Carbon Pipelines in the Hawkeye State

Carbon Pipelines in the Hawkeye State



By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

While ingesting krill in the news flow the other day, I nearly choked on a story that seemed so cray cray, yet so apposite for the zeitgest, that I felt sure it had bipartisan support, and that we were charging ahead with it. And so it proved. The story: Carbon pipelines. Wait, you say. We have our carbon pipelines; they wouldn’t keep spilling gunk all over everything if we didn’t already have them. But these carbon pipelines are different: These are carbon capture pipelines that will convey carbon from sources to sinks, where the carbon will be sequestered, deep underground. Which is great, since nothing will fundamentally change, except for the land under which the pipeline will run, and for the owners of that land. Two such pipelines — the Midwest Carbon Express, and the charmingly named Heartland Greenway System (see? Like Tolkien!) — are proposed for Iowa. Here is a map:

The Des Moines Register explains:

Two companies — Summit Carbon Solutions and Navigator CO2 Ventures — want to build pipelines that will be used to move carbon dioxide captured from ethanol, fertilizer and other agricultural industrial plants.

The companies plan to use pressure to liquify the carbon dioxide, transport it and then inject it deep underground where it will be permanently sequestered. Summit Carbon plans to sequester carbon in North Dakota; Navigator CO2 in Illinois.

Both companies have started the process to get hazardous liquid pipeline permits from the Iowa Utilities Board. Summit says the project, which the company calls the world’s largest, will cost $4.5 billion; Navigator, at least $2 billion.

In this post, I’ll look at carbon pipeline politics (nationally and in Iowa) and technology (unproven and dangerous). Then I’ll look at resistance to carbon pipelines in Iowa, primarily from landowners and Iowa counties, and then conclude. 

Carbon Pipeline Politics

Globally and nationally, carbon pipelines are being framed as an enormous investment opportunity. From the Financial Times, “Oil and gas pipeline groups attempt reinvention with carbon capture plans“:

Wall Street is pushing the [midstream energy sector] to show how it will adapt to demands for a lower-carbon world. In response, pipeline operators are pointing to their potential as a link in carbon capture and storage (CCS) systems, in which CO2 emissions are trapped in underground reservoirs where they can be kept out of the atmosphere. Pipelines would move CO2 from industrial flues to the reservoirs.

The business opportunity is potentially immense. A July report from the Biden administration’s Council on Environmental Quality said that a CCS industry large enough to help meet the country’s goal of “net zero” emissions by 2050 could require 68,000 miles of new CO2 pipelines at a cost of as much as $230bn. That is roughly comparable to US liquid fuel pipeline mileage built since 2000, a boom time for the oil industry.

Consequently, one is tempted to say, the Biden Administration’s Department of Energy is paying attention. From DeSmogBlog, “DOE Quietly Backs Plan for Carbon Capture Network Larger Than Entire Oil Pipeline System“:

An organization run by former Obama-era Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, with the backing of the AFL-CIO, a federation of 56 labor unions, has created a policy “blueprint” to build a nationwide pipeline network capable of carrying a gigaton of captured carbon dioxide (CO2).

The “Building to Net-Zero” blueprint appears to be quietly gaining momentum within the Energy Department, where a top official has discussed ways to put elements into action using the agency’s existing powers.

The pipeline network would be twice the size of the current U.S. oil pipeline network by volume, according to the blueprint, released by a recently formed group calling itself the Labor Energy Partnership. Backers say the proposed pipeline network — including CO2 “hubs” in the Gulf Coast, the Ohio River Valley, and Wyoming — would help reduce climate-changing pollution by transporting captured carbon dioxide to either the oil industry, which would undo some of the climate benefits by using the CO2 to revive aging oilfields, or to as-yet unbuilt facilities for underground storage.

The blueprint, however, leaves open many questions about how the carbon would be captured at the source — a process that so far has proved difficult and expensive — and where it would be sent, focusing instead on suggesting policies the federal government can adopt to boost CO2 pipeline construction.

And Biden’s infrastructure bill (the bipartisan one) funds carbon pipelines, albeit at a start-up level. From E&E News;

After decades of being largely ignored by U.S. policymakers, the carbon removal sector is set to receive a major infusion of taxpayer support.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill President Biden signed into law last month provides $3.5 billion to create four regional direct air capture hubs with the capacity to capture and sequester at least 1 million tons of carbon annually. It also sets aside $100 million for a commercial direct air capture technology prize and $15 million for a pre-commercial competition.

