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Who wins and who loses with CO2 pipelines?

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Duane Ninneman

MONTEVIDEO — Have you heard about the new pipeline projects being developed in southwest and west central Minnesota? If you haven’t, you’re not alone.

Even Minnesotans who live, work, and own land in the communities where these pipelines will cross are just beginning to hear about them in drips and drops — maybe in a brief mention in the local paper or a bullet-point item in the minutes of a county board meeting. Or maybe you’ve heard the rumblings from farmers and communities on the other side of the Minnesota-Iowa border where resistance to these projects is growing.

There are currently two pipeline projects on the horizon in Minnesota — one by Ames-based Summit Carbon Solutions called the Midwest Carbon Express and the other by Texas-based Navigator CO2 Ventures called the Heartland Greenway. These pipelines are part of the rapidly growing industry known as Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage (CCUS). If built, they will span thousands of miles of farmland and prairie carrying carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions “captured” from dozens of ethanol and fertilizer plants throughout the Midwest to “storage” sites in North Dakota and Illinois.

Already, surveyors for the companies are out in Minnesota farm fields and farmers and landowners are being asked to sign voluntary easements to allow the pipelines across their property. This is all happening before any environmental assessments, community input, meaningful tribal consultation, or broad public discussions on CO2 pipelines have occurred.

The buildout of new infrastructure like these CO2 pipelines will bring big changes to the landscape of our communities, with impacts on land use, water use, community health and safety, jobs and worker rights, and tribal treaty rights.

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Summit and Navigator have acknowledged that a review of the social and environmental impacts of their projects is important for making decisions around approvals and permitting. However, they’ve also determined that they should be able to conduct such an assessment themselves, arguing that a “voluntary” environmental assessment would be sufficient.

But can we really trust these companies to prioritize the best interests of our rural communities even when it might impact their bottom-line?

Landowners, tribes, communities, and all Minnesotans who will be impacted by these pipelines should be part of the decision-making process on if and how they are built. To do that we need in-depth and unbiased information about the impacts of these pipelines and the CCUS industry.

In Minnesota right now, there is no state agency tasked with overseeing a comprehensive assessment of CO2 pipelines, creating a regulatory blackhole that puts our communities at risk.

But recently, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) — the state agency that has oversight over most other large pipeline projects — opened a proceeding on whether it should expand state regulations to include liquid CO2 in the definition of “hazardous,” which it clearly is.

This simple change to regulation would give the PUC the ability to conduct a project-wide environmental assessment. A state-led project review would also provide a much-needed forum where members of the public could participate in the decision-making and have their voices heard.

As we work to clean up our energy and industrial sectors, there will be an ongoing debate around the role and development of CCUS and bioenergy — and there should be. But that debate must be open, accessible, and fair. Corporate executives and their investors should not be the ones who get to dictate what that looks like and who the winners and losers will be. The places and communities we call home and the lives we cultivate here are too precious for that.

Duane Ninneman is Executive Director of Clean Up the River Environment (CURE), a place-based rural grassroots organization based in Montevideo.

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