Dakotas among states still weighing controversial pipeline plan

3 months ago
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New public hearings and legal decisions are expected in the coming weeks and months about a controversial pipeline project in the upper Midwest. The company behind the effort appears ready for the long haul, but so are its opponents.

Summit Carbon Solutions has been seeking permits and trying to acquire land in multiple states, including North Dakota, for a maze of pipelines it wants to build. The pipes would carry ethanol plant emissions and store them underground.

Brian Jorde, an attorney representing property owners challenging the project, said despite some regulatory setbacks, it is clear the company is still forging ahead.

“Every state is still in play,” Jorde pointed out. “There’s nothing different from a year ago than right now.”

This week, Jorde made arguments before the South Dakota Supreme Court in a complex element of the case tied to landowners’ rights. And North Dakota regulators are formalizing plans for public hearings for Summit’s new permit application, after saying “no” last year. Summit said the initiative has environmental and economic benefits. However, opponents worry about safety issues and are skeptical of the carbon sequestration claims.

Like North Dakota, South Dakota regulators last year rejected Summit’s initial permit application and the actions have pushed back the project’s timeline. Jorde hopes the public does not lose interest, especially residents concerned about pipelines running through their property.

“If you don’t speak up, the assumption is you don’t mind and you won’t have a voice,” Jorde emphasized.

The latest North Dakota public hearings could begin as early this spring. Jorde noted it could take several months for a decision on the South Dakota legal case. And Summit is expected to try again for permit approval there. Other states connected to the project include Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska.

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A referendum on the ballot this fall gives California voters the chance to either uphold or reject a law which would require oil and gas wells to be set back 3,200 feet from sensitive areas such as schools and homes.

Senate Bill 1137 never went into effect. It is on hold until the vote in November.

Meghan Sahli-Wells, former mayor of Culver City and a board member of Elected Officials to Protect America, noted the referendum is funded by the fossil-fuel industry.

“Basically, they’re asking to continue to poison California communities, when California communities have fought so hard for these protections,” Sahli-Wells contended.

Oil and gas interests argued the changes could phase out thousands of wells as permits are not renewed and raise gas prices. However, a 2022 study from Harvard University found elderly people living near drilling or fracking wells are at higher risk of early death from diseases related to air pollution.

A “Yes” vote on the referendum would keep the restrictions in place. A “no” vote would repeal them.

Alex Walker-Griffin, mayor of Hercules, said poor air quality near oil and gas wells disproportionately affects neighborhoods of color.

“This is an issue that will plague low-income communities, places like Kern County,” Walker-Griffin explained. “Those households that are nearby, those are farmworkers, those are people who are already at a disadvantage. I think about the folks in Compton or Watts, they’re going to have one more reason why their kids are more likely to have asthma.”

The California Independent Petroleum Association said the law would prevent planned, new, in-state production, which could increase reliance on foreign oil and hurt oil-industry workers.

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Biomass producer Enviva’s recent bankruptcy filing is being considered a sign of the industry’s volatility.

Recent financial challenges have hampered the world’s largest biomass producer but some feel it has been a long time coming. Studies show biomass companies rely heavily on government subsidies stemming from biomass’ status in some states and countries as a clean renewable resource.

Heather Hillaker, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said it is not the case.

“The use of the wood pellets to generate energy emits a large quantity of carbon dioxide but it is assumed to be carbon-neutral because at some point the trees will regrow and they will reabsorb the carbon that’s emitted,” Hillaker explained. “What that fails to consider is the time lag, the carbon debt period, as it’s referred to.”

A 2023 study finds biomass facility emissions are almost three times higher than other fossil-fuel energies. While Enviva has been allowed to restructure, Hillaker noted it could have ripple effects for the biomass industry.

Despite its challenges, biomass remains one of many energy sources in Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s All of the Above Energy Plan. Amendments have been approved to keep biomass plants open as the state works toward its 2050 carbon-neutral goals.

Along with environmental impacts, biomass can be detrimental to human health. The World Health Organization found indoor air pollution from biomass is a top risk for the global burden of disease.

Hillaker pointed out biomass facilities create large amounts of fugitive dust in often overburdened environmental justice communities.

“Fugitive dust is really just particulate matter,” Hillaker said. “But it’s particulate matter that doesn’t come out of a stack, really. It kind of wafts off of the facility. Oftentimes for wood pellet mills, it’s woody debris coming off the facility in the breeze or in the wind.”

She added the dust keeps people from being able to open their windows or having large dust accumulations gather in air filters. People living in close range of biomass facilities could face health effects such as asthma or cardiovascular disease.

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In Arizona, four in every 1,000 people have electric cars and a federal rule soon to be finalized could increase those numbers. It is gaining support but also has its critics.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s new car and light truck emission standards could require as many as two-thirds of new cars be all-electric by 2032.

But the move comes as EV sales have slowed down. Some experts say it could prompt the Biden administration to announce more relaxed standards, which would ease into the ramp-up process more slowly.

Chris Harto, senior policy analyst for Consumer Reports, said he expects a good portion of the original proposal will move forward.

“We expect them to still deliver a significant chunk of the climate and consumer benefits of the original rule,” Harto emphasized. “We’re planning to dig into the details as soon as we get them, run our modeling.”

Supporters argued the rule could help curb serious health hazards, but the EPA has received pushback from automakers and oil companies. They contended the U.S. is not ready for such an aggressive EV push, as EV prices remain high and the nation lacks the charging infrastructure. As of April 2023, Arizona had almost 1,000 charging stations.

Matthew Davis, vice president of federal policy for the League of Conservation Voters, said the nation’s transportation sector accounts for the largest and fastest-growing source of planet-warming emissions. Getting more EVs onto roadways could prove to be one of many hot-button issues for President Joe Biden in his likely rematch with former President Donald Trump, who has spoken out against EVs and called climate change a hoax.

Davis stressed it is even more reason to ensure the rule is passed promptly.

“We certainly had conversations with the Biden administration,” Davis noted. “They are crystal clear about the importance of getting rules out to make sure that they withstand both likely legal attacks from the fossil fuel industry, and any congressional attacks should Republicans take over.”

Davis contended the proposed rule would offer automakers a variety of ways to meet the standards, ensuring positive impacts on public health and climate change.

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