A proposal for a nearly 2,000 mile carbon capture pipeline, the lengths of which would cross five states, is currently in the works. The pipeline project is in very preliminary stages, but the proposed path covers land in Minnesota, with a leg of the pipeline running through Otter Tail County (OTC) just north of Fergus Falls.
The short stretch of the pipeline would travel eight miles in OTC, a very small portion of the almost 2,000 mile path.
The $4.5 billion project, funded privately, has been deemed “The Midwest Carbon Express.” If completed, developers say the pipeline project would be the largest carbon sequestration project in the world.
The company tackling this massive undertaking, Summit Carbon Solutions, has long-term contracts with 31 ethanol plants, including Green Plains Partnership in Fergus Falls. Summit Carbon Solution’s parent company, Summit Agricultural Group, invests in agriculture and ethanol plants in the Midwest and in Brazil.
The pipeline will capture carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the 31 participating ethanol plants, which would otherwise be released into the atmosphere during the fermentation process of the corn or starch. The CO2 is then pressurized and pushed into the pipeline. The pipeline then carries the captured CO2 to a sequestration site where it is injected more than a mile deep underground and stored permanently.
Chris Hill, Director of Environmental for Summit Carbon Solutions, explained that carbon sequestration requires “stringent investigation to ensure that the CO2 will be permanently and safely sequestered” and that acquiring a permit to inject CO2 into the ground is a long and rigorous process.
If approved, injection sites will have to be continuously monitored and tested.
The pipeline route as it’s currently laid out would cross the Pelican River, just north of the Fergus Falls Municipal Airport. It would then run into Wilkin County, traveling 17 miles before entering North Dakota, on its way to a sequestration site near Bismarck, North Dakota.
Because of the pipeline’s proximity to the Pelican River, Summit Carbon Solutions will need to acquire a conditional use permit from OTC. “We have an ordinance, and they have to follow what’s in our ordinance,” said Chris LeClair, Land and Resource Director for OTC.
When asked if he thought the pipeline would pose any risk to the pristine waters in OTC, LeClair said no.
Hill has been in talks with LeClair and other county commissioners. “We’ve been having some really good conversations with the county leadership around the conditional use permit,” shared Hill. Conversations started in the summer of 2021 and have been ongoing ever since. Summit Carbon Solutions recently began a voluntary environmental review, which will help in determining if a conditional use permit will be granted or not.
Hill said that Summit Carbon Solutions tried to collect as much data as possible when mapping out the proposed pipeline route. “And that route is imperfect,” he explained. “It’s a starting point for discussion.”
The company has been hosting open houses for landowners and stakeholders who are interested, concerned or curious about the project and the proposed path.
There was a public meeting hosted in mid-October of 2021 for folks in OTC and Wilkin County. Summit Carbon Solutions also has land agents who meet with landowners one on one to address questions and concerts, but Hill believes it’s important to host additional public meetings so people can ask questions and voice their concerns.
By collecting the carbon at these ethanol plants, it theoretically prevents the ethanol plants from becoming obsolete as the world moves forward into a more environmentally responsible reality. According to Hill it “ensures the longevity of the plant’s life,” along with the jobs and economic benefits associated with the plants themselves.
Throughout the five state region in which the pipeline would travel, the project as a whole could create 14,000-17,000 jobs through the construction of the project, and 350-450 operational jobs once the pipeline is complete.
Additionally, reducing the ethanol plants’ carbon footprint also opens up Midwest markets to sell to low-carbon fuel markets like California, Oregon and Washington.
But what role do carbon capture pipelines such as “The Midwest Carbon Express” play if the future goal is to be free of fossil fuels?
Beth Monke, chapter leader of Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL) in Fergus Falls, said that the carbon capture pipeline is an imperfect solution but that it’s a compromise that will move society forward into a more environmentally responsible future.
“We have to do it because it’s part of the ‘all of the above’ strategy that we need,” she said, explaining that the cost to humanity is too high if CO2 emissions aren’t reduced soon.
CCL supported the “Storing CO2 And Lowering Emissions Act” (SCALE Act), a bipartisan act that was included in the infrastructure bill recently passed by Congress, which states “carbon capture and storage technologies are necessary for reducing hard-to-abate emissions from the industrial sector, which emits nearly 25% of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States.”
Monke explained that the reality is that society is going to need existing energy resources for some time as it transitions away from fossil fuels. And sequestration is a part of that.
She stressed that continued research and development are needed as carbon sequestration becomes a more common practice. She also encouraged people to do research and know the risks associated with a carbon pipeline.
Hill shared a similar sentiment that carbon capture is a step forward. “I’m an environmentalist,” he said. “That’s the way I think. So, everything we’re doing, everything I do, my profession is to benefit the environment. It may be in the short or long term, but in this case I think the longevity of ethanol plants is incredibly important and there’s a huge opportunity that we’re losing sight of if we move 100% or we just blanketly have policies to move to electric vehicles or electrify everything.”
Hill stated that he is not against electric vehicles, but rather more of an “all approaches” and “all alternatives” type of person in regards to “the issue we’re trying to solve in society.”
Though the pipeline will make a huge dent in carbon emissions, it will not bring the ethanol plants to carbon neutrality. “We hope to be a key contributing factor to allowing them to get carbon neutral by 2030,” said Hill. “But we’re only a piece of that puzzle.”
The project is projected to capture 12 million metric tons of carbon per year, which is the equivalent of removing 2.6 million vehicles off the road.
Along with pipelines come safety concerns. Though CO2 is not flammable and is not toxic, it is an asphyxiant if it replaces oxygen. A carbon pipeline leak in 2020 near a small Mississippi town caused confusion, convulsions and left some people unconscious, demonstrating some of the risks associated with a carbon pipeline.
“There’s never a situation where there is no risk,” said Hill when asked about a possible leak, and said the Summit Carbon Solutions takes those risks very seriously.
Hill noted that there are many, thorough measures and procedures that go into preventing a leak. Testing, monitoring, physical monitoring, aerial flyovers, leak detection systems and more,
“If there is a potential leak, our first priority shifts to public safety,” said Hill.
He explained that Summit Carbon Solutions will be coordinating with local emergency response committees as the project progresses to make sure they understand the hazards associated with a carbon pipeline and have a plan to respond, should a leak occur. The company wants to ensure that local responders such as fire fighters, medics and hospital workers are “educated and well trained to address the specific risks associated with CO2.”
Summit Carbon Solutions hopes to start construction in 2023 and be fully operational by 2024.