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Advocates say carbon capture is an important tool. Iowa residents in the path of proposed pipelines aren't convinced

Two proposed carbon capture and sequestration projects would span thousands of miles and pass through dozens of Iowa counties. Advocates say the technology is an important tool for cutting emissions but the proposals face resistance from Iowa farmers and conservationists alike.

When Jessica Wiskus of rural Linn County opened the letter from Navigator COVentures, she had no idea what a carbon sequestration pipeline was. In the time since she first received notice that the company hopes to build a pipeline through her land, she’s tried to make herself an amateur expert, pouring over research papers and business filings for the technology, which some researchers say is vital to curbing greenhouse but which some activists see as propping up polluters.

Wiskus says she and her husband recently moved back to Iowa after living for many years in Pennsylvania so that their daughter could be closer to their extended family and closer to the land. They settled on a homestead south of Lisbon in rural Linn County, just a couple miles away from her family’s farm.

“I wanted my daughter to grow up and have the same connection to the land that I have,” Wiskus said. “When you grow on the land, it's not about you anymore. It really is about this amazing soil that we have and the miracles of nature that we have every single year. And so I just feel really blessed to be in Iowa.”

“They want us to think we can’t do anything. They want us to think it won’t matter if we talk to our neighbors. But I think that they underestimate our character. And I feel that this issue actually unites us."
-Jessica Wiskus, rural Linn County resident

When she got the notice from Navigator, Wiskus said she couldn’t help but think of what she had seen in Pennsylvania: unfamiliar companies selling a relatively new technology and promising an economic boom for rural residents, in exchange for the rights to their land. Fracking did make a fortune for the corporations, Wiskus said, but devastated local residents.

“And so you can imagine that when I received these materials, and they sounded so much like the materials, and they're so slickly produced, they sounded so much like what I had seen in Pennsylvania, it just was quite alarming to me,” Wiskus said.

Two proposed carbon sequestration pipelines would crisscross Iowa

Scores of Iowans have received notices from Navigator, which hopes to build a carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) system that would run the length of the state. The proposed Heartland Greenway project would capture emissions from ethanol plants and other industrial sites across South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois, piping the pressurized carbon dioxide some 1,300 miles to a site in Christian County, Illinois, were it would be buried underground in a geologic formation known as the Mt. Simon Sandstone.

Navigator CO2 Ventures

According to the company, the project would permanently sequester some 10 to 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, comparable to the emissions from about 3 million cars.

The Heartland Greenway is the second CCS project to be proposed in Iowa in recent months; Summit Carbon Solutions is also seeking approval from state regulators for a 2,000 mile carbon pipeline that would span five states and terminate in North Dakota. Summit touts that its proposal would be the “world’s largest” carbon dioxide pipeline.

Both projects would capture emissions from ethanol plants, which are much easier and cheaper to capture than emissions from other industrial processes. Summit and Navigator have touted the proposals as a way to prop up the state’s ethanol industry, at a time when the future of the biofuel is increasing uncertain due to declining demand and the rise of electric vehicles. (Some 57 percent of the state’s corn crop is turned into ethanol).

Advocates tout potential of carbon capture technology despite struggles

Climate researchers have said carbon capture can play a critical role in cutting emissions, particularly for essential industries that don’t currently have adequate low-carbon alternatives, such as concrete and steel manufacturing. Alissa Park, who directs the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy at Columbia University, says carbon capture technology offers a powerful way to not only reach net zero emissions but even achieve negative emissions, by siphoning off carbon that’s already been released into the air or oceans.

“Carbon capture and storage is one of the most important technologies out there or approaches we really need to think about. Because we emit so much carbon into the atmosphere [...] We are beyond the point of return that zero emissions is not going to even cut it. We have to even do negative emissions.”
-Alissa Park, director, Columbia University Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy

“Carbon capture and storage is one of the most important technologies out there or approaches we really need to think about. Because we emit so much carbon into the atmosphere,” Park said. “We are beyond the point of return that zero emissions is not going to even cut it. We have to even do negative emissions.”

Park says it’s beneficial to build out pipeline infrastructure now in order to create a pathway to the geologic formations where carbon can be permanently sequestered.

“There are many different ways to draw down atmospheric COor even capturing COout of the ocean. We can do all these things. But once we capture that, we need to do something. We have to have pipelines still to put it somewhere,” Park said. “So I think putting pipelines to transport carbon dioxide is a good thing.”

But CCS projects have struggled to become financially viable and the technology is still considered relatively untested. Iowa farmers, landowners and some environmental advocates remain deeply skeptical, questioning the public safety and ecological impacts of the projects and wondering who exactly will benefit.

“Two concerns: one, is it really green? Two, how safe is this?” Wiskus asked. “Because they’re planning to put it though my land which is going to go next to my house.”

Summit Carbon Solutions

Landowners have raised concerns about whether the construction would impact their crop yields and if they would bear any legal responsibility for a pipeline accident on their land. Other residents question what safety precautions will be in place, noting that carbon dioxide is an asphixiant and pointing to a carbon pipeline in Mississippi that ruptured last year, sickening dozens of residents.

In a statement to IPR, Navigator said the company is committed to safety, noting the project is subject to a slate of local, state and federal regulations and guidelines.

“Navigator will use a start-of-the-art leak detection system that is constantly monitored by qualified operators to ensure safe and reliable transportation at various points along the system. The pipeline will exceed all federal and state requirements and be inspected from initial forming all the way to installation,” the statement reads.

Environmentalists label carbon sequestration a ‘false solution’ to climate crisis

The Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club is organizing against the projects, circulating a petition calling them “false climate solutions” that would extend a lifeline to carbon-intensive industries they believe should be phased out immediately.

In fact, CCS is often employed in the industry that environmentalists are bent on unraveling: the oil industry. Reuters has reported that most existing carbon sequestration projects utilize a technique called enhanced oil recovery or EOR, in which the pressurized carbon dioxide is injected into existing wells to push more oil out of the ground.

At public meetings in Iowa, representatives for Summit denied the company plans to use the carbon it sequesters for EOR, but according to the Associated Press, CEO Bruce Rastetter has said the project wouldn’t be possible without it. In response to questions from IPR, a Navigator representative didn’t directly say whether the company has ruled out EOR.

“The project footprint will not coincide with any area where EOR is taking place. Navigator intends to focus on long-term storage and sequestration,” read a statement from Navigator.

Park says the role of EOR in CCS is currently trending down in part due to fluctuations in oil prices and also due to new federal subsidies and California’s low carbon fuel standard, providing other avenues for companies to make carbon sequestration profitable.

Public meetings on Navigator’s Heartland Greenway kick off in Iowa

Beginning Monday, Iowans will get a chance to weigh in on the Heartland Greenway project at dozens of public meetings scheduled to take place across the state.

Jessica Wiskus, the rural Linn County resident, says she plans to organize against the project and attend as many of the meetings as she can, encouraging friends and neighbors to educate themselves on the proposal and to not sign anything yet.

“This is going to take time. So there’s no need to roll over and play dead. We’ve got time. And we do have time to organize before anyone would even talk about eminent domain,” Wiskus said.

Wiskus says she’s optimistic that opposition to the pipelines will unite Iowans across the political spectrum.

“They want us to think we can’t do anything. They want us to think it won’t matter if we talk to our neighbors. But I think that they underestimate our character. And I feel that this issue actually unites us,” Wiskus said. “And the fact that this issue can unite us is what gives me hope.”

Editor's Note: this story has been corrected to reflect that the statements from Navigator COVentures are attributable to the company at large and not an individual spokesperson.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter