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Nebraska is likely headed for another pipeline controversy — this time over carbon dioxide

Nebraska is likely headed for another pipeline controversy — this time over carbon dioxide

Proposed carbon dioxide pipelines

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden is planning to cancel the permit for the $9 billion Keystone XL pipeline project as one of his first acts in office, and perhaps as soon as his first day, according to a source familiar with his thinking. Bryan Wood reports.

LINCOLN — While the controversy over the Keystone XL pipeline has finally ended, another pipeline punching match is looming on the horizon in Nebraska.

Two environmental groups say they will fight proposals to build two high-pressure pipelines to capture carbon dioxide generated by Nebraska ethanol plants and transport it in liquid form for permanent storage deep underground in North Dakota and Illinois.

At least one of those projects, by Summit Carbon Solutions, has already begun contacting landowners in northeast Nebraska.

That Alden, Iowa-based company is planning to build 314 miles of pipeline to six ethanol plants as part of a $4.5 billion carbon-capture project covering five Midwestern states.

Dallas-based Navigator CO2 Ventures is also planning a five-state carbon dioxide pipeline that would extend from near Sioux City, Iowa, to an ethanol plant in Albion, Nebraska, as part of its 1,200-mile carbon-capture project. Some fertilizer plants may be added as customers as well.

Officials with the Nebraska Ethanol Board and the two pipeline companies said these projects are vital to the future of ethanol, by lowering the carbon impact of the corn-based fuel and opening up new markets in states like California and Oregon that have adopted goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to combat global warming.

"This is a critical step to ensure the long-term viability of ethanol," said Jesse Harris, a spokesperson for Summit Carbon Solutions.

Ethanol is a huge economic driver in Nebraska, consuming about 38% of the corn grown in the state and providing 1,400 jobs at 25 ethanol plants. Gov. Pete Ricketts, an avid supporter of ethanol, has already expressed support for the Summit Carbon Solutions project, which is being spearheaded by Bruce Rastetter, the former head of the Iowa Board of Regents and a major GOP donor in Iowa, whose company is a major ethanol producer. 

The company says its project has a capacity of storing 12 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, the equivalent of removing 2.6 million cars from the roads annually, and would cut the carbon footprint of ethanol production by up to 50%. 

"This is important not just for the future of ethanol, but the future of all of us on planet Earth," said Roger Berry, administrator of the Ethanol Board.

But officials with the Nebraska chapter of the Sierra Club and Bold Nebraska, which led opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, said their organizations will fight the CO2 pipelines.

They said that such pipelines, because they operate at high pressure, can pose a safety risk in the event of a leak and that they are a "greenwashing scheme" for fossil fuels. 

"CO2 pipelines are a questionable attempt to prop up fossil fuels by taking advantage of government subsidies while providing a pretense that they are environmentally friendly," said Ken Winston of the Nebraska Sierra Club.

He and Jane Kleeb, founder of Bold Nebraska, said they are worried about the lack of state regulations governing CO2 pipelines.

"We're in the same situation we were at with Keystone XL — there is no agency giving a permit, no agency reviewing the health risks and the safety risks," Kleeb said.

Nebraska was ground zero for controversy over the Keystone XL pipeline, not only because of concerns over greenhouse gas emissions but also the eminent domain powers granted to a foreign corporation. The pipeline was designed to ship thick crude oil from Canada's tar sands region to a terminal in Steele City, Nebraska, where it would have been sent to refineries on the Gulf Coast, and was billed as a way to increase energy security with help from an ally.

But disputes over the proper route across Nebraska, as well as lengthy federal environmental reviews and presidential politics that led to the rejection and then revival of the project, delayed the Keystone XL, which was proposed more than a decade ago.

Then President Joe Biden, shortly after taking office this year, pulled a federal permit for the pipeline. TC Energy, the company developing the pipeline, announced in June that it was dropping the project.

Proponents of the CO2 pipelines say their projects will be less of a risk because carbon dioxide isn't flammable, like oil or gasoline. While carbon dioxide can cause someone to suffocate, any leak would soon dissipate and would not pose a risk unless someone was in close proximity, they said. 

"There's risks with any project. But we have a track record of doing things right," said Elizabeth Burns-Thompson of Navigator CO2 Ventures.

Harris, of Summit Carbon Solutions, said he's been encouraged by the support for the projects during recent public hearings held in Iowa counties that will be crossed by 700 miles of its CO2 pipelines.

While similar public hearings are not required in Nebraska, officials with both pipeline projects say they plan to hold open house sessions with Nebraska landowners later this year.

Unlike the Keystone XL, which struggled to demonstrate direct benefits to Nebraska, the two CO2 pipelines are partnering with local ethanol plants as ethanol works to become a more environmentally friendly product in the face of more competition from electric cars.

But Kleeb said a lot of energy is required for such carbon capture projects, negating any environmental benefits. She added that the state needs to consider passing regulations of such CO2 pipelines because they are now lacking.

Kleeb said that despite the partnership with ethanol plants, she expects that landowners will oppose the pipelines.

"I'm confident that farmers don't want eminent domain used against them and have a lot of questions about the risks," she said.


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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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