A critical debate that will shape the energy future in the U.S. is taking place across Midwestern communities in the farm fields, rural town halls, and courtrooms of Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota — and now — in Minnesota too. Polluting industries are scrambling to build thousands of miles of carbon dioxide (CO2) pipelines to make big profits from carbon capture utilization and sequestration (CCUS)—collecting, compressing, and piping CO2 to store or use. Unfortunately, this is not driven by what our farmers, rural communities or the country need. It’s not even about our fight against climate change. It’s about money.
For several decades, CCUS has been used primarily by the oil and gas industries for enhanced oil recovery, with “captured carbon” being used to extract more oil from marginally productive wells. Now CCUS is being reinvented as a form of so-called “carbon management” and large corporations are clamoring to get in line to receive billions of taxpayer dollars including grants and loans from last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and a newly expanded key federal tax credit — known as 45Q — that was included in the Inflation Reduction Act. Start-ups, investors, and legacy fossil fuel companies see massive profits to be made from federal subsidies for an industry dependent on a cycle of CO2 production and capture.
Most troubling about the CCUS and CO2 pipeline gold rush is that in this time of extreme climate peril these technologies are not climate solutions. The U.S. government has poured billions of dollars into CCUS projects that have largely been shuttered due to technological failures or massive cost overruns. After decades of repeated attempts to get it off the ground, CCUS technology has never been successful at-scale. This isn’t stopping those who see a profit to be made and it’s Minnesota communities that find themselves at the frontlines of this risky industrial infrastructure buildout.
There are currently two CO2 pipeline projects for CCUS being proposed for Minnesota. The two companies looking to make billions from CO2 pipelines and CCUS are Iowa-based Summit Carbon Solutions, and Nebraska-based Navigator CO2 Ventures. If built, these high-pressure hazardous liquid CO2 pipelines will span thousands of miles carrying CO2 emissions captured from dozens of ethanol, fertilizer, and coal plants throughout the Midwest and transporting them to underground storage sites in North Dakota and Illinois.
CO2 pipelines are risky and currently dangerously underregulated, but pipeline proponents are selling CO2 pipelines as key to rural economic vitality. The pitch to impacted farmers and landowners is that the facilities will capture the greenhouse gases from the ethanol fermentation process, lowering the emissions from ethanol to make it more competitive in a low-carbon fuel future. Unfortunately, these grand claims do not hold up to scrutiny.
For example, the Archer-Daniels-Midland (ADM) ethanol plant in Decatur, Illinois received $141 million in federal subsidies from the Department of Energy for a CCUS-on-ethanol project. In the three years since this ADM facility started using CCUS technology overall emissions didn’t go down. Emissions went up. CCUS by itself has a huge carbon footprint, requiring large amounts of energy to power the CCUS tech and that energy usually comes from burning fossil fuels.
Ultimately, these pipeline projects aren’t about rural communities or the climate, and not really about ethanol either. Ethanol production itself does not create enough emissions to financially justify large-scale infrastructure such as CO2 pipeline networks. The investors and partners behind these CO2 pipeline projects reveal the true beneficiaries of CCUS projects: fossil fuel interests — including oil, gas, and coal — the very industries at the root of the climate crisis.
CO2 pipelines and CCUS are a corporate boondoggle not a climate solution. Minnesotans are left to ask: Is this the best way to invest billions in public money in the name of clean energy when we have other options? And why are we asking rural communities, farmers, and taxpayers to take on the risk while the industries that caused the crisis make a profit?
Landowners in the path of CO2 pipelines, rural communities, tribes — and all Minnesotans — have a right to be part of the decision-making process about our energy future. We need to take action on climate now and we do not have the time, money, or energy to waste going down the wrong path — and we all need to be at the table, not just the companies looking to make massive profits. The stakes are too high.
Maggie Schuppert is campaigns director for CURE (Clean Up the River Environment) and Anne Borgendale is communications director for CURE. CURE is a rural-based democracy organization with offices in Montevideo, Minnesota. CURE strives to build grassroots community power to address the linkages between environmental challenges, societal inequities, and other systemic challenges facing communities.