Minnesota moves to regulate carbon dioxide pipelines

Highwater Ethanol
Highwater Ethanol has been operating for just over two years near the southwest Minnesota community of Lamberton, seen here on December 22.
Mark Steil | MPR News 2011

Two companies are planning to construct pipelines to collect carbon dioxide emissions from ethanol plants in Minnesota and surrounding states and store the CO2 underground in North Dakota and Illinois.

Current regulation of those pipelines is left to counties.

The Montevideo-based environmental group Clean Up the River Environment, or CURE, petitioned the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to regulate carbon pipelines like these.

The Commission decided it has regulatory authority and voted to initiate a rulemaking process.

“We agree with the PUC that they have both the authority and the duty to the public to regulate where these pipelines will go,” CURE Campaigns Director Maggie Schuppert said in a statement following the vote.

“There are already communities, tribes and landowners who are in the pathway and impact zone of these proposed projects and they deserve a process where information can be made public and rural communities can have a say.”

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The carbon dioxide would be transported under high pressure to keep it in a liquid form.

Attorney Christy Brusven represents Summit Carbon Solutions, a company planning to move CO2 to underground storage sites in North Dakota. She said current state law does not give the Commission authority over carbon dioxide pipelines.

“What I don't want to do is engage in a years long process through rulemaking and a routing proceeding, only to find out that the Commission wasn't granted the authority by the legislature to regulate carbon dioxide,” said Brusven. “And so we really want to make sure this commission is confident in its legal authority over carbon dioxide. We think that's a question for the legislature.”

The companies said because the CO2 will be transported as a non-hazardous liquid, not a gas, the Commission has no authority.

Public Utilities Commissioner John Tuma disagreed.

"It walks like a duck, it quacks like a duck, it's still a duck if I squeeze it really hard, okay?” said Tuma. “That's basically what's going on here is we're taking a gas and squeezing it really hard under heavy psi and keeping it at a certain temperature."

PSI is pound-force per square inch, a unit of pressure.

Tuma said state lawmakers will have a chance to weigh in if they disagree with the PUC interpretation of regulatory authority under state law.

"They'll have an opportunity come next legislative session to engage in that and the timing will be probably very similar to where we're at as far as rulemaking. They'll see what our rules are possibly going to be,” said Tuma. “I think we're clearly within our legislative authority."

Environmental groups and Native American Tribes said the liquid carbon dioxide under high pressure would become a gas if a pipeline ruptured and released CO2 into the atmosphere.

And if CO2 comes in contact with water, a corrosive acid is created.

Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe commissioner of natural resources Kelly Applegate told the commission CO2 pipelines are a significant environmental concern.

“We encourage those who are reviewing this to use common sense here and think of things that might happen if there is a breach in this pipeline: violent plumes of air which could suffocate people and animals,” said Applegate.

While carbon dioxide is not harmful to humans in small amounts — it’s exhaled in every breath we take — in high concentrations CO2 can displace oxygen within the gas plume.

“The fact that purified and highly pressurized carbon dioxide gas can explode out of pipelines and suffocate communities is more than enough reason for the Commission to immediately exercise authority over them,” Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility Attorney Hudson Kingston said after the commission vote. “The rulemaking should further clarify that authority, and should not let any projects get a free pass.”

The companies planning to capture and store carbon dioxide say the rulemaking process and potential pipeline routing process to follow could significantly delay the projects.

But PUC commissioners said having a clear regulatory authority and process will be important because they expect more carbon storage projects to be developed as a way to help mitigate climate change.

“The Commission may and likely will see other pipeline projects of this nature in the future and it may be more common,” said Commissioner Valerie Means. “I think making the time and resources to do a rulemaking is worthwhile.”