Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski brought his economic team to the Herald last week.
It wasn't a long journey; the Economic Development Corp. offices are in the Herald building, so the trip was equivalent to the dash from the locker rooms to the ice in Ralph Engelstad Arena.
The occasion was the announcement of what everyone in the room realized was a "historic" project. The Herald used that very word in its front-page headline on Saturday, Nov. 6.
Reporter Sam Easter did a skillful job of describing the project and its immediate implications for Grand Forks – more jobs, more infrastructure and more creative financing arrangements. Tax increment financing can be a thorny thicket. Easter's reporting laid out the details clearly.
These are important for Grand Forks but I found myself caught up elsewhere. The "wet corn milling" facility that the Fufeng Group plans to build touches many of the biggest issues of our time globally and locally.
Fufeng Group – pronounced as if the "e" were a long "o" – is a Chinese company. It's privately traded on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Bochenski said he doesn't think the Chinese government has a stage in the group. Government ownership clouded an earlier deal with a Chinese company that proposed a nitrogen fertilizer plant in Grand Forks. The idea hasn't been abandoned but it's not making any progress, either. Since that project was suggested, relations between the United States and China have become more fraught, with the Chinese enlarging their nuclear arsenal.
The corn mill proposal makes Gov. Doug Burgum's proposal for a natural gas pipeline from the Bakken Oil field in western North Dakota to the Red River Valley more likely, because it places a big consumer of natural gas at the terminus of the pipeline, making the pipeline more feasible economically. It also means natural gas can be made available in communities along the way – Minot, Rugby, Devils Lake and a score of other, smaller, towns.
It may be that the plant was a catalyst for the pipeline idea. Bochenski said talks about Fufeng's interest began in 2020, well before the pipeline proposal was presented and before federal funds flowed into the state's coffers as part of the COVID economic stimulus package offered by the Biden administration.
The Legislature is meeting this week, partly to approve a legislative redistricting plan and partly to spend up to $1 billion in stimulus funds. Burgum has asked for $150 million for the pipeline, by far the largest ask. Bochenski was set to discuss the project at the state Capitol on Tuesday, Nov. 9. The state will look – probably is looking – for a partner to invest in the pipeline and to build and operate it. Such a pipeline would effectively end the need to flare natural gas at the wellhead, a problem that has bedeviled the oil industry and state regulators. Flaring has been reduced but not eliminated.
The Fufeng facility would emit methane, one of the so-called "green house gases" believed to cause global warming. Representatives of most of the world's nations – but not China – are meeting in Scotland to seek agreement on limiting green house gas emissions. The Biden administration's promise is zero net emissions by 2050.
This gives impetus to an effort to capture and store carbon underground. This "carbon sequestration" is a focus of research at UND's Energy and Environmental Research Center and it is a major part of Gov. Burgum's initiative to make North Dakota "carbon neutral." Several projects are in late-stage planning.
Wet corn milling requires water, and lots of it. In general, Grand Forks is well supplied by the Red and Red Lake rivers. The Red River Valley Water Supply Project might provide back-up supplies if they were needed. That project is the successor of the Garrison Diversion Project and will move water from the Missouri River into the Red River basin, a contentious issue historically.
The Fufeng project impacts issues in the community beyond water supply, methane emissions and tax increment financing. Schools, for example. And streets. And other infrastructure.
The school issue is perhaps the most critical. Voters resoundingly defeated a bond issue to consolidate several schools at a new campus. That's a matter that will have to be revisited as the Fufeng project progresses.
At last week's meeting with the Herald editorial board, Bochenski and his team said the Fufeng wet corn mill would create 1,200 jobs in the construction phase and more than 700 direct and indirect jobs when operations begin, perhaps as soon as late 2024.
An influx that large will challenge the town's housing stock and its contractors.
These are the kinds of challenges that communities welcome, of course, and this is a big project. Reporter Easter quoted Keith Lund, the EDC director, who said "it's the largest private capital investment in the region's history."
After the meeting, the newsies involved discussed what the headline should say. I offered the one you see above this column: "Bochenski shoots and scores." I couldn't resist the hockey reference. Bochenski came to Grand Forks to play hockey at UND. Later he played professionally, then returned to Grand Forks to build a career and become the city's mayor.
In his campaign, Bochenski promised big plays. This is his biggest score.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.