"It's not flammable. It's not combustible. It's just under pressure." - Lee Blank, Summit Carbon Solutions CEO
As Summit Carbon Solutions and Navigator CO2 Ventures get closer to obtaining the permits and easements required for their carbon-capture pipelines, those still in the fight to stop them are pushing forward.
"I am probably too cynical here. But I look at something like that and I think, wait a minute, that's a private for-profit company who's making promises that apparently are non-binding, and there are no regulations to force them to either do it at first or what about three years from now, five years from now when it's out of the public mind," said Dave Hoferer, a Professor of Biology and Environmental Science at Briar Cliff University who opposes the pipelines. "If the pipelines are built, are they going to continue to supply the necessary equipment or are they going to continue to give this? I don't think they will."
"And who's going to hold them accountable to do that?" I asked the panel of 10 landowners and private citizens opposing the pipelines.
"Exactly," Hoferer said. "There's nothing in place to hold them accountable."
For this group, it's more than just the fight for their own property. It's making sure their friends and neighbors see the bigger picture.
"Well, the other thing is the economic growth there behind them. But if you come around the largest city is Sioux City in our county, and this is going to be on the farm located on the corner of Buchanan Avenue and Highway 20," said Doyle Turner. "Well, that doesn't leave much room for Sioux City to grow East. And Sioux City can't grow north and it can't grow west and south is really difficult. So East is really the only viable option. Where we're going to get economic growth of our largest city and our county is stunted?
"And I wonder how many people out at Whispering Creek know that that pipeline is going to be right out their back door," said John Colyer.
"Do you think the general public understands, if they're not directly impacted by these pipelines, by these companies, do you think they understand what's happening?" I asked the panel. They answered with a collective 'no'.
"I'm always astounded by the people or the number of people that do not know anything," said Deb Main, a Woodbury County landowner.
"They are unaware and thank you for putting this in the media," said Vicki Hulse. She is fighting Navigator in Woodbury County District Court to keep their surveyors off of her property.
"They don't know if you say well, how about that pipeline?," said Ron Hartnett, a landowner from northeast Nebraska. "Because I've asked several people that live in the City of South Sioux, Dakota City. No, we don't know anything about it. Well, it's going to come through, this huge pipeline from Navigator and Summit and they go, you know. So it's kind of a hidden agenda."
"Well, they're only required to notify a certain quarter of landowners," said Main. "They don't have to notify the entire community. They don't have to hold meetings for the entire city. They're only required to notify 'X' number of people."
"And they don't even have to notify the neighbors of the landowners which I think is wrong because it also affects your neighbors," said Hulse. "I mean, it can go within, you know, a few 100 feet of your neighbors."
"It could be out in my field next to someone else's house," said Main.
That property is not just owned by private citizens. The pipelines are also slated to go through public land.
"Because it's it goes through not only private landowners but there's going to be waterways and other structures that are also of interest in public that these pipelines and other structures go through as well," said Aaron Daigh, a land and soil expert who has studied pipeline construction and impact.
As many landowners and experts say, there are other ways to capture carbon dioxide, like utilizing natural crops, trees and flowers.
"And I bet you everybody on this panel if it was presented to us that we would get paid to do some of those projects, and it would come to the landowners, that we'd all be in favor of that," said Roger Schmid. "I certainly would be."
Vicki Hulse has CRP on her property, which is where the pipeline is mapped to pass through, That CRP, part of the Conservation Reserve Program, will be hard to get back should it be removed during construction.
"And some farmers are now doing cover crops," said Stee Maxwell, another landowner fighting against the pipelines. "So that's sequestration of carbon so that’s an incentive for them to do that. And more, more and more farmers are continuing to do that. You know, to try and go through fields that the corn and beans are actually sequestering carbon as it is and kind of ruin that. That seems backward."
But for Summit and Navigator, and the dozens of ethanol plants they've each partnered with on this journey, they say carbon sequestration is the next step in ethanol innovation. And the time for that step forward is now.
"There's always going to be a fear of the unknown," said Elizabeth Burns-Thompson with Navigator, "and we don't develop broad enough interstate pipeline infrastructure every day. This is something that happens maybe every decade or there often."
"So what I think the message that I try and deliver or that I would like the general public to understand is, we're an agricultural company putting an infrastructure project in. We are Ag-based, and it's also where my heart lies," said Lee. "The future of agriculture is what drives me. I don't want people to miss what this means for the future of the agricultural farm gate."