For broader carbon capture efforts, the law provides $2.1 billion in low-interest loans to underwrite large carbon pipeline projects and $2.5 billion for the Department of Energy’s carbon storage program. Those pots of money could support carbon capture efforts at fossil fuel-fired facilities, which aim to prevent new emissions rather than remove carbon already in the atmosphere.

In Iowa, the ruling Republican Party appartus is all in — at least for one of the pipeline companies (!). Iowa political blog Bleeding Heartland, in “New Iowa carbon task force looks like greenwashing,” dicusses the Carbon Sequestration Task Force, which Governor Kim Reynolds established through a June 22 executive order:

Adam Mason, state policy organizing director for Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, said being excluded from the task force was “especially concerning given the proposed Rastetter and Black Rock CO2 pipelines being proposed as ‘carbon sequestration’ solutions… which we would dub as false climate solutions.”

Mason was alluding to a carbon capture and storage project announced by Bruce Rastetter’s Summit Agricultural Group in February. The company’s news release described Summit Carbon Solutions as “a new business platform that will address the global challenge of decarbonization by developing the world’s largest carbon capture and storage project.” Rastetter called the plan “a giant leap forward for the biofuels industry. Summit Ag Investors President Justin Kirchhoff–whom Reynolds named to the new task force–called Summit Carbon Solutions “a truly transformational project.”

In March, Summit Carbon Solutions hired former Governor Terry Branstad as a “senior policy advisor.”

Texas-based company Navigator CO2 Ventures is also planning to build a carbon sequestration pipeline across Iowa, taking “carbon dioxide emissions from ethanol plants and other agricultural manufacturers.” No one from the company competing with Summit Carbon Solutions is on the new task force. I’m seeking to clarify whether anyone from that project was invited to participate.

Justifying carbon pipelines by using ethanol plants as a BECCS-like carbon source is an especially canny move. From the Des Moines Register:

Iowa is the nation’s largest producer of both ethanol and corn. About half of the state’s corn production each year is used to make the renewable fuel. The state’s 42 ethanol plants also churn out a high-protein byproduct that’s fed to millions of Iowa’s pigs, chickens, cattle and other livestock.

Ethanol accounts for about 10% by volume of gasoline consumed in the United States, although the long-term future of the industry is in doubt with the rise of electric vehicles. (In short form: The ethanol industry is a boondoggle that wouldn’t exist without government subsidy, and creates more carbon than it eliminates. It is also politically untouchable, because of the Iowa primary. So carbon pipelines present the amusing prospect of a boondoggle piggybacking on a boondoggle.)

Carbon Pipeline Technology

There are two difficulties with carbon pipeline technology. It’s experimental, and it’s dangerous.

Carbon pipeline technology is experimental. From Reuters, “Giant pipeline in U.S. Midwest tests future of carbon capture,” underlining that word “test”:

Underground geological formations in the United States have the potential to store 2.6 trillion tons of planet-warming CO2, enough to cover all of America’s historical emissions and those to come for centuries, according to the Department of Energy.

But there are open questions about whether CCS can ever fill them. Despite billions of dollars of public investment over the past decade, the technology remains relatively untested.

The United States boasts just 12 operational commercial CCS facilities that together have an annual capacity to store away 19.64 million tons of carbon, about 0.4% of national emissions.

Many other projects have been proposed but have either failed to reach startup or have been suspended because of financial or operational issues, including the $1 billion Petra Nova plant in Texas last year.

Here is what happened at that Texas plant:

Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University civil and environmental engineering professor, said that carbon capture systems so far have failed to meet the promises of significantly reduced emissions.

For example, a carbon capture system at a Texas coal power plant cut emissions 55% the first year and 70% after three years. But the company, which used the carbon to extract oil, claimed it would capture 90% or more of the emissions, Jacobson said.

The picture worsened when the emissions from coal mining and other activities were taken into account, said Jacobson, who calculated there would have been a 12% reduction in carbon emissions over 20 years had the plant not closed.

Carbon pipeline technology is dangerous. From the Huffington Post, “The Gassing Of Satartia“:

Carbon dioxide has long been used to euthanize laboratory rodents and other small animals, a practice animal welfare organizations now consider inhumane due to the suffering the gas inflicts on the animals. Each year, CO2 accidents kill about 100 workers worldwide — often in basements of restaurants that use CO2-charged systems for their bar mixers — or in industrial accidents.

The company involved is Denbury, Inc.:

Denbury’s entire business is built around piping carbon dioxide to oilfields and a few industrial users in two operational centers in the Gulf Coast and the Rockies. It owns or has an interest in 14 oil fields in Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana, which are connected by five CO2 pipelines spanning 925 miles. Among its properties is Tinsley Field, adjacent to Satartia, which became Mississippi’s first commercially successful oil field in 1939.

