Where electric cars could help save coal

In states like North Dakota, giving up gasoline might not mean giving up fossil fuels

A coal car receives a load of lignite coal at BNI Coal's Center Mine. Once loaded, the car transports the coal to the adjacent Milton R. Young coal-fired power plant near Center, N.D.  (Dan Koeck for The Washington Post)
A coal car receives a load of lignite coal at BNI Coal's Center Mine. Once loaded, the car transports the coal to the adjacent Milton R. Young coal-fired power plant near Center, N.D. (Dan Koeck for The Washington Post)

CENTER, N.D. — Disdain for electric cars runs deep in this state. In the Bakken oil fields, which have brought enormous riches to North Dakota, workers fume at them on Facebook discussion groups, calling them “worthless” or worse. The small number of drivers who do use electric vehicles — North Dakota has the fewest of any state — get “coal-rolled” out on the road, as pickup trucks pump out black exhaust in bouts of automotive spite.

Yet even in North Dakota, these zero-emission cars have an unexpected champion: the coal industry, which is seeking to shed its image as a climate change villain.

The thinking is straightforward: More electric cars would mean more of a market for the lignite coal that produces most of North Dakota’s electricity, and if a long-shot project to store carbon emissions in deep underground wells works out, it might even result in cleaner air as well.

“EVs will be soaking up electricity,” said Jason Bohrer, head of a coal trade group that has launched a statewide campaign to promote electric vehicles and charging stations along North Dakota’s vast distances. “So coal power plants, our most resilient and available power plants, can continue to be online.”

As many parts of the country attempt to shift their energy production away from fossil fuels and toward solar, wind and other renewables, what’s happening here shows how the electric car revolution might play out in parts of the country far less friendly to either clean cars or clean energy.

The automakers, which have pledged to move largely to electric vehicles over the next decade, will have to overcome cultural hurdles to persuade consumers to buy them. The major social spending bill before Congress would increase the subsidy for purchases of EVs from the current $7,500 up to $12,500, if the cars are built in the United States by union labor. But in North Dakota, Wyoming, West Virginia — and in the nine other states where coal is the main fuel for electric power plants — electric cars will still rely on the combustion of ancient carbon-based deposits for their energy unless other sources of power come to the fore.

A provision in the bill to encourage the transition away from coal to solar, wind and nuclear generation was dropped at the insistence of Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). And as a crucial climate conference proceeds in Glasgow, Scotland, coal remains by far the main fuel for power plants worldwide, and a recent surge in its price suggests that demand is not waning.

Without an intensive turn to carbon capture — a technically feasible but commercially unproven technology — electric vehicles may not be able to make that much of a difference in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

At the BNI mine here, giant excavators tear at the earth 100 feet down and gouge out piles of lignite coal. Then, clouds of gray dust swirling, they load it into gargantuan 70-foot-long coal haulers.

Wayne Jacobs, whose father was on the crew that opened the mine in 1970, drives one of those haulers from a cab 10 feet above the ground. Fifteen times a shift, the excavators fill Jacobs’s 23-foot-wide diesel-powered behemoth and, with 250 tons aboard, he drives it a mile and a half to an adjoining power plant, where the coal powers massive turbines and emits enormous amounts of carbon dioxide.

But a carbon capture experiment at the Milton R. Young Station adjacent to the BNI mine, devised by a partnership of scientists and the Minnkota Power Cooperative, could make coal more attractive in the clean-energy future — if it works. The idea, known as Project Tundra, is to scrub the carbon dioxide out of the plant’s exhaust smoke, condense it and inject it into deep wells.

Jacobs isn’t sure how many electric vehicles will come to North Dakota, but if their image rubs off on his industry, that’s fine with him.

“A lot of people have a bad taste in their mouth, because, you know, we’re polluting the air, ruining the landscape,” said Jacobs, 59. “It would make it more friendly.”

Carbon capture has been a popular idea within the coal, oil and gas sectors for years now. The technology is not out of reach. Plenty of pilot projects have been launched. But so far, no one has been able to make it a paying proposition. A pioneering $7.5 billion carbon capture power plant in Mississippi was razed with dynamite on Oct. 9 after its owners wrote it off as an 11-year-old economic failure. North Dakota hopes to break through that last barrier, for both coal and oil.

“True wealth is created by a partnership between man and earth,” Bohrer said. If Project Tundra can show that stuffing carbon dioxide back into the earth is economically feasible, he said, “it’s opening the door for a CO2 economy. It gives the lignite industry a way to survive.”

His group has launched a promotional campaign called Drive Electric North Dakota, which sponsors promotional events, conducts public attitude surveys and lobbies for EVs in the state capital. It has been an uphill struggle so far, but the idea is that the electricity needed to charge cars and trucks can’t all come from unreliable wind or solar, and this will give coal a way to stay in the mix and help keep the grid in fine tune. “The more demand we have in North Dakota,” Bohrer said, “the easier it is to soak up our domestically produced electricity.”

Clean-air advocates range from dubious to dismissive. The promise of electric vehicles wasn’t that they would spur more coal mining — or oil extraction.

“They’re doubling down on last century’s model,” said Scott Skokos, executive director of the Dakota Resource Council, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the sustainable use of North Dakota’s resources. “It’s very questionable whether that technology will ever work at scale. It’s not really a moneymaker.”

Not only is the process still prohibitively expensive, but research has also shown that, so far, it hasn’t been very effective. A 2019 study at Stanford University found that current carbon capture projects miss well more than half of the carbon dioxide in emissions.

And unproven though it may be, critics contend, the publicity surrounding carbon capture has created a false sense of complacency that world-changing solutions are just around the corner.

Project Tundra’s managers hope they can achieve a significant breakthrough, aiming to capture 90 percent of the CO2 once they have the project in operation. Essentially, the carbon dioxide would be absorbed out of the “flue gas,” or exhaust, by amine-based solvents, which would be pumped to a regeneration unit that would heat the solvents and free the CO2 again, in a pure form. Then it would be condensed and pumped to natural caverns deep underground.

For now, the project is still in the design and engineering phase, together with financial analysis. Equipment at the site has been used to test the process; now the results are being analyzed. If the pieces fall into place and the project gets a green light from regulators and company officials, construction could get started as early as next year.

At the mine

Each time Jacobs casually maneuvers his broad-beamed coal hauler into the portico of the giant power station here, with inches to spare, he drops a load that weighs as much as 120 Tesla Model 3 sedans, and it could provide a one-time charge to about 9,600 of them.

That’s if there were that many in North Dakota, which currently has registrations for 266 electric vehicles, of any make.

His hopper empty, Jacobs turns about to head to the mine, carefully. He drives at about 20 mph down the length of the man-made canyon, about 150 feet across, its sides striated in browns and tans and grays, to the spot where the dragline is working. That’s an even bigger piece of equipment (it weighs 4,500 tons and looks like an old-fashioned steam shovel blown up to 40 times its normal size), scooping up soil in a giant bucket and exposing the seam of coal.

Later, all this land will be reclaimed. It will be better than it was before, Jacobs said. Hay will grow, cattle will graze. Even the wetlands will be restored.

The BNI Coal general manager, Mike Heger, 49, said that if Project Tundra succeeds, it could lead Americans to see coal in a different light, as part of a forward-leaning electric-driven future rather than a hard-bitten past.

“This carbon sequestration project really gets us excited,” he said. “It gives coal a role in stabilizing the grid.” He added: “If there are better solutions than coal out there, so be it. We just believe those solutions don’t exist.”

A Tesla in the oil fields

To drive an electric vehicle in the oil-field region of North Dakota is to be a kind of rebel.

“You get coal-rolled by the pickups,” said Brian Kopp, an IT consultant in Dickinson who says he was the third Tesla owner in North Dakota when he bought his first model seven years ago. “They think it’s pretty cool.”

Destiny Wolf, 39, an upbeat advocate for electric vehicles, also feels the stigma of driving a Tesla — in her case a Model 3.

Oil workers, Wolf said, see electric vehicles as an attack on their livelihoods. “You know, sitting there at a red light, they drive up, roll down their windows, they start yelling and cursing at me,” she said. “If that’s your existence, it’s really sad.”

A Canadian immigrant from Winnipeg, Wolf worked for a decade as a critical care nurse before moving to Dickinson, in the heart of the Bakken, with her husband, Craig, an OB/GYN. There’s no demand for her skills there — critical cases are taken to Bismarck or beyond — so today she spends time as a volunteer at the Badlands Dinosaur Museum, doing fossil preparation.

The fossil she is working on, the skull of an ankylosaurus found in the fossil fields of northern Montana, is about 66 million years old, roughly the same age as the oldest lignite coal deposits. Bakken oil is 300 million years older than that.

All three — dinosaur bone, coal, petroleum ― are remnants of the flora and fauna of the far distant past.

Her attitude about the coal-powered electricity she uses in her car is that it’s not great, it’s probably on the way out, it’s better than using gasoline.

“Gas is a continuous circle of energy wastage,” she said. “You have to use energy to extract it, you have to use energy to transport it, you have to use energy to refine it, you have to use energy to transport it back.”

Persevering in the Bakken

Kathy Neset moved to the Bakken with a degree in geology from Brown University in 1979 and built a successful oil-field consulting company on the vast, windswept jumble of low hills and ridges, once good only for cattle raising. She understands perfectly well that electric cars are coming, yet she has faith that new uses for petroleum will keep the oil sector in business.