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The two carbon-capture pipelines in the works from Summit Carbon Solutions and Navigator CO2 Ventures will carry pressurized carbon dioxide hundreds of miles across 6 states. While the technology for these pipeline infrastructures has advanced and improved, a rupture is always a possibility.
"The consequences to the land agricultural production lies and examination afterward, there's not much research done on that specific type of spill. Finding it in the literature is incredibly hard if it even exists, but there are a few things that we can expect for when that happens." Aaron Daigh is a land and soil expert who has studied pipeline ruptures and the impact they can have on the land.
"You would expect whatever zone that supercritical carbon spread out on in the ground, is likely stripping out some of the nutrients and fertility of that ground and so in addition to that microbial part, you would see a reduction and productivity or that's what you would expect to occur." Supercritical carbon refers to pressurized carbon dioxide that is different from the pure liquid state. This CO2 is not really a liquid, not really a gas, it's kind of in-between, sharing properties with both states.
"One of the things too is that when a rupture occurs in these supercritical states because the pressures suddenly change, the temperature drops dramatically," said Daigh. "So it will essentially flash freeze the ground around it, which is a hazard in itself if you're close by it, but it also jeopardizes more of that it makes the rupture larger."
Let's back up a bit. Carbon dioxide itself isn't considered a contaminant. It's in the soil. It's in the air we breathe. But it's when you get it in high concentrations, that it can turn toxic, even deadly.
"The pressure when it gets released, it can cause the supercritical carbon dioxide to enter into the ground and spread a particular distance. The longer the pressure hasn't been turned off of the pipeline, the larger and the wider that that's going to get." And the danger that poses is not just for humans. "One of the things is that because of that extreme temperature shift, biology is going to respond to that," said Daigh. "And in a lot of these areas, the ground freezes during the winter but the degree of freezing is very different than the temperature change that you would see from a pipeline break."
So what happens when a carbon dioxide pipeline ruptures or leaks? How big of an area could be impacted? Daigh says it depends on how long it takes to notice it. He points to an oil pipeline rupture in North Dakota as an example.
"Maybe a quarter-inch diameter hole either from corrosion or something else in our pipeline occurred," said Daigh. "And it wasn't noticed until some of the product that was going through it was actually ponding on the surface. So not only did it move down in the ground but built up and then ponded above it so it took a while to even notice."
The aftermath of that rupture lasted years. "Just the remediation process to dig out the contaminated sediment that went down about 60 feet over about 70 acres. The remediation process just to clean it up and put the ground back took about six years to occur and cost approaching $100 million."
While that's the worst-case scenario, Daigh says even with smaller leaks there are things landowners can do.
"Something that I would recommend to landowners if there was ever a break on the property is that in the site investigation afterward to see what the disturbed area or contaminated area is, to not look just where the extent of the carbon entered into the ground, but also a little bit beyond it. You know, give it another 20-30-40 feet worth of sampling to see, because whatever was in the zone that that carbon moves through, the supercritical carbon dioxide, whatever it stripped out, it's going to deposit wherever it's stopped moving at," Daigh said.
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The Midwest is known for its land. The rolling hills have been tended by generations of farmers to grow our nation's crops. But what could the installation of two liquid carbon capture pipelines do to this same land?
Experts say, a lot.
"So one, it is a disturbance to that land so it disturbs what you're currently doing, whether it's a crop or pasture land, a CRP Conservation Reserve Program piece of land, or range land, whatever forest, whatever it may be," said Aaron Daigh, "it is a disturbance to that land. And so it's going to affect what was growing there and how it grows afterward."
That disturbance is a focal point for a group of landowners who have yet to sign easements with Summit Carbon Solutions and Navigator CO2 Ventures.
"It will never be the same as because I know we built the land that we own now by many, many, many loads of manure from the stockyards. Over 10 years to get it to what it is," said Jim Colyer, a landowner in Northwest Iowa. "And when they stir that up, you cannot tell me that that ground is going to come back in what do they estimate, three years? It will never be the way it was."
Aaron Daigh is a soil and water science expert with the University of Nebraska Lincoln. He's studied the impact a disturbance, like a pipeline installation, can have on the land. "So there's a period of time that that piece of land is going to be out of production, that's not going to be growing a crop in it or a forage crop."
