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Carbon education proceeds over some legislators’ objections

District 3 legislators have joined a group of lawmakers opposed to the state’s hiring of a public relations company to educate residents on the benefits of carbon capture and utilization.

The North Dakota Industrial Commission approved a recommendation Tuesday from North Dakota’s oil and gas, lignite and renewable energy councils to contract with AE2S Communications for a carbon capture and utilization education and marketing strategic plan. The 2023 Legislature provided $300,000 from taxes collected from the energy industry for the project, and AE2S has proposed private funds to cover the remainder of the $380,000-$420,000 cost.

Sen. Bob Paulson and Reps. Jeff Hoverson and Lori VanWinkle, all District 3 Republicans from Minot, signed a statement of opposition prior to Tuesday’s meeting, along with 15 other Republican legislators and one Democrat legislator.

“I don’t think we are going to stop them, but I think we owe it to our constituents to stand up and say we disagree,” Hoverson said. “It’s really taking taxpayer money and redistributing it to a private company.”

Summit Carbon Solutions, which wants to construct a five-state pipeline to carry carbon dioxide, is seeking permission from the N.D. Public Service Commission to cross through southern North Dakota. The route around Bismarck has been particularly controversial, and the state Supreme Court has a case before it related to Summit’s right to access private land to survey.

Led by Sen. Jeffery Magrum, R-Hazelton, legislators signed a statement urging the Legislature to re-evaluate the discretion it grants the Industrial Commission to spend money promoting certain business interests over the interests of North Dakota citizens. Its language opposed using taxpayer dollars to develop public relations and campaign materials promoting carbon dioxide pipelines and sequestration projects that are under regulatory review.

Hoverson and Van Winkle, who had voted against the Industrial Commission budget bill containing the $300,000, raised concerns about the carbon sequestration and utilization science supported by the state.

“The carbon dioxide pipeline and CO2 sequestration is using taxpayer funds to promote a false narrative and political agenda under the guise of ‘education,'” Van Winkle. “I also do not approve of the deceptive way this was presented as an educational platform, yet it appears the money is actually going to media people who are not experts with credible knowledge of the topic.

“Right now, the citizens get no return on this pipeline and carbon agenda. Instead it pads the pockets of private enterprise at the expense of tax dollars, our lives being in danger and our private property being seized for this unconscionable effort,” Van Winkle added.

Industrial Commission member and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said Tuesday the education and marketing has no connection to Summit’s CO2 pipeline.

“We are not here to debate that or advocate that,” he said. “It should be about sequestration and utilization.”

Legislators opposed to the project take a different view.

“It seems to me the timing of going forward with the grant while there is ongoing litigation and regulatory review relative to the pipeline and land owner’s private property rights is questionable at best,” Paulson said. “There are still many unknowns related to the process and cost/benefit of carbon sequestration and enhanced oil recovery, and it is too closely related to the climate change agenda for my comfort. It would be best to pause and allow the situation to mature. Taxpayer dollars, regardless of their source, belong to all North Dakotans and should not be used to benefit one private company over another.”

According to information presented to the Industrial Commission, the contract with AE2S would gather public input and questions through town halls, digital polls, outreach at farm and trade shows and to political subdivisions and schools that belong to the Western Dakota Energy Association. From information collected, educational materials would be developed and a plan finalized by June 2025.

Reice Haase, deputy director at the Industrial Commission, said the goal is to deliver a strategic plan related to education about CO2 opportunities in the state to the Industrial Commission. Legislators could change any provisions or develop policy around the plan.

Gov. Doug Burgum, who sits on the Industrial Commission with Goehring and Attorney General Drew Wrigley, said the intent is preservation of the state’s oil and gas, coal and ethanol industries.

“We better be on the front of this versus the back end,” he said. “Those three are paying for everything, so we are trying to protect our future.”

Paulson said he had voted for the Industrial Commission budget despite opposing the education and marketing project because of the need to support the other elements in the comprehensive piece of legislation. Remembering the special session called to redo an overturned omnibus package last year, Paulson said, “I am hopeful the Supreme Court decision which brought us into special session will result in more focused bills going forward.”

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