What we know about two carbon capture pipelines proposed in Iowa
Two companies have proposed building multibillion-dollar pipelines across Iowa to move carbon dioxide so it can be sequestered deep underground, potentially cutting greenhouse gas emissions from ethanol, fertilizer and other industrial ag plants.
But more than 400 Iowans have filed objections with the state's regulatory agency, questioning whether the pipelines are needed, safe and should be allowed to cross valuable farmland that's been passed down through multiple generations.
Here's what we know so far about the projects.
What's been proposed?
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.
Where would the pipelines be built?
Summit, an Ames company that calls its project Midwest Carbon Express, proposes building nearly 710 miles of pipeline across 30 of the state's 99 counties. Altogether, it would travel 2,000 miles across and into four other states: Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska.
Texas-based Navigator CO2, which calls its project Heartland Greenway System, wants to build roughly 900 miles of pipeline across 36 counties. Altogether, it would cross 1,300 miles and also reach into Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota and South Dakota.
Summit says it would sequester carbon from 31 biofuels plants; Navigator has reached agreements with 20 ethanol and fertilizer plants.
Why are the projects proposed?
The companies say the projects would help ethanol and other energy-intensive ag industries remain viable as the nation seeks to cut net greenhouse emissions in half by 2030 to address climate change.
Summit says carbon sequestration would lower ethanol's carbon footprint to net zero by 2030 and allow it to be sold into California and other states with low carbon fuel standards.
Ethanol is important in Iowa, the nation's largest producer of the renewable fuel and its largest corn grower. About half the crop is used each year to make ethanol. But the industry faces a rocky future, given President Joe Biden's push toward electric vehicles to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change. Most U.S. gasoline is blended with 10% ethanol.
Summit says it has the capacity to capture up to 12 million metric tons of carbon annually, an amount equal to removing 2.6 million vehicles from the road each year.
Navigator says its pipeline has the capacity to capture about 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, the equivalent of removing 3.2 million vehicles from the road.
Are the pipelines a good environmental solution?
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.
Instead of trying to extend ethanol's viability, Carolyn Raffensperger, an Iowa environmental lawyer, said Iowa should focus on transitioning the state's farming economy away from producing renewable fuel, and the corn and soybean crops needed to make it.
Iowa also is the nation's largest biodiesel producer in the nation and taps soybean oil, along with used cooking oil, grease and animal fats to make it. The state is the second-largest U.S. soybean grower.
The drive toward electric vehicles raises questions "about the long-term future of Iowa corn production," Raffensperger said.
Are there other carbon sequestration pipelines in the U.S.?
The nation has about 5,000 miles of existing carbon sequestration pipelines, with the carbon dioxide mostly used to squeeze more oil out of existing wells, a process called enhanced oil recovery.
Iowa has no carbon capture pipelines.
How will the pipelines affect land?
Both companies will seek right-of-way easements, both permanent and temporary, from landowners. Permanent easements would be 50 feet.
The companies promise to restore the land — and the underground drainage tiles — to the same conditions that existed before construction.
Both companies say they'll reimburse landowners for rights-of-way access, based on market values. And they plan to pay farmers the same percentages for crop damage: 100% of the crop damage the first year; 80% the second year; and 60% the third year.
At meetings with Summit and in IUB comments, Iowans have expressed doubt the companies would fully restore underground drainage or restore farmland to its existing productivity.
Iowa has about 30 million acres of cropland, pastures and other ag land. And drainage tiles lie under an estimated 9 million acres to shed excess water, an investment that improves crop yields.
Kevin Lambert, who farms near Dayton, said land that Dakota Access trenched through to bury its pipeline continues to produce fewer bushels of corn and soybeans than before the pipeline. Now, his land could be in the path of Summit's carbon capture pipeline.
"I never imagined another pipeline would come through" so soon after Dakota Access, Lambert said. "It's kind of sad. … We'll see the repercussions for years to come."
Can Iowans in the proposed pathway of the pipeline refuse?
Yes. But Summit and Navigator can ask the three-person Iowa Utilities Board to grant eminent domain powers if they're determined to serve a public purpose. That would force unwilling landowners to grant easements at fair market values.
Iowa landowners fought the use of eminent domain in the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline. The battle reached the Iowa Supreme Court, which decided the state was justified in allowing the use of eminent domain.
Are the pipelines safe?
Iowans who oppose the projects point to a carbon dioxide pipeline leak a year ago in Mississippi that sickened dozens of nearby residents. A recent Huffington Post story said Satartia residents were engulfed inside a greenish cloud and within minutes were "gasping for air, nauseated and dazed."
Cars shut off, since they need oxygen to burn fuel. Drivers scrambled out of their paralyzed vehicles, but were so disoriented that they just wandered around in the dark, the article said.
“It was almost like something you’d see in a zombie movie. They were just walking in circles,” Terry Gann, a Yazoo County sheriff officer, told the publication.
Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, told the Register that concentrated levels of carbon dioxide are dangerous. "It's an asphyxiant," he said, often used to euthanize livestock before the animals are slaughtered.
"CO2 is heavier than air and settles to the ground and displaces oxygen," Schettler said. "People who are caught in a pure CO2 cloud that might be released from a pipeline" face "a real threat to safety and survivability," he said.
What does Summit say about safety?
Jimmy Powell, Summit's chief operating officer, said at a public meeting this fall that the Mississippi carbon dioxide pipeline also contained hydrogen sulfide gas, which made the leak much more dangerous.
Summit's pipeline will capture "the purest form of CO2 that's available," he said. "It's not analogous to the situation in Mississippi."
