State hopes to expand coal research

North Dakota State Roundup

Published July 1, 1993  | July 1993 issue

North Dakota voters will decide next June whether to dedicate a portion of the state's coal trust fund to clean coal research.

If that measure fails, then part of the coal tax revenue that normally goes to the state's general fund would be earmarked for the lignite research fund.

Those efforts to assure funding for coal research were made by the state Legislature this spring even before it learned that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) turned down a proposal for a clean-coal demonstration power plant in Center. State officials had looked to the Center plant to enhance North Dakota's important coal industry.

According to Mark Conrad, communications director for the North Dakota Lignite Energy Council, coal is about a $1.2 billion industry in the state. An average of 30 million tons of lignite, or low-grade coal, is mined annually in North Dakota. At this rate, North Dakota contains an estimated 1,000 year supply.

An April 1993 study released by North Dakota State University reports that in 1992, 3,384 people were directly employed by the coal industry, with another 15,201 in secondary jobs. The industry also dumped $63.4 million into state coffers last year in the form of taxes.

At the forefront of the state's research efforts is the University of North Dakota's Energy and Environmental Research Center (EERC), which attracted more than $20 million in fiscal 1992 in federal, state and private contracts to conduct energy and environmental research for clients across the nation and throughout the world.

Recently the EERC received a grant from the DOE for participation in Combustion 2000, a program to develop a new generation of coal-fired power plants by the year 2000. "It's a chance to be on the cutting edge of technology that will be coming into play in the next century," says Pat Miller, the EERC's communications coordinator. "There may even be a silver lining in the rejection of the Center plant proposal," Miller adds. "Maybe we need to look at something totally new."

Although the Center clean coal project was turned down, the DOE still has uncommitted additional funds for other projects and North Dakota may benefit in the future, says Clifford Porter, director of the lignite research and development program for the state. Porter, who is also technical adviser to the Lignite Research Council and North Dakota Industrial Commission, points out that 40 percent of coal produced or consumed in the United States comes from west of the Mississippi River, but 80 percent of DOE funds have gone to the eastern United States—a statistic he'd like to see change.

Kathy Cobb