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Senator Gerald P. Nye


North Dakota has become a leading energy state in recent years because of Bakken petroleum, however, lignite coal has long been a vital resource for the state. Lignite is mainly used for making electricity, but it can also be used for heating and cooking.

At Beulah, lignite has been converted into natural gas at the Great Plains Synfuel Plant since 1984. And there is another use of lignite that has not been unlocked. On this date in 1943 the Bismarck Tribune told of North Dakota Senator Gerald P. Nye’s hopes for lignite coal. Senator Nye said lignite could be turned into gasoline if the U-S would commit itself to developing a synthetic-fuel industry.

Nye pointed out that Nazi Germany was getting about half of its gasoline from lignite coal, and North Dakota had enough lignite – 600 billion tons – to “supply gasoline for this country for hundreds of years.”

Germany was the model; for Germany had virtually no petroleum deposits. Therefore, German scientists developed ways to convert soft coal into oil way back in the 1920s. One process consisted of pulverizing lignite, combining it with hydrogen, and then turning it into liquid under intense heat and pressure.

When Germany went to war in 1939, it had fourteen synthetic fuel plants in operation, with six more being built, all at a huge expense, in order to power Adolf Hitler’s war-machine.

In 1942, North Dakota Congressman Usher Burdick said lignite coal was Hitler’s most valuable asset for waging war. Burdick asserted that North Dakota alone had a more vast lignite reserve than Germany, capable of supplying the U.S. with far more synthetic fuel than Germany.

By 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt signed a law creating a national synthetic-fuel plan, and the government built an experimental laboratory in Grand Forks under the auspices of the North Dakota Research Foundation. There, in 1945, coal gasification tests began. Experiments continued through the decades, but as oil companies discovered new oil fields, the U.S. never committed to an all-out synthetic gasoline plan.

What will the future demand? Well, if needed, the remaining 25-billion-tons of recoverable Dakota lignite, along with shale oil, could provide gasoline for perhaps 1,000 years.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.

Sources: “Nye Predicts Probe of Sponge Iron Possibilities,” Bismarck Tribune, June 18, 1943, p. 3.

“Need for Lignite In War Purposes Growing—Burdick,” Bismarck Tribune, August 12, 1942, p. 2.

“Burdick Cites Coal Resources,” Bismarck Tribune, August 24, 1942, p. 2.

“Lignite Coal Hitler’s Most Valuable Asset,” Fergus Falls Daily Journal, September 24, 1942, p. 8.

“Synthetic Gasoline Must Be Answer To Future Demands,” Evening Tribune [Albert Lea, MN], August 4, 1943, p. 4.

“Science: Gas From Coal,” Time, June 15, 1942, from

“FR Approves Synthetic Fuel Production Plan,” Moorhead Daily News, April 6, 1944, p. 12.

“Plan Experiments on Processing Hydrogen From Lignite Coal,” Mason City Globe-Gazette, April 26, 1944, p. 9.

“Moses to Work for Synthetic Fuel Plant,” Bismarck Tribune, December 23, 1944, p. 3.

“Spend Wisely Is Moses’ Parting Advice to State,” Bismarck Tribune, January 4, 1945, p. 3.

“Urge Lignite Tests at University Be Expanded,” Bismarck Tribune, March 8, 1945, p. 5.

“Giant, New Synthetic Fuel Industry Growing,” Bismarck Tribune, March 19, 1948, p. 1.

“The Middle West; Area’s Role as Supplier of Oil And Natural Gas Is Studied,” New York Times, December 11, 1949, p. E6.

Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest For Oil, Money & Power (N.Y.: Simon & Schuster, 1992), p. 330-333, 344-346.

Anthony N. Stranges, “Friedrich Bergius and the Rise of the German Synthetic Fuel Industry,” Isis, Vol. 75, No. 4 (Dec., 1984), pp. 642-667.