Day Two: Ethanol, Corn as King, Preserving Prairies

Ethanol: North Dakota’s Other Boom

A little over a decade ago, a combination of high oil prices, lower corn prices, demand for biofuels and government subsidies ignited a boom in corn-based ethanol production. The boom was a boon to small communities and struggling farmers across North Dakota, spurring a push to put more acres into ag. Although on the wane nationally, the ethanol economy is still a vital part of the state and the Dakota Spirit AgEnergy refinery, completed in 2015, is one of five such refineries in the state, producing more than 450 million gallons of ethanol each year, a ten-fold increase since 2005. The group toured the refinery and talked with local officials, farmers and industry reps about the growth of this intersection of the ag and energy economies.

From Field to Silo to Gas Tank: How Corn Becomes Fuel

The Dakota Spirit AgEnergy refinery is the U.S.’s first new ethanol plant to open in more than five years. Part of that delay was due, in part, to new renewable energy mandates that stated any new ethanol plant had to meet certain carbon reduction goals. To accomplish this, the Dakota Spirit project connected to Great River Energy’s nearby coal-fired power plant, where it uses that facility’s waste steam for power. The group got to see how this works, talk about the decision to make this a grain-based, instead of cellulosic ethanol plant, and learn more about other state-of-the-art technologies in biofuel production.  

Losing Ground: Struggling to Conserve PPR Habitat Where Corn is King 

Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge is one of only two Wilderness Areas in the National Wildlife Refuge system in North Dakota. It’s namesake lake and surrounding prairie pothole habitat is home to one of the world’s largest American white pelican colonies, countless other shore birds, waterfowl, upland birds and other flora and fauna. It is also rich in American history – parts of the intact prairie are still studded with ancient tipi rings and large rocks are worn smooth where bison herds once took turns scratching itches. Today, the surrounding remnants of prairie and grasslands not in the refuge’s 4,385 acres are rapidly disappearing, as landowners find that the money they can make by putting land in conservation easements pales in comparison to the price of corn. The group talked to a refuge manager who is watching the landscape changing in front of him, NGOs working to get non-refuge land in conservation and landowners who have decided to keep prairie and others who planted corn.