Missouri River

Map of the Missouri River watershed — with tributaries and states labelled.

A Montana State University-led team has received $6 million to develop ways to fight climate change that could impact the nation’s food, energy and water systems.

The four-year grant from the National Science Foundation will allow MSU, the University of Wyoming and the University of South Dakota to coordinate a massive effort to address whether biofuels and carbon capture technologies can be sustainably introduced into the Upper Missouri River Basin, said Paul Stoy, principal investigator and associate professor in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences at MSU.

Paul Stoy

Paul Stoy, associate professor in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, is the principal investigator of a collaborative effort to address questions about whether biofuels and carbon capture technologies can be sustainably introduced into the Upper Missouri River Basin.

The main goal is to create a way to evaluate proposals to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations — the leading contributor to climate change — while maintaining food security, water quality and biodiversity, Stoy said.

The Upper Missouri River Basin — the river and all its tributaries upstream of Sioux City, Iowa — contains parts or most of five states and more than 20 Indian reservations.

It represents 30 percent of the wheat produced in the United States, 13 percent of the soybeans, 11 percent of the cattle and 9 percent of the corn, according to the Upper Missouri River Basin Association.

The Upper Missouri River Basin also contains the Colstrip power plant in eastern Montana — the second largest coal-fired generating facility west of the Mississippi — and the Bakken shale formation.

Thirty-one private, state and federal institutions and more than 50 people, including 18 MSU faculty and 13 MSU graduate students, will be involved in the project, which will run into 2020, Stoy said.

MSU will lead research related to agriculture and biofertilizers, food security, clean energy, and water supply and quality. South Dakota researchers will focus on land use, biodiversity and ecosystem services assessment, while Wyoming scientists will study issues related to agricultural economics, economic modeling and land use.

Each of the three coordinating universities will receive $2 million to pursue its portion of the project. On the whole, Stoy said, the grant “emphasizes interdisciplinary student training.”

Benjamin Poulter

MSU ecologist Benjamin Poulter, now at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, collaboratively initiated the project with the goal of reducing carbon dioxide concentrations while maintaining food security, water quality, biodiversity and other benefits provided by the Upper Missouri River Basin.

Benjamin Poulter, an MSU ecologist now at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center who worked with researchers from Wyoming and South Dakota to start the project, said the project is necessary to evaluate the regional consequences of global climate change policies aimed at “negative carbon dioxide emissions.”

The term refers to the withdrawal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by growing biofuels and “capturing” carbon dioxide emissions in geologic formations or in soils and vegetation.

“For the first time in millions of years, atmospheric CO2 concentrations will remain above 400 parts per million for the entirety of 2016,” Poulter said. “Negative CO2 policies are needed to help make CO2 reductions and to steer society away from a 2-degree Celsius warming (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), but these policies must be implemented without harming local livelihoods, as well as food production, water quality and biodiversity.”

The $6 million grant was one of 11 grants recently awarded through the NSF’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR.

“It will allow us to address fundamental questions in the energy sector and enables us to partner with our neighboring scientists in Wyoming and South Dakota,” said MSU Vice President for Research and Economic Development Renee Reijo Pera.

Denise Barnes, head of EPSCoR, added, “These awards represent a tremendous value for the scientific community, as they foster research into some of the most pressing issues facing U.S. society, while simultaneously supporting collaborative research programs and workforce development.”

EPSCoR was established in 1979 to expand and enhance the research in states that traditionally lacked strong university-based research efforts by helping researchers compete more successfully for federal dollars. Montana was one of the original five states to be involved in EPSCoR.