Moving the earth to install something like a pipeline changes the biological nature of the land, Daigh says. "But once that ground goes back down, it has been disturbed and it's been put back. So the physical and biological qualities of that land that made it productive, that's been shifted to another state. So lower quality at that point just due to the disturbance."
For farmland, the biological makeup of the soil is an important piece of the growing puzzle.
"You can probably expect almost anything you're growing, whether it's corn, soybean, wheat, or pasture land, you're going to see probably around a 20% reduction of yield in that worked area and that disturbed area." And as Daigh says, it could take a decade to see a full recovery, "that's what you can expect not just the next year but probably at least two, three years after that," he said. "It should start improving as you get more crops growing on it, its rooting system and its biology itself will start trying to help in the healing of that disturbed area. But it could take anywhere from six to over 10 years to see a full recovery to where you won't be able to notice that strip of land behaving differently than the areas right next to it."
"And a lot of destruction comes in the process of laying the pipe, not only with disturbing the soil, the subsoil, and the parent soil," said Woodbury County landowner, Deb Main. "But pipeline companies are paid to lay down the pipe as fast as they can, get the project done as fast as they can which one, allows for human error and two, working in wet conditions makes a huge mess. The soil clumps up and makes big, big, clumpy balls and things as big as rocks."
"Compaction," Colyer agreed.
"The compaction that happens in these pipelines is somewhat similar, quite similar to the compaction that happens on headlands for the crop fields where a lot of the loading offloading equipment and grain occurs at," explained Daigh.
"So whatever yield losses that you can see in those areas is probably going to be a bit worse just because of the level and depth of the disturbance, but that'll give some kind of expectation of how much yield loss you may have for a particular field is looking at the other parts of the field that have had mechanical compaction on them. And so if you're headlands are consistently losing or not yielding within 30-35% of the rest of the field, then that's probably going to be in the range of what you can expect on the pipeline after the pipeline's installed as compared to like 8% or 20% yield loss."
and the recovery of that land after construction is complete.
"If you are better off on your losses than half your neighbors and worse off than the other half, you can expect around a 20% drop in productivity for at least two-three years that will slowly recover," Daigh explained of estimating your crop losses. "Over the next six years to a decade afterward.
"If you tend to be on the best-case scenario, you're better off than the vast majority of your neighbors you might only see an 8-10% drop in productivity. You will see some level of drop just simply due to the disturbance. If you're worse off, the context of the field made it of higher risk for yield loss. You could see up to 50-60 % crop yield loss." Some landowners, like Vicki Hulse and Stee Maxwell, are part of the Conservation Reserve Program, a federally funded program that encourages landowners to leave pieces of their property untouched for native plants and wildlife. These pipelines are mapped to go right through it.
"So I have CRP and they're going to go through three parcels of that and the CRP, it's been in CRP for seven years," said Hulse. "And I just, I can't believe that they can put that CRP back like it was because it's not going to happen. After seven years, it's not going to happen that they can put it back like it was and then you have the wildlife, the deer, the birds, the pheasants, the bees, the pollinator program, and you're going to help the noise and everything that goes with putting that pipeline. And you're going to disrupt all of that."
"That makes me sick to my stomach to think that's going to go on."
That CRP, Daigh says, will be even harder to get back. "But in a CRP setting, to where you have limited options for invasive plants, and particularly if an invasive or weed gets established and then spread seeds, it's a source not only for that disturbed area but now it's a potential for seed contamination to the adjacent area as well."
Navigator says they plan to get the land they acquire through easements back in working order quickly, installing their pipeline several sections at a time.
"What that allows us to do is take the project and put it into a little bit more bite-sized pieces but also simultaneously construct in a much shorter window of time," said Elizabeth Burns-Thompson, VP of Government Affairs for Navigator. "That minimizes the amount of time that we have to disrupt the ground itself so you're really only impacting one growing season for those farmers as opposed to multiple."
Summit's CEO, Lee Blank, says the unknown is the biggest issue. "I think the main hurdle really is just the unknown, like, Does my property come back to full production? We will make sure it comes back to full production. That's why they hired an agricultural executive to make that happen. I understand what full-production agriculture looks like."
While the hope is that the pipelines are a benefit to all, the reality is that no one really knows the impact they will have on the land this region is known for.
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"There is no other technology that can lower the carbon intensity score of an industry more than carbon capture and sequestration."
That's the claim from Summit Carbon Solutions, a corporation that wants to construct carbon-capture pipelines through the central U.S.
