The remote stretch of public grazing land in southeastern Montana has hardly changed since homesteading days, but underneath this wind-swept expanse lies a hidden asset in high demand: thousands of acres of porous rock where oil company executives say greenhouse gas could be piped in from afar and stored forever.

ExxonMobil and the Biden administration see in the grassy 100,000 acres a launchpad for one of the world's most audacious climate experiments, a plan to take emissions spewing from power plants and factories and trap them underground where they cannot contribute to global warming. The scheme is inching forward despite criticism it will permit polluters to keep polluting while slowing the transition to solar and wind energy. And now sponsors face the additional hurdle of intense local opposition.

In the ranching community of Carter County, Mont., the prospect of shipping in all that carbon pollution and injecting it underneath an area called Snowy River is about as popular as an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease.

"The question I keep hearing is, 'Why are they making us the dumping ground for the rest of the country?'" said Rod Tauck, chairman of the Carter County Board of Commissioners and a descendant of homesteaders who more than a century ago settled his family ranch. "Not a single constituent I know wants this."

Such tensions are emerging nationwide, throwing an industrial-size wrench into the quest by the White House and major energy companies to advance a vast network of "carbon capture" infrastructure across the country. It would involve tens of thousands of miles of new pipelines, and scores of remote storage sites on the scale of Snowy River, targeted because the porous rock underneath them can act like a carbon sponge.

This vision for using technology to reverse climate change was once viewed widely as far-fetched.

Now, proposals to divert carbon dioxide from smokestacks to vast subterranean wells are regarded by the White House, the United Nations and the International Energy Agency as crucial to preserving any hope of meeting the world's climate goals. The Biden administration's plan to zero out emissions from the power grid by 2035 increasingly hinges on the success of colossal carbon capture deployment. The government has made billions of dollars of incentives available to motivate companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron to rapidly develop it.

The urgency is only increasing as a surge in forecasted energy use - driven by the insatiable electricity appetite of artificial-intelligence developers and a national boom in manufacturing - is delaying retirement of old fossil-fuel power plants and pushing utilities to build new ones.

New clean energy like wind and solar is not coming online quickly enough to meet all the projected demand, prompting government to lean on plans to stow away carbon pollution.

"We have to stop fossil fuels from causing global warming before the world stops using fossil fuels," Myles Allen, a climate scientist at the University of Oxford in England who has served on the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said recently at CERAWeek, an energy conference sponsored by S&P Global. "This is the way to stop fossil fuels from causing global warming."

But early carbon capture projects are floundering.

Hostile community reception is undermining plans from the Gulf Coast of Louisiana to the prairies of South Dakota. Energy companies racing ahead are facing tough questions around safety, environmental impact and technological viability.

In Montana, the federal Bureau of Land Management in 2022 identified the Snowy River site as one of the first stretches of public land that may be suitable for carbon sequestration. ExxonMobil wants to inject 450 million cubic feet of carbon dioxide per day into the ground. The company is not identifying where that gas would come from, but one likely source is a carbon dioxide pipeline currently used to support oil and gas extraction projects (the pressurized gas is used to force fossil fuels to the surface).

That pipeline is connected to a large ExxonMobil natural gas plant 500 miles away in Wyoming. ExxonMobil says Snowy River's storage capacity is equal to a year's worth of polluting greenhouse gas from 1.6 million cars.

Legacy energy companies like ExxonMobil are eager to deploy technologies that could extend the life of fossil fuels by mitigating their role in global warming. Plus, federal incentives are potentially lucrative. The single Montana project could generate as much as $12.7 billion in federal tax subsidies. ExxonMobil took it over when it acquired carbon capture and pipeline developer Denbury for $4.9 billion in November.

Company officials say they have not yet made a final decision to build in Montana. But assessing the project's viability, they say, requires they get the BLM permit to store the carbon now, so they can do testing on-site. Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte supports the company's plan.

"We are fully committed to working with the community," said Kathleen Ash, CEO of Denbury, now a fully owned ExxonMobil subsidiary. "This is a safe and proven technology."

Many in the local community see something else: big corporations looking for a payday partnering with an administration turning a blind eye to a flawed technology. They point to problems that carbon capture projects are encountering around the world, such as Chevron's sprawling Gorgon operation at a massive natural gas field in Australia. It is not trapping even half the carbon dioxide planned, amid persistent technological troubles.

BLM officials counter that carbon dioxide has been safely injected underground as part of the oil production process for decades. They call the projects an "important tool" for fighting climate change and advancing the administration's agenda to erase emissions.

"They are presenting this as a climate solution and I don't know that it is," said Liz Barbour, who manages Cinch Buckle Ranch, an operation bordering Snowy River that uses low-impact, conservation-focused agricultural practices. "The only thing I do know is that it is part of their plan to continue producing oil and gas." Barbour is among several ranchers working with a grass-roots group called the Northern Plains Resource Council to fight the project.

Local landowners with sharply contrasting politics and views on climate change are finding common cause in the battle. The council's argument that carbon capture is "an unproven, government hand-out to large out of state corporations" was echoed repeatedly in interviews in this county of 1,415 people defined by wide-open spaces and dirt roads, where visiting a neighbor can involve an hour-long journey. Carter County cast 89 percent of its ballots for Donald Trump in 2020.

