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Don’t let eastern Montana’s ag lands become a corporate polluter’s dumping grounds


Don’t let eastern Montana’s ag lands become a corporate polluter’s dumping grounds

Mar 30, 2024 | 6:25 am ET
By Liz Barbour
Don’t let eastern Montana’s ag lands become a corporate polluter’s dumping grounds
Liz Barbour (Photo courtesy of Northern Plains Resource Council).

I’m a ranch manager in Carter County. Open, “Big Sky” country and expansive grasslands surround my life here.

Years ago, I stood in my new home and overlooked the plains stretched out before me, baby in arms, feeling overwhelming explosions of gratitude in my soul that formed an unshakable, deep connection to this landscape; a defining moment in my career. I carry those feelings daily as I work stewarding these lands. Join me in protecting Montana, our home, from a disturbing plan from the Exxon corporation that uses our tax dollars and public lands in a scheme to pump 150 million tons of pollution underground, threatening the land, water, and livelihoods of my agricultural community. 

We’ve seen this playbook before. Out-of-state corporations lobby the government for money used to steamroll rural communities with projects that enrich shareholders and executives while treating farmers, ranchers and rural folks as disposable refuse. In this case, the big player is Denbury, Inc., a subsidiary of Exxon. The plan is called the Snowy River Carbon Sequestration Project, and it’s part of a larger corporate ploy to use government handouts for unproven technologies that are supposed to address climate change. In reality, it’s an expensive fig leaf that leads to more climate pollution.

These projects are called Carbon Capture and Storage. CCS uses industrial pipelines to transport carbon dioxide from high-polluting activities like coal and gas-burning power production or plastics manufacturing. The “captured” carbon is then transported for storage in underground rock formations. The Snowy River project would use more than 110,000 acres of subsurface pore space. 

While storing carbon pollution underground sounds great on paper, it’s more pipe dream than legitimate climate solution. The intact prairies of the Northern Great Plains act as natural carbon sinks leading to improved soil health, wildlife habitat, cultural wellbeing and supreme air quality. This project puts all of that in jeopardy. 

Construction disruption, aquifer contamination from pipeline leaks, and potential underground hydrological disturbances could be economically devastating to this community and the grasslands we depend on. If we truly want to store carbon, protecting these prairies is essential. 

Beyond these threats to our land and water, risks posed to our health and safety are equally disturbing. In 2020, a Mississippi pipeline owned by Denbury ruptured, leading to over 40 hospitalizations and the evacuation of 300 residents. These pipelines are just too dangerous.

Research has also shown that 80% of these proposed projects are never realized due to high costs or lack of technological readiness. Nevertheless, we taxpayers still fill corporate pockets for expensive study and testing. And when they are approved, as in Mississippi, taxpayers foot the bill for dangerous pollution that harms our communities. 

The true purpose of these pipelines is to transport our tax money into corporate bank accounts under the guise of climate solutions. These projects only prop up climate-polluting industries struggling to succeed in a changing energy market. 

The Bureau of Land Management has opened a short public comment period soliciting input on a 228-page Environmental Analysis of this project. BLM has held two extremely disappointing public meetings. Officials failed to answer local residents’ questions, keeping us isolated in small stations, preventing us from hearing one another’s questions and learning more as a community. These gatherings fell short of the meaningful public participation required by law, which is why we need a comment period extension. 

Expecting a ranching community to digest hundreds of pages of technical, quantitative government documents within a month, during calving season, is inadequate and insulting. 

Eastern Montana deserves our protection.

Liz Barbour is a ranch manager in Hammond, Montana and member of Northern Plains Resource Council, a grassroots conservation and family agriculture group.