Summit and Navigator CO2 Ventures want to take carbon dioxide, a current bi-product of ethanol producers, and compress it into a pipeline for underground sequestration.
"Carbon is a characteristic that is beginning to determine the value of the goods and services and materials that we're bringing to market," said Elizabeth Burns-Thompson, the Vice President of Government Affairs for Navigator CO2. "We are beginning to see carbon-based valuations put on those goods and services. And so businesses are beginning to look at, how do we invest in the critical resources, the process improvements, the infrastructure that is necessary to be competitive in this carbon economy that we have evolved into."
GOVERNMENT TAX CREDITS AND THE CARBON ECONOMY
That carbon economy is getting a big boost from the federal government in the form of tax credits. According to the United States Internal Revenue Code, Section 45Q provides tax credits for CO2 storage. The Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage Tax Credit Amendments Act of 2021 (CCUS), and the Negate Emissions to Zero Act of 2021 (NET Zero Act) extend 45Q tax credits for Direct Air Capture projects.
Direct Air Capture (DAC) projects are for carbon technologies that can remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it, or sequester it, geologically.
While government tax credits for carbon sequestration began in 2008, the Net Zero Act and CCUS significantly boost those tax credits for these companies, offering a larger incentive to get these projects in the ground.
The NET Zero Act would extend the 45Q tax credit permanently for DAC projects with geologic sequestration and increase credits to $18/ton.
The CCUS would extend the credit for 5 years and at $120/ton. Enhancing tax credits ensures incentives for companies and developers to make carbon capture technologies at a faster pace.
"To me, carbon is the next great commodity and it's a commodity that we're going to trade and there's going to be all kinds of various markets globally that are going to emerge from this," said Summit CEO, Lee Blank. "There's what I call the new carbon economy."
I believe the carbon economy is real. I believe we're on the doorstep of it.The goal is to take carbon dioxide that is currently scrubbed and released into the atmosphere and instead, compress it into a liquid-like state and sequester it, or store it deep underground in geologic formations in Illinois and North Dakota.
THE SCIENTIFIC SIDE OF SEQUESTRATION
"The emission of CO2 is the gas and so the first step is to capture that gas and then you have to compress it to the point where it turns into a liquid." Ryan Clark is a geologist with the Iowa Geological Survey. He's studied these projects and others like them.
"One term you'll hear thrown around is supercritical fluid or supercritical liquid. That's just a liquid under high pressure," Clark explained. "You have to, in order to maintain that CO2 as a liquid, you have to maintain that pressure. That's where the depth comes in."
"So injecting it underground to a depth of at least about 2700 feet below the surface is sufficient to hold that CO2 in its liquid form." And that depth is important in making sequestration work.
"And so 2700 feet is kind of the number that I've always operated under is that's your minimum depth of injection," Clark explained about carbon sequestration. "And so what then has to happen is you have to find a place where there are rocks that are porous, meaning they have open spaces within the grains, or they are the bits and pieces within the bedrock formation and that they're also permeable. So those pore spaces have to be connected to each other in order for them to accept large volumes of this liquified CO2."
These storage sites are also chosen for their relation to the water table we rely on every day.
"One of the main parameters that decide whether a bedrock formation or an aquifer is suitable for CO2 injections is if that groundwater is considered nonpotable, meaning it's too mineralized and the water quality is so poor that nobody would ever drink it," Clark explained.
"There's a lot of separation between where they're storing this and where the drinking water sources are." But I wanted to know, with this CO2 under so much pressure, is storing it underground really that safe?
"One of the major concerns is the pressure that you inject and that you're imposing on that rock formation," Clark said. "You've heard plenty about induced seismicity with fracking. That is a concern. So that's why the pressure within that injection reservoir is one of the things that they monitor."
One question that hasn't fully been answered is, what happens to the liquified carbon dioxide after it's sequestered underground?
As Clark explained, "It's meant to just get injected down there and stay there forever."
While pipeline construction or even sequestration isn't new, 'We've been injecting stuff underground for a very, very long time. It might be a new substance that we're trying, but it's certainly not a new practice."
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"Along the Route: A Pipeline Discussion" is a multi-part series of reports looking at everything from the companies that want to build them to those "for" and those "against" and a deeper dive into to carbon and ethanol industries at the center of the project.
Follow Katie Copple on Facebook for the latest on the pipeline projects.
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Web articles from my time at Siouxland News.