And what happened in Sartartia:

“CALLER ADVISED A FOUL SMELL AND GREEN FOG ACROSS THE HIGHWAY,” read the message that dispatchers sent to cell phones and radios of all county emergency personnel two minutes later.

First responders mobilized almost immediately, even though they still weren’t sure exactly what the emergency was. Maybe it was a leak from one of several nearby natural gas pipelines, or chlorine from the water tank.

The first thought, however, was not the carbon dioxide pipeline that runs through the hills above town, less than half a mile away. Denbury Inc, then known as Denbury Resources, operates a network of CO2 pipelines in the Gulf Coast area that inject the gas into oil fields to force out more petroleum. While ambient CO2 is odorless, colorless and heavier than air,

Even Durward Pettis, a contract welder for Denbury and chief of the local Tri-Community Volunteer Fire Department, didn’t figure out that the mystery fog was CO2 for a full 15 minutes. He’d directed first responders to set up three roadblocks to prevent traffic from entering the area. But it wasn’t until 7:30 p.m. that word went out that they’d need self-contained breathing apparatus, or SCBA, to enter Satartia and evacuate the town’s 42 residents, many of them elderly, and about 250 others who lived just outside town. By then, rescuers and residents were already in motion, fleeing the gas or evacuating others.

Even once Pettis figured it out, none of the sheriffs’ deputies and volunteer firefighters had any emergency training in CO2 leaks. Neither did staff at two area hospitals, which had detrimental consequences for gas victims, according to interviews with many of the 49 who were hospitalized.

“It was bad enough that I thought my mama wouldn’t make it, and she still has trouble breathing,” said Army veteran Hugh Martin, who fled Satartia in a pickup truck with his 78-year-old mother as he struggled to remain conscious. “She never had asthma or COPD, now she’s on inhalers full time.”

. They said they have trouble sleeping, afraid it could happen again.

This is really good reporting, singled out by Bloomberg (in a post I can’t find right now, sorry) as a story they wish they’d written.

Resistance to Carbon Pipelines in Iowa

While the state’s political establishment is for the pipelines, Iowa’s landowners are not so sure. From Iowa Public Radio, “Proposed carbon dioxide pipeline draws opposition from Iowa farmers and environmentalists alike“:

“This is just the latest case of someone insisting on putting a pipeline or an easement on our property. I’ve lost track of how many times our family has had to deal with this,” said Beth Richards, whose family farms in Hardin County. “Why should the landowners welcome encroachment on their land for a project that doesn’t pay direct dividends to them other than a vague promise that ethanol is good for corn prices? Why isn’t rent going to be paid for the land or profits shared with farmers?”

Under the company’s plan, landowners would receive a one-time payment for the purchase of an easement and would be compensated on a sliding scale for three years’ worth of crop losses.

Landowners and members of the public raised a slate of concerns on Tuesday, including questions about how the pipeline, buried 48 inches below ground, might affect their property values, the productivity of their land, and whether they would shoulder any liability if the pipe leaked or burst.

“[If] an explosion occurs, since this is a hazardous material,” asked Robert Ritter of Wright County, “who is liable for damage or death in an accident on my land?”

48 inches below ground doesn’t seem very deep, to me. (Meanwhile, Summit is engaging in the time-honered tactic of keeping the names of property owners along the pipeline’s route secret, to avoid owners either jacking up their prices or co-operating against the project.)

Resistance is also taking place at the county government level. From KJAN:

(Radio Iowa) – The Kossuth County Board of Supervisors is formally expressing its opposition to the use of eminent domain for a pair of proposed carbon pipelines that would run through the county if constructed. Eminent domain is the government’s power to declare private property can be converted to a public use, like the pathway for a pipeline. The Kossuth County Supervisors’ letter to the Iowa Utilities Board says it should be up to landowners to decide if they want the carbon pipelines on their property.

We’ll see.


Ticked-off farmers fighting eminent domain can be a powerful obstacle to projects like pipelines. At the same time, “Why isn’t rent going to be paid for the land or profits shared with farmers” doesn’t exactly center environmental concerns, so one has to question how strong any coalition against these pipelines would be. I also question the lack of involvement by the tribes, at least as far as I’ve been able to find; tribal involvement is, to me, near enough to a prerequisite for success in projects involving environmental permitting. Finally, of course, there is the question of what farming should be, and what find of farming Iowa should do. Farmer Paul Deaton writes:

As long as Iowa focuses on ethanol, industrial agriculture using manufactured fertilizers, and monoculture row crops and livestock, the environment will get worse.

Nothing fundamental will change.

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