CO2 pipeline proposal draws mixed reactions in SW Minn.

People talk about their concerns
Dan Henriksen from Vesta, Minn., far right, talks about his concerns with the $4.5 billion pipeline project being proposed by Summit Carbon Solutions.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

A proposal to build a pipeline across five states to connect biofuel plants with permanent carbon storage is drawing mixed reactions in southwestern Minnesota, where one leg of the project would run.

Under the plan put forth by Iowa-based Summit Carbon Solutions, the pipeline would funnel CO2 emissions from ethanol plants to locations in North Dakota where the greenhouse gas would be injected into rock formations deep underground. The company hopes to begin construction on the $4.5 billion project next September. 

Pipeline supporters are touting the project’s potential to combat climate change, and boost the local economy. But some landowners and environmental groups say they’re worried the pipeline could break and pollute water and farmland.

A maze of pipes at the Highwater Ethanol plant
A maze of pipes at the Highwater Ethanol plant in rural Lamberton, Minn.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Drumming up support

Summit Carbon Solutions filed for permits this week with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, but project backers have been working to generate support for the pipeline for months.

In late August, Highwater Ethanol held a media tour at its facility in Lamberton to show how the plant could eventually link up to the pipeline. Highwater is one of five ethanol plants in Minnesota, and among 32 in the Midwest, already committed to the project. 

CEO Brian Kletscher says in 2021, the Highwater processed just over 581,000 tons of corn into ethanol. That same year, the plant also emitted about 78,000 metric tons of CO2. 

By capturing and storing its carbon emissions from ethanol production, Kletscher says Highwater could save millions of dollars a year. Federal tax law allows a credit up to $85 for every metric ton of carbon a facility stores underground.

Those tax savings would make ethanol more cost-effective to produce, he says, and that would help the local ag economy.

“We purchase approximately 50 percent of corn produced in Redwood County,” said Kletscher. “It’s going to be another step for us to get more for ethanol, and that way, we’re viable for a very long time into the future.”

A person talks at a press conference
Lee Blank, CEO of Summit Carbon Solutions, talks at a press conference at the Highwater Ethanol plant on Aug. 30 in rural Lamberton, Minn.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Summit Carbon Solutions has been hosting meetings to discuss the project and answer questions or address concerns. The company is seeking voluntary easements from landowners to run the pipeline through their properties. Those conversations have been mostly positive, said CEO Lee Blank.

“We believe very much that this is beneficial to the farm gate economy,” he said. “And so, we want them to be involved, as well as the fact that we are partnering with them as we take this project through [to] fruition and to completion.”

But hurdles remain. 

Project faces opposition

Peg Furshong works for the grassroots environmental organization CURE, based in Montevideo, Minn. She’s concerned pipeline ruptures could expose groundwater to carbon dioxide, creating carbonic acid in local water supplies. The gas is odorless and colorless. It’s also an asphyxiant for humans. 

“There’s been no information shared with the public, like there would be if a school was being built, or a hospital or anything big in a major rural community,” Furshong said. “And so that lack of transparency and lack of agency for rural communities is really important. That democracy point is missing.”

About 35 miles north of Lamberton in the Lower Sioux Indian Community, the tribal council is also concerned about the potential risks of the project. Though the pipeline won’t go through the reservation, it will cross the Minnesota River upstream from the community.     

A person poses for a portrait
Kevin O'Keefe, treasurer of the Lower Sioux Indian Community, says a proposed CO2 pipeline which would cross the Minnesota River upstream of the community concerns tribal members.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

Kevin O’Keefe, treasurer for Lower Sioux, worries about potential risks to wildlife and water quality if the pipeline leaks or bursts. He also is concerned about whether emergency responders are trained or equipped to manage a leak or rupture, leaving rural communities vulnerable if proper safety precautions  aren’t in place. 

“We do want to encourage green energy sources. We do want to encourage less burning of fossil fuels,” O’Keefe said. “I think this is a poor solution for it.”

Summit Carbon approached Anita Vogel’s parents in Lamberton to sign an easement. Vogel said some neighbors and landowners were offered signing bonuses. She’s not against those who consider signing for the project because they need the money to support their families and businesses, but she urges others to seek more information. 

Anita Vogel poses for a portrait
Anita Vogel stands where a possible pipeline would go if her family signs an easement agreement with Summit Carbon Solutions.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

“My message to the fellow landowners is there’s no hurry. There is absolutely no hurry,” she said. “They have to do what’s best for them, as long as they aren’t taken advantage of.”

Hamline University professor David Schultz says the project could be both essential and threatening to those living in rural Minnesota, and even in the Twin Cities. Schultz, who teaches political science and environmental studies, said while pipelines are beneficial from an economic and energy development standpoint, they also pose risks to the environment if something goes wrong. 

“These pipelines have an ambiguous role in our society about lifestyle, politics, energy and a whole bunch of different things that most of us don’t really think about on a day-to-day basis,” Schultz added. 

Larry Liepold poses for a portrait
Larry Liepold stands where a possible pipeline would go if his family signs an easement agreement with Summit Carbon Solutions. Liepold’s family rents out part of the farmland in Heron Lake, Minn., with the Heron Lake BioEnergy ethanol plant in the background.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Larry Liepold farms land in Heron Lake more than 30 miles south of Lamberton. Summit Carbon Solutions approached him about an easement several months ago, but Liepold said he rejected the offer. 

“Nothing should go through without a little bit of resistance to try it and see if it’s worthy,” Liepold said. “Mainly because we’ve taken a position that we want to be fairly compensated, should we decide that it’s a good thing for our area.”

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