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Carter County ranchers voice concerns about proposed carbon sequestration project

A narrow sign marks the location of a CO2 pipeline in Carter County Montana.
Najifa Farhat
A narrow sign marks the location of a CO2 pipeline in Carter County Montana.

Rancher Jerry Keith parks his truck in wide-open grasslands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and points to a spot where 150 million tons of carbon dioxide from Wyoming could be piped and stored underground here, the southeast corner of Montana.

Just to give you a little scope of where the closest well would be, see this black ridge out there? It will be right in that area,” Keith said.

He and other local ranchers have safety concerns about the big pipelines needed to carry carbon dioxide into Carter County, a thinly populated region of mostly farmland. Keith said thousands of acres of grazing land are within the BLM’s proposed carbon sequestration project.

The project is part of the federal agency’s push for geologic carbon sequestration to reduce emissions that contribute to climate change. The project could allow Denbury Inc, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, to inject millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the ground over the course of two decades. BLM leaders say it is an important tool to support the Biden Administration's goal of reaching zero emission economy-wide by 2050.

If approved, this will be the first geologic carbon sequestration project in Montana.

Representatives of the BLM held a public meeting in Ekalaka, Montana in early March to explain the work.

BLM Project Manager Irma Nansel on site said the agency chose Carter County to store carbon because it is a low-income community with poverty levels below national and state standards.

Carter County was identified as a low-income environmental justice community,” Nansel said. “Denbury proposes a right of way for the use of approximately 100,000 acres of BLM pore space.”

Denbury plans to transport carbon dioxide to southeast Montana from two Wyoming gas plants in Shute Creek and Lost Cabin. To complete the work, Denbury plans on using an existing 105-mile-long pipeline in Montana that carries materials for extracting oil. Project documents say about 40 miles of new pipeline are required to pump carbon dioxide into the ground.

A view from a bluff overlooking a wide expanse of farmland in Carter County, Montana near the site of a proposed CO2 pipeline.
Najifa Farhat
A view from a bluff overlooking a wide expanse of farmland in Carter County, Montana near the site of a proposed CO2 pipeline.

Attendees at the meeting were frustrated after BLM refused to take public questions from the community after the presentation. BLM said they would meet with individuals one-on-one.

Rancher Tom Stieg wanted to know why the carbon dioxide was being piped into Montana instead of being kept in Wyoming. He was also concerned with the construction the project will bring into the region.

I don’t want them messing around out here in the middle of our BLM ground. We can’t even drive on it, and they’re gonna build roads, they’re gonna put wells in and pipelines too? What’s the deal?” Stieg said.

Locals have also expressed concern about impacts on the sage grouse population, noise pollution, paleontological resources and the risk of pipeline explosions.

BLM officials at the meeting declined MTPR’s interview request. Later when contacted over email with follow-up questions, agency communication officer Mark Jacobsen pointed MTPR toward the project document instead of answering questions directly.

BLM released an environmental assessment report stating that an emergency response plan will be in place to address potential hazards like leaks or fires. According to their study, the noise levels from construction will not disrupt the current ambience.

Denbury has said it intends to avoid heavy construction during sage grouse breeding season and a BLM-approved palaeontologist will monitor surface construction in case of any scientific discovery.

The Pipeline Safety Trust is a national watchdog organization on the pipeline industry. Communication Director Kenneth Clarkson said the group began focusing on carbon dioxide pipelines two years ago after a pipeline operated by Denbury exploded in Satartia, Mississippi.

“As the current landscapes exist for carbon dioxide projects, we don't want communities to experience that until there are safeguards and regulations in place that can keep them safe,” Clarkson said. He said more regulations on carbon dioxide transportation are needed to ensure pipeline safety.

Denbury didn’t agree to be interviewed for this report and did not respond to MTPR’s emailed questions by deadline.

Ranchers like Keith don’t feel like they’re getting enough information about the project and aren’t assured by the BLM or Denbury about preventing potential hazards.

I still think they are treating us like a bunch of hillbillies who don’t know anything and they just want us to just fall into lockstep behind them and go with whatever they say,” Keith said.

The project environmental assessment is available for public comment until April 17.

Copyright 2024 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Najifa Farhat