Controversy continues to build around three carbon capture pipelines planned for the Midwest. Three companies – Summit Carbon Solutions, Navigator CO2, and Wolf Carbon Solutions – have proposed projects aimed at capturing CO2 emissions from ethanol plants and piping it underground to sequestration sites hundreds or even thousands of miles away. The pipelines would carry the carbon through Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and South Dakota to sequestration sites in Illinois and North Dakota, where the CO2 would be injected deep into underground rock formations.
The projects have met stiff resistance from landowners and rural residents in the path of the proposed projects that are concerned about safety as well as land rights. The companies building the pipelines say they will help the US meet its emission reduction goals as well as help the ethanol industry sell more of its fuel in states and countries with higher emission standards. Below is a brief explainer about carbon capture technology and more information about the three Midwest pipeline projects.
What is CO2 sequestration? The goal of CO2 sequestration, aka carbon capture and storage (CCS), is to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in order to help mitigate climate change. It starts by capturing carbon dioxide – in this case from ethanol plants – where it is then isolated and pressurized into a liquid state. The liquid CO2 then travels by pipeline to injection sites where it is pumped deep underground into naturally occurring, porous rock formations.
Unlike soil, which can send carbon back into the atmosphere if disturbed, vast rock formations offer the ability to bury the carbon for “eons of time” more than a mile below the surface, according to Steve Whittaker, the director of energy and minerals at the Illinois State Geological Survey. Even though leakage is possible, research suggests it will be minimal, a study in Nature speculated that more than 98% of injected CO2 will remain in storage for over 10,000 years.
According to the US Geological Survey (USGS), the US has the geologic formations to store approximately 3,000 metric gigatons of carbon dioxide. For comparison, the United States produces around 5.3 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year. Humans worldwide currently produce around 34 metric gigatons of carbon dioxide per year. CCS has been utilized since 1972 in the US, where several natural gas plants in Texas have captured and stored more than 200 million tons of CO2 underground.
Where are the three Midwest pipeline projects? Developers are taking advantage of billions of dollars of tax credits for carbon capture and storage. The value of the tax credits was increased by +70% in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act. The pipeline networks would be centered around Iowa and would extend into Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and North and South Dakota:
- Summit Carbon Solutions’ $4.5 billion, 2,000-mile “Midwest Carbon Express” pipeline would carry CO2 across Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska, to be stored in the rock beneath North Dakota. Summit says it will be able to capture up to 12 million metric tons of carbon per year from 34 ethanol plants.
- Navigator CO2’s $3 billion, 1,300-mile “Heartland Greenway” carbon capture pipeline would transport 15 million metric tons of CO2 per year from ethanol plants in Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota to an eventual destination in Illinois. Navigator says its pipeline has the capacity to capture about 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually from 31 ethanol plants.
- Wolf Carbon Solutions so-called “Mt. Simon Hub” pipeline system would transport up to 12 million metric tons a year of captured carbon dioxide approximately 260 miles from two Archer Daniels Midland ethanol plants in Cedar Rapids and Clinton, Iowa, to a permanent underground sequestration site in Decatur, Illinois.
Why Illinois and North Dakota? The companies are targeting Illinois as an ideal place to store the captured carbon because of a 60,000-square-mile basin known as the Mount Simon Sandstone that geologists say is ideal for carbon storage. The deep, thick rock has pores that are filled with very salty water. The carbon is contained the porous rocks by a layer of impermeable shale that prevents the upward escape of liquefied CO2.
In North Dakota, Summit Carbon Solutions is drilling thousands of feet down into three rock formations in the Williston Basin, which stretches through parts of Canada, the Dakotas, and Montana. Similar to the Mount Simon Sandstone, the formations have sandstone pores that can hold water and an impermeable rock layer. Another factor that makes North Dakota an attractive option is the state’s authority to regulate the wells in which carbon dioxide would be injected. In 2018, it became the first state to assume that authority from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
What’s at Stake? Low-carbon ethanol can be sold for a premium in certain markets, and the federal government offers tax credits to ethanol producers for capturing carbon. Those tax credits are the greatest if the carbon dioxide is sequestered underground.
Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, says an increasing demand for low-carbon fuels will imperil ethanol producers unless there is widespread adoption of equipment to capture emissions from ethanol plants. A recent report, paid for by the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, claims if Iowa ethanol plants are not able to participate in carbon capture pipeline projects but ethanol plants in neighboring states can, 75% of Iowa’s ethanol production would be lost to those states in the next five to 10 years, many ethanol plants would shut down, and Iowa’s ethanol industry would lose more than $10 billion a year without carbon capture in the state.
Who is opposed? Some experts and environmentalists have pushed back against efforts to develop carbon capture, saying it is at best only a partial solution, and at worst it may impede a global transition to clean energy by letting the fossil fuel industry continue doing business as usual. At the same time, many landowners object to the pipelines cutting across their farms and ranches, and resent the companies’ threats to use eminent domain laws in order to secure the land they need.
Folks worried about the safety of the pipelines point to a CO2 pipeline that exploded in Satartia, Mississippi in early 2020. The pipeline was carrying CO2 that was being used for “enhanced oil recovery” (EOR) in a nearby oil field. Federal investigators determined that the pipeline operator, Denbury Inc., violated several regulations. The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, is still revising federal regulations in the wake of the 2020 pipeline rupture and many pipeline skeptics feel companies should wait until those revisions are released before moving ahead with development.
Utility regulators in North Dakota recently rejected a permit for Summit while South Dakota shot down a permit for Navigator. (Sources: Harvest Public Media, Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, Reuters, EIA)