Dakota's coal-burning plants with carbon capture to reduce emissions and then pipe the carbon to the Bakken fields for injection into oil wells in a process known as enhanced oil recovery.

At its core, Project Tundra is meant to keep North Dakota's coal-burning power plants and coal mines from going extinct. It's a jobs and economical play, with Hoeven and others hoping government seed money can attract private investment dollars. Thus the tens of millions of taxpayer dollars that have gone into the estimated $1.5 billion project so far.

Just one small problem: There isn't one example of a successful carbon-capture project on a coal-fired power plant anywhere in North America. Every other attempt at a Project Tundra-like proposition has failed.

They've been deemed unreliable, technologically unsound and financially unsustainable.

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Just last month, the lone U.S. project capturing carbon from a coal-fired power plant was mothballed after mechanical and financial problems mounted. That was the Petra Nova plant in Texas, pointed to by Project Tundra boosters as an example of what they envision in North Dakota.

Instead, Petra Nova and its $190 million in taxpayer help have been shuttered indefinitely while Project Tundra forges ahead.

Is this a good use of taxpayer dollars?

At least one think tank doesn't believe so. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis said Petra Nova was a loser for investors during its brief four-year lifespan.

"Investors would do well to conduct their due diligence before investing in any coal-fired (carbon capture) projects. The performance at Petra Nova raises serious questions about the viability of such projects," the think tank wrote. "Investors would be wise to demand answers to those questions. The project’s backers are selling a dream; it is investors' responsibility to understand that dream could easily turn into a nightmare."

If Petra Nova was the model for Project Tundra, North Dakotans should be asking whether it will have a similar nightmare on its hands.

Related Topics: JOHN HOEVENTHE MCFEELY MESS
Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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