"Many of us are willing to accept the premise that this is a dangerous compound that needs to be gotten rid of," said Jack Owen, a 72-year-old who ranches on land his ancestors homesteaded. "The question is, 'Why here?'"

ExxonMobil's assurances that the project would be almost entirely underground, with little noticeable impact on the landscape are met skeptically. Local landowners counter that upgrading the roads, drilling wells, and installing new pipelines would take a heavy toll on the landscape.

The scale of carbon that must be effectively stored nationwide to make a dent in global warming is enormous. Claude Letourneau, the CEO of Svante, one of North America's leading carbon capture technology firms, said containing the emissions created by manufacturing processes like cement- and steel-making could require 10,000 plants to trap the gas, compress it and then pipe or truck it to places like Snowy River.

An ambitious proposal in the Midwest recently collapsed. The proposed 1,200-mile Heartland Greenway pipeline was supposed to span five states, bringing 15 million tons of carbon dioxide captured at ethanol plants each year to storage sites where it would be buried.

The project, proposed by Navigator CO2, appeared to have early advantages. Ethanol plants emit uncontaminated carbon dioxide that is less complicated to capture and compress than the gas from other industries. And many landowners along the proposed route already hosted oil and gas pipelines.

But community opposition was intense. Landowners and local regulators worried about safety and environmental fallout. The CEO of Williams, one of the biggest natural gas pipeline companies in the world, said in an interview that even his board chairman, who owns farmland in Iowa, wants nothing to do with the carbon dioxide pipelines.

"He said, 'I don't want it damaging this very valuable cropland," Williams CEO Alan Armstrong said.

Navigator CO2 canceled the Heartland Greenway project in October. It blamed "the unpredictable nature of the regulatory and government processes involved."

Armstrong is one of many energy executives who said the project faltered because the developers spent too little time educating communities about the technology and talking through concerns. Companies more practiced in securing permits for pipelines, it was argued, would win local buy-in.

But it is not turning out that way for ExxonMobil in Montana.

Assurances from ExxonMobil that disruption would be minimal are met with worries that the project will disrupt the ecosystem, leave water tables vulnerable to the leaching of carbon dioxide, and create a safety hazard.

A rupture in the existing pipeline several years ago left one Carter County ranch looking as if a meteor had hit it. Pictures from 2018 show a deep, truck-size crater in the ground covered with what looks like dry ice residue, caused by the compressed carbon dioxide's combustion.

Since that time, another major pipeline accident had dire consequences for the town of Satartia, Miss. The pipeline was also owned by Denbury, now an ExxonMobil subsidiary.

The 2020 rupture filled the air above a section of the pipeline with dangerous amounts of carbon dioxide, resulting in a medical emergency that sent 45 people to the hospital with respiratory and other problems, according to a U.S. Department of Transportation investigation.

The gas caused three men driving through the area to pass out in their car and the engine to stop running. Fire department officials had to break the windows to pull them out, according to local 911 call tapes and public records obtained by the nonprofit Climate Investigations Center. Residents desperately called 911 for help - in one case, a mother reported that her child couldn't breathe, and in another, a caller said her friend was on the ground shaking and drooling, as if suffering a seizure.

Denbury paid a $2.8 million fine as part of a settlement with the federal government in which it did "not admit to any of the alleged violations or risks identified." Some of the residents injured in the incident - and their doctors - say they are still suffering serious ailments because of it.

ExxonMobil officials said new training protocols for emergency responders have been initiated since the incident. They say that there has never been a fatality associated with piping carbon dioxide and that accidents involving such pipelines are rare. The company said it also supports stepped-up federal safety regulations amid the planned expansion of carbon dioxide pipelines.

Energy companies say they are undeterred.

Among the projects inching forward is one on a 140,000-acre coastal stretch between Houston and the petrochemical facilities of Port Arthur, Tex., called Bayou Bend, where Chevron plans to store as much as 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide. The company is hoping the proximity to factories will make the project more palatable to regulators and landowners.

Chevron is also aiming to bury carbon in wells off the coast of Bayou Bend, a plan that alarms marine biologists but could prove less vulnerable to community protest.

A visit to Bayou Bend punctuates the immensity of it all. The site stretches for miles, with the flat, grassy landscape interrupted only by the occasional cow chomping on weeds or alligator sunning itself in a marsh.

Developers promoting the projects are adamant that most of the work will happen out of sight, with the carbon buried as deep as 10,000 feet and hardly any industrial activity above ground.

"This has to happen," said Chris Powers, Chevron's vice president for carbon capture, utilization and storage, pointing to the forecasting models showing that carbon capture is crucial to curbing global warming. "To make this grow at scale, it is going to take hundreds of projects."

Back in Montana, rancher Mike Hansen says if it is all so harmless, project boosters in the nation's capital should just start burying carbon pollution there.

"We asked them, 'Why don't you do this under Washington, D.C.?'" he said. "They told us, 'We can't do that. There are too many people there.'"

"That is not saying much for us."