© 2022 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Proposed carbon dioxide pipeline draws opposition from Iowa farmers and environmentalists alike

Young corn plants grow next to the Guardian Energy ethanol plant in Janesville, Minn. Five years ago, the U.S. government projected that in 2012, ethanol production would use up 30 percent of the nation's corn supply. Last year, it used 40 percent.
Glen Stubbe/MCT/Landov
Young corn plants grow next to the Guardian Energy ethanol plant in Janesville, Minn.

The plan to build a carbon dioxide pipeline marketed as “the world’s largest” is drawing opposition from Iowa farmers and environmentalists alike. At a virtual public meeting Tuesday, speakers railed against the proposal by Summit Carbon Solutions to build a sprawling 2,000 mile long pipeline, more than 700 miles of which would pass through 30 of Iowa’s 99 counties.

Many of the pipelines that have carved their way across the Midwest carry carbon from deep underground to be burned in order to power homes, cars and factories. The pipeline that Summit Carbon Solutions hopes to build across Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota would do the opposite: capturing carbon dioxide at ethanol and fertilizer plants, liquefying the gas and piping it to North Dakota, where it would be stored thousands of feet underground.

The technology is known as carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), an approach which some environmentalists see as a worthy tool and others dismiss as a costly lifeboat for fossil fuel companies.

Courtesy: Summit Carbon Solutions
The proposed Iowa route of Summit Carbon Solutions' carbon dioxide pipeline would run some 700 miles through 30 of the state's 99 counties.

Summit is in the process of holding more than two dozen meetings across the state as it seeks approval from the Iowa Utilities Board. The company is touting its plans to take some 12 million tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere annually, comparable to removing 2 million cars from the road each year. While some agricultural workers are voicing their support for the project, climate advocates, farmers and community members are already questioning the safety, environmental and economic impact of the pipeline.

“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 raise concerns about property values, liability

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?”

Some said the company seemed to be downplaying the potential risks associated with pressurized carbon dioxide, which has long been used to euthanize animals.

Summit representatives deflected questions about a leak at a carbon pipeline in Mississippi in 2020, which sickened dozens of people, saying the proposed Midwest project would only pipe “pure” carbon dioxide, unlike the Mississippi pipeline, which also included hydrogen sulfide.

Summit Carbon Solutions 2021

Summit denies the carbon dioxide would be used for oil extraction

Residents and landowners repeatedly questioned if the company would use any of the carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery (EOR), a process of injecting the substance in oil fields to boost oil production.

Representatives for the company denied this, despite statements from the company’s CEO Bruce Rastetter that the project wouldn’t be possible without it, according to reporting by the Associated Press.

“I hope that you will make every requirement possible that all the CO2 that comes out this project could not ever, ever be used for extracting gas and oil for any purpose, under any circumstance. That defeats the purpose of what is essentially a greenwashing project in the first place,” resident John Norris told the company. Norris previously ran as a Democratic candidate for governor in 2018.

Summit sees pipeline as a way to sustain markets for Iowa corn, ethanol

At Tuesday’s meeting, Summit employees spoke candidly about the fact that they see the project as a critical way to sustain markets for Iowa ethanol and corn, at a time when regulatory decisions and the rapid rise of electric cars are making the future of biofuels increasingly uncertain.

According to the Iowa Corn Growers Association, some 57% of the state’s corn crop goes to ethanol. Geoff Cooper, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, has called the prospect of creating a lower emissions ethanol through CCS a “game changer”.

“Enhancing the long-term profitability of ethanol and agriculture is a major driver of this project,” said Jake Ketzner, vice president of government and public affairs for Summit. “By enhancing the ethanol industry and ensuring an end market for corn, this project will benefit every Midwestern landowner.”

“Enhancing the long-term profitability of ethanol and agriculture is a major driver of this project [...] By enhancing the ethanol industry and ensuring an end market for corn, this project will benefit every Midwestern landowner.”
-Jake Ketzner, Summit Carbon Solution

Some environmentalists dismiss carbon capture as a "false" climate solution

The Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club is gathering signatures for a petition opposing the Summit project and another pipeline proposed by Navigator CO2 Ventures. The activist group is blasting the approach of CCS as a “false solution” to climate change.

The organization, like other progressive-leaning climate advocates, sees CCS as extending a lifeline to carbon-based industries, at a time when the world needs to be ending its dependence on fossil fuels in order to stave off the worst impacts of climate change.

“These pipelines continue business as usual, will only be feasible with massive public subsidies, and should not be approved,” the petition reads. “We already know the solutions to our climate crisis - we must end our dependence on fossil fuels and invest in solar, wind, battery storage, conservation and efficiency!”

Norris blasted the $4.5 billion proposal as “ridiculous," after dozens of ethanol plants have been shuttered due to the pandemic-related downturn.

“We need to start planning for what's next,” Norris said, “not burying our head in the sand like the coal industry, who hung their hat on carbon sequestration for a long time. But in fact, their industry was on the decline. It has not worked for coal. It won't work for Iowa.”

Meanwhile other advocates and researchers point out that coal-fired power plants and gas-guzzling vehicles will not be phased immediately and argue that pulling carbon directly out of the atmosphere is a powerful tool that can help the world transition to a zero-emission future.

Summit is in the process of holding public meetings in the 30 Iowa counties the pipeline is slated to pass through, with meetings in Page, Montgomery, Hamilton and Webster Counties scheduled for later this week. Thirty days after the meetings are held, the company can petition the Iowa Utilities Board for a pipeline permit.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter