Carbon dioxide (CO2) accumulation is a big problem in the atmosphere. But increasingly, pipelines carrying CO2 are also raising objections, including from state governments, creating a roadblock to a major Biden Administration climate strategy.
The states of South Dakota and North Dakota recently denied permits for carbon pipelines, triggering the cancellation last week of a 1,300-mile carbon pipeline proposed by a company called Navigator CO2 across five Midwestern states.
“Given the unpredictable nature of the regulatory and government processes involved, particularly in South Dakota and Iowa, the company has decided to cancel its pipeline project,” Nebraska-based Navigator CO2 said in a press release.
Meanwhile, a dozen Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to President Biden demanding a temporary moratorium on all new carbon pipelines until updated federal safety regulations are completed by the Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).
“As an invisible and odorless asphyxiant, CO2 spewing from a ruptured pipeline can suffocate humans and animals without notice,” said the lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García of Illinois and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. “Due to the risk posed by carbon pipelines, PHMSA’s updated safety rules must be in place before the Administration issues any permits for new CO2 pipelines.” The Agency plans to publish a notice of proposed rulemaking in January 2024, and held a public meeting in Iowa earlier this summer, but has not set a date for a final rule.
As efforts to curtail global warming gain urgency, attention is turning to carbon capture and storage, a method of burying CO2 underground to prevent it from contributing to warming. The Biden Administration included billions of dollars in subsidies for carbon capture and storage in its main climate bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, even though the technology remains largely untested and unproven at scale.
Companies are eager to take advantage of the tantalizing federal tax subsidies for CO2 capture included in the legislation as low-interest loans and grants. The Oil & Gas Watch database has collected public records on 91 proposed carbon capture projects across the U.S. – including 41 in Louisiana and 22 in Texas – as well as 17 proposed carbon pipelines.
Transporting CO2 from industrial sources and fossil fuel plants to underground reserves will require thousands of miles of new pipelines. A 2020 Princeton University study estimated that an additional 60,000 miles of CO2 pipelines will be needed to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Currently there are around 5,000 miles, most of which are used to transport CO2 for use in enhanced oil recovery where it extracts lingering reserves from aging oil fields.
Safety concerns, widespread use of eminent domain, local opposition, and skepticism over the effectiveness of carbon capture are slowing CO2 pipeline projects in a number of states, especially in the Midwest.
The highest-profile carbon pipelines are linked to biofuel projects using corn and soy to produce ethanol that can be used as a fuel, an already contentious form of “green” energy—and one already reliant on subsidies.
In addition to the Navigator Heartland Greenway project mentioned earlier, Iowa-based Summit Carbon Solutions is also proposing a pipeline to move carbon from dozens of ethanol plants across the Midwest to underground storage reserves thousands of miles away. Opposition to the pipeline, coordinated across several states and bringing together environmentalists and landowners, especially farmers, is causing permit delays and denials. This is forcing companies to question their plans for CO2 storage and experts to wonder how this bodes for the future of carbon capture.
Summit Carbon Solutions’ Midwest Carbon Express, a 2,000-mile-long pipeline, would transport up to 12 million tons of carbon dioxide annually from 32 ethanol plants across the Midwest to western North Dakota.
Jess Mazour with the Iowa chapter of the Sierra Club said Iowa and surrounding states have never seen this level of opposition to a hazardous pipeline project. She said the coalition learned a lot from the fights to stop the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, which has helped them earn recent victories.
“It’s clear these projects are all risk for us and all reward for the carbon pipeline companies and their investors,” she said. “If approved, the carbon pipelines would destroy farmland, abuse eminent domain, squander public tax dollars, and put dangerous pipelines near our homes and communities.”
Craig Schaunaman, a South Dakota farmer invested in the ethanol industry has rebuffed repeated attempts by Summit Carbon Solutions to purchase rights to his land for a carbon pipeline to cross. Earlier this year, Summit initiated eminent domain proceedings against Schaunaman and dozens of other landowners not willing to sign over their property rights.
Summit Carbon Solutions’ North Dakota pipeline proposal is being reconsidered by the North Dakota Public Service Commission after initially being denied for issues including cultural resource impacts, geologic instability, and landowner concerns. Summit Carbon Solutions says it has partnered with more than 76 percent of landowners along the route in North Dakota.
“We’ve listened to and learned from the concerns raised by the North Dakota Public Service Commission,” said Summit Carbon Solutions CEO Lee Blank. “Subsequently, we rerouted around Bismarck, made adjustments to drill or bypass game management and geo-hazard areas, and collaborated with the State Historic Preservation Office to record the findings of cultural surveys.”
Jenn Brown, senior project manager for the Institute for Carbon Removal Law & Policy, said she’s not at all surprised by the degree of backlash the pipeline projects are receiving.
“Historically, the existing massive pipeline infrastructures that carry oil and gas have posed significant threats and damages to communities and environments throughout the country, and this has left many communities traumatized,” she said. “Although the engineering behind CO2 pipelines is quite different, great efforts will be needed to demonstrate that safety standards and rigorous regulations are in place to gain any kind of trust with communities.”
Brown said leakage is always one of the top pipelines concerns.
“This is where transparency, intensive regulation, monitoring, and accountability come into play,” she said. “Additionally, considerations around consent and recognition of past harms caused by pipelines will need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis to gain the trust of communities—and that is just the beginning.”
Brown said that to move the needle on hardline opposition, carbon capture and storage projects should only be implemented in tandem with active and aggressive decarbonization efforts of the associated industrial sources.
The grassroots opposition to the carbon pipelines has become an issue in the presidential primaries, where Iowa is a crucial state, especially for Republicans. In Council Bluffs, Iowa, in July, former President Donald Trump was asked about how he could help Iowans save their farmland from CO₂ pipelines.
“Well, you know, we’re working on that,” Trump said. “And you know, we had a plan to totally — it’s such a ridiculous situation, isn’t it? But we had a plan, and we would have instituted that plan, and it was all ready, but we will get it — if we win, that’s going to be taken care of. That will be one of the easy things we do.”
In May, over 150 groups sent a letter to Biden urging for a moratorium on carbon pipelines. The letter lists the chief concerns as being adequate safety zones, contaminants that can weaken pipelines, emergency response, and odorants that can alert the public and first responders to a threat from a CO2 rupture.
These concerns are not based on hypotheticals. On February 27, 2020, a CO2 pipeline in Satartia, Mississippi, ruptured, displacing breathable air and leaving people unconscious and unable to breathe. At least 45 people were hospitalized and more than 200 evacuated.
Bill Caram, Executive Director of Pipeline Safety Trust, said CO2 has very different physical properties and presents unique risks when compared to hydrocarbons. He said CO2 is an asphyxiant that is heavier than air, can travel long distances from a pipeline failure in dangerous and even lethal concentrations, and is odorless and often invisible. It reacts very easily with many impurities, including water, to create corrosive acids in the pipe that could lead to more frequent failures.
“The regulations are not written for these kinds of risks,” he said.
Lead photo: Gaylen Dewing, left, and Marvin Abraham affix a sign to a roadside fence east of Bismarck, North Dakota, on Aug. 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Jack Dura)