“Do we blow away like tumbleweeds? Or do we evolve?” she said in an interview at her gleaming office building in Tioga, N.D. “This is an industry that has a history of adopting, evolving and changing with the nation. I don’t see oil going away in any of our lifetimes. It’s our way of life. Where we lose out on transportation we will gain on new technologies.”

Her faith in the Bakken, and her desire to invest in its future and move it away from the boom-and-bust transient culture it developed over the past four decades, has led her to include a day-care center in her new headquarters. Smart young college grads, men and women, need to know they can build families in the Bakken, she said, and put down roots.

There are warning signs, nonetheless. Even though the price of oil has bounced back after the disastrous months when the pandemic struck last year and production at existing wells is humming along, there’s little new drilling in the Bakken. The number of rigs has fallen from 55 in early 2020 to 23 today.

Neset said she believes that investment firms, especially those that have signed on to corporate governance protocols that embrace environmental and social goals, “just don’t want to put their capital into new drilling until we figure out a way to handle this in a clean way.”

So the oil sector, too, is putting its chips on carbon capture.

Charles Gorecki, chief executive of an incubator at the University of North Dakota called the Energy & Environmental Research Center, is promoting a plan similar to the coal industry’s Project Tundra. But it would go further: He envisions the injection of carbon dioxide into deep caverns as a way of enhancing the extraction of more oil. More carbon would go into the ground than would come out of it as petroleum, he said. North Dakota could even import carbon dioxide from other states.

“There is an enormous amount of space to store CO2,” he said. “What we need to do is make it an economically attractive option. The goal is to reduce carbon emissions. It should be by any and all means.”

A new state body called the Clean Sustainable Energy Authority is charged with promoting clean-energy technologies — with the understanding that the energy being talked about is from coal, oil or natural gas. Carbon capture is one idea; another is hydrogen-powered vehicles, using “blue” hydrogen from natural gas.

“Even if we transition to all electric vehicles and hydrogen vehicles, North Dakota will have a part to play,” said Joel Brown, a member of the CSEA. “I think of it as a moonshot for the state of North Dakota.”

In the history of the Bakken, 3 billion barrels of oil have been pumped out. Brown said 30 billion to 40 billion more barrels are still in the ground and recoverable.

“We have to make that Bakken barrel just a little bit cleaner than every other barrel in the world,” said Ron Ness, head of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, a trade group. “You look at the standard American family and the affordability of the combustion engine, and I think gasoline is going to be around for a long time.”

The first oil boom in the Bakken, about 13 years ago, attracted roughnecks and roustabouts who lived in dreary “man camps” and fled back to the Gulf Coast states when the first bust came along a few years later. But petroleum has showered a lot of prosperity on the Bakken, too, and plenty of families stayed, their ranks growing as oil prices rebounded.

North Dakota went from being the 10th-largest oil-producing state in 2005 to the second in 2015.

Watford City is in McKenzie County, which between 2010 and 2019 was the fastest-growing county in the United States, according to census figures. In the late 1990s, said Steve Holen, the schools superintendent, people thought the county would soon have nothing but bison and nursing homes. Oil changed all that, and residents are reluctant to let that go.

“We’re not going to roll over,” said state Sen. Dale Patten (R), who represents the oil-field region.

The Rough Rider Center there, built at a cost of about $90 million, sits next to the new approximately $40 million high school. It features a gym, indoor swimming pool, running track, meeting rooms, cafe and gymnastics center.

“In rural America, there is very little you can do without that [oil],” Ness said. “We just don’t have opportunities here. It enables us to build schools, rather than close schools.”

Consequently, there’s a widespread conviction in the Bakken that electric vehicles will never amount to much. “It’s a cultural challenge,” Neset said. “I’m not sure how many of these cowboys and cowgirls are going to want to jump in an electric car.”

A question about EVs that was put to a Bakken Facebook group elicited scathing, vulgar responses. “Let the retirees living in Florida, Arizona and California buy them. I am from North Dakota, give me a gas guzzling ‘truck,’” wrote one.

“Anyone that supports electric over gas and works in the Bakken is a hypocrite. Your job revolves around oil. No oil = No job for most. Easiest math I have ever done,” wrote another.

“Never, ever, ever,” wrote a third.

But there are signs this hostility to electric is cracking.

In Williston, N.D., a center for oil-field services companies, petroleum has paid for a gleaming job training center called TrainND. As recently as three years ago, 80 percent of its operating budget was covered by Halliburton, said its director, Kenley Nebeker.

Since then, Nebeker said, he has been working to diversify the financial stream that supports the center and the job training it offers. The center is even in line for a grant to offer training to drive electric semis, which Freightliner, Volvo and Peterbilt are all working on.

The oil sector will be fine, he said. It will adapt.

“I don’t see any point in fighting advances,” he added. “I don’t see why it has to become a fight.”