Powell said Summit plans to take extra precautions to ensure the pipeline is safe, such as X-raying every weld in the pipeline, even though the federal government requires that only 10% be tested.
In a board filing, Summit said it will "exceed the number of valves" that can close to limit CO2 releases than required by federal regulations.
"Note that CO2 is neither explosive nor flammable (it is used as a fire suppressant)," Summit said in the filing. "If released, CO2 will disperse as a gas and no overland flow will occur."
The company noted "there has never been a death caused by a CO2 pipeline."
Summit said it also would ensure that first responders along the pipeline have the training and equipment needed to respond to a leak.
Would the pipeline help farmland values?
Many Iowans questioned the impact the pipelines would have on their farmland values in filings with the Iowa Utilities Board, in addition to raising concern about safety for the farmers and families who live near them.
"This pipeline will not add one dollar to the real estate value," wrote C.J. Schelling of Hull, who called the pipeline a "permanent scar" on his land that will last generations.
"Farmland has traditionally been a sound investment, but who would want to buy a farm that has a hazardous material pipeline on it?" said Don Johannsen, who owns a farm in Cherokee County. "No one, unless they can buy it at a bargain."
Justin Kirchhoff, president of Summit Ag Investors, said capturing carbon makes ethanol "more profitable and viable" as the nation reduces carbon dioxide from its transportation fuel supply.
Ethanol demand helps support prices for corn. And Iowa farmland values are calculated, in part, by their ability to produce the crop, called the Corn Suitability Rating. Depending on the county, Summit anticipates paying between $100 and $160 per corn suitability rating point for easements, it said in a filing.
For example, Summit said it would pay $45,000 for a five-acre easement on a farm with a rating of 75 in Floyd County.
Do the projects improve Iowa's economy?
Proponents say the projects would help support thousand of jobs at Iowa ethanol plants, some of the best-paying in rural Iowa, as well as beef, poultry and other livestock producers, who use a high-protein livestock feed that's an ethanol byproduct.
An economic study, completed for the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, found that the ethanol and biodiesel industry supports about 37,000 Iowa jobs when farming, trucking, livestock production and other indirect positions are factored in.
Summit says the pipeline project would create up to 17,000 construction jobs for the entire project and up to 460 permanent positions. Navigator says its project would create 8,000 construction positions and 80 permanent jobs.
Why are some Iowans asking Summit to release its landowner mailing lists?
Opponents to the project are pushing Summit to release its mailing lists of landowners in the pipeline's proposed pathway so they can more easily organize efforts to stop the project.
Summit asked the Iowa Utilities Board in August to keep its mailing lists of landowners confidential to protect landowners' privacy. It also said the release would serve no public purpose but it would help its competitors.
In an order Tuesday, the board agreed to keep the names of thousands of individual landowners secret, saying property owners' rights to privacy outweighed the public interest. It did, however, order Summit to release the names of businesses, cities, counties and other government entities that own land in the proposed pathway.
The board said Summit's 31 mailing lists contain 15,000 names.
The board was split over the decision: Richard Lozier and Josh Byrnes ordered that individual landowners' names and addresses be kept confidential. Geri Huser dissented, saying she would release the property owners' mailing addresses but not their names.
Jennifer Easler, the Iowa Attorney General's consumer advocate, asked in a filing for the mailing lists to be released, saying they would enable landowners who oppose the project to mount a joint defense.
She said the mailing lists were culled from public records and unlikely to provide a competitor an advantage since proposed maps of the pipeline pathways have been released.
All of the board members rejected Summit's concerns about competition.
How will the projects be financed?
Kirchhoff said Summit would look to loans, both private and potentially government-backed, and investors to build the pipeline.
Summit announced in July that Deere & Co., the giant Moline, Illinois, farm equipment manufacturer, was a "strategic investor" in its carbon capture project, and a dozen state and regional ethanol plants have agreed to participate in the project.
Kirchhoff said the company would share the added income that ethanol plants get from selling their low carbon fuel for higher prices. California, for example, provides about $200 in credits for every metric ton of carbon that's sequestered, he said. And producers of dirtier fuels that don’t meet California’s standards have to buy those credits to comply.
Kirchhoff said part of the company's revenue would come from federal tax credits, which provide about $50 for each metric ton of carbon that's sequestered.
Navigator also said it would look to federal tax credits and low carbon fuel premiums to generate revenue. BlackRock, a New York investment company, is providing the project's financial backing, and Valero Energy, a large Texas oil company with a dozen Midwest ethanol plants, including five in Iowa, is providing commercial participation.
Are there conflicts of interest?
Critics of Summit's project say two state utilities board members appointed by former Gov. Terry Branstad have a conflict of interest and should recuse themselves from decisions about the project, which has hired Branstad as an adviser.
Summit hired Branstad, who was the U.S. ambassador to China under President Donald Trump, in March to provide "oversight, leadership and guidance on public policy matters affecting stakeholders."
Branstad, who left the state's top job in May 2017 to assume his ambassadorship, appointed Huser in 2015 as a board member and chair, and Gov. Kim Reynolds reappointed her in January. Huser is serving a two-year term as chair and a six-year term as a board member.
Branstad appointed Lozier to the board in 2017. Lozier will serve through April 2023. Reynolds, who served as Branstad's lieutenant governor, appointed Joshua Byrnes, the third board member, in November.
The utilities board said board members "are subject to judicial ethics requirements similar to those required for district court judges" and "will make their decision whether there is a conflict of interest that prevents them from participating in the hearing that considers the Summit Carbon Solutions pipeline at the appropriate time."
Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at email@example.com or 515-284-8457.