Politics and Government

PUC requires environmental review for first proposed carbon pipeline in Minnesota

A maze of pipes at the Highwater Ethanol plant
A maze of pipes at the Highwater Ethanol plant in rural Lamberton, Minn. The plant is one of many which have signed on for a proposed $4.5 billion project collecting carbon dioxide emissions from ethanol plants in Minnesota and neighboring states, then storing the greenhouse gas deep underground in North Dakota. 
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Members of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission voted 5-0 to formally accept Summit Carbon Solution’s route permit application for what could be Minnesota’s first carbon capture pipeline. But even as the PUC launched the permitting process it also ordered an environmental review of the project. 

Summit Carbon Solutions filed for a permit in September for a liquid carbon dioxide pipeline stretching 28 miles from Green Plains Ethanol Plant near Fergus Falls to Breckenridge and then into North Dakota. It’s part of a $4.5 billion project collecting carbon dioxide emissions from ethanol plants in Minnesota and neighboring states, then storing the greenhouse gas deep underground in North Dakota. 

Accepting the application as complete starts the permitting process and allows more chances for public engagement. The commission ordered the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which is the state’s most comprehensive form of environmental review.  

The decision follows months of pressure from landowners, tribal representatives, labor organizations and other stakeholders asking for a more robust environmental analysis of the project’s impacts to water sources, farmland and neighboring communities.

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. Liepold said he wants farmers to be treated respectfully, whether they sign an easement agreement or not.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

“We had a lot of conversation and heard from many groups and individuals wanting to make sure the state got this process right,” said Commissioner Chair Katie Sieben. “With this being the first carbon pipeline in Minnesota, the Commission wants to ensure we are setting a process that is thorough, transparent and protective.”

An EIS comprehensively describes and analyzes a project with the potential to have significant impacts on the environment. It also allows opportunities for public comment. 

In a statement issued following the vote Summit Carbon Solutions said it had already secured almost 4,000 easements for the pipeline, representing 57 percent of the proposed route.

“It’s clear that farmers, stakeholders and more are embracing this critical investment in our infrastructure” the statement continued. “They are doing so because this project will open new economic opportunities for ethanol producers, strengthen the agricultural marketplace for farmers, and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We look forward to continuing to work with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to address their questions, advance this project and help the state realize these broad public benefits.”

Representatives from groups concerned about the project including Clean Up the River Environment (CURE) and the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) welcomed the PUC’s order for an EIS.  

“I think the PUC made the right decision, and we think it’s the only legal thing they could have done,” said PEER staff attorney Hudson Kingston. “So, they made a very good move in ordering an [environmental impact study]. That is going to allow people, the public to participate, to understand about these projects and to get their input in the record.”

Sarah Mooradian, CURE’s government relations and policy director expressed disappointment that the commission denied the citizen’s petition calling for a review of the entire project proposal. However, she says the commission could expand the scope of the environmental study.

“The timeline is not going to be as quick as I’m sure some people will want, but it’s going to ensure that all the T’s are crossed and I’s are dotted,” said Mooradian. “I think this is definitely the right call. This is a big enough project, a new enough project, that it needs to go through the entire EIS process. What I would hope is that this doesn't turn into kind of like the first check mark for all CO2 pipelines. I think it'll give us a lot of great information, Minnesotans, the Commission, about what these projects where they are, you know, what their impacts might be.”

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