Experts question cost and viability of proposed CO2 pipeline projects
Two separate projects in the early stages of planning and permitting, hope to be operational in 2024
So far, most of the discussion about two proposed multibillion-dollar carbon dioxide pipelines that would cross hundreds of miles of eastern South Dakota has centered on opposition by landowners whose properties would be affected by the digging and laying of underground pipes carrying a potentially dangerous chemical.
The two separate pipeline projects, proposed by Summit Carbon Solutions and Navigator CO2 Ventures, both based in Iowa, are in the early stages of planning and permitting, and both hope to be operational in 2024. Both projects seek to use carbon-capture and sequestration technology, or CCS, to collect CO2 from ethanol plants and ship it in liquid form through miles of pipelines to sites where it will be buried and held deep underground.
Pipeline construction tears up land owned in some cases for generations by the same families; there’s an inherent risk of leakage; farmland is turned over and taken out of production; drain-tile systems and water-flow patterns can be affected; and payments for use of the land are far from life-changing. Hundreds of South Dakota landowners have signed up to address state regulators about the Summit project, many in strong opposition.
However, another battle is brewing over CCS on a much larger scale. The expansion of CCS projects across the U.S. is raising concern among some experts who say the new investment into CCS has the potential for long-range negative consequences for the U.S. economy and the environment of the planet.
A fundamental question is whether the practice of CCS is the best way forward in the effort to reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Also in play, however, is the debate over the cost, and whether spending billions on carbon-capture technology is the best use of taxpayer money and industry investment. Some argue that focusing time, money and resources on CCS to mitigate climate change could slow more effective efforts to protect the earth.
In CCS, carbon emitted by industrial plants is captured at the source, then pressurized into a liquid that is transported through underground pipelines to storage areas far beneath the earth’s surface.
Supporters of CCS say it is one proven and relatively expedient way to prevent large quantities of CO2 from entering the environment. They also argue it will benefit and extend the life of the ethanol industry.
Officials with the two CCS pipeline projects in South Dakota add that they would create jobs in rural areas, generate millions in tax dollars for state and local governments, and strengthen rural economies across the Midwest.
If the two proposed pipeline projects can keep nearly 30 million tons of carbon dioxide a year from the atmosphere, as projected, that fact alone makes them highly valuable, said Matthew Fry, a policy analyst on carbon issues for the Great Plains Institute, a Minnesota-based nonprofit think-tank focused on energy and climate.
“We’re going to transition away from fossil fuels eventually, but it isn’t going to happen in my lifetime,” Fry said. “So in the space of transition before we can go full green, we’re going to have to do carbon capture to meet climate goals.”
Opponents of CCS, however, say the billions spent to capture carbon and build pipelines to carry it could be better spent in reducing dependence on fossil fuels to begin with, and to further incentivize industries, including carmakers, to more rapidly advance the switch to electric or other low-emission vehicles.
Those who oppose CCS also say the process is a way of actually extending the time America and the world are reliant on fossil fuels for transportation.
“It’s such a dangerous form of green-washing, where you’re trying to take an environmentally destructive activity and rebrand it in a way that makes it appear benign,” said Basav Sen, the climate-justice project director at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. “The idea of using energy sources that put carbon into the atmosphere and addressing it after the fact by attempting to capture that carbon and store it in the ground is a non-starter."
The U.S. Congress has been largely supportive of CCS, and has allocated billions in funding to support research and development of carbon-capture projects. From 2010 to 2020, Congress provided $10.7 billion to CCS-related activity and programs, according to an October 2021 Congressional Research Service report. President Joe Biden recently signed into law his omnibus $1 trillion infrastructure package, which provides another $12 billion for carbon-capture research and projects.
To date, carbon captured from energy plants has been sequestered or used as a solution injected into the ground for “enhanced oil recovery,” in which the compressed gas increases access to underground oil in fracking or other collection methods. Also, captured carbon has been used to make new products such as cements, plastics, dry ice, jet fuel, hand sanitzer and other usable materials. Officials from both pipelines proposed for South Dakota say the captured carbon will be sequestered and not used for enhanced oil production.
The 2,000-mile, $3.7 billion Summit Carbon Solutions pipeline would cross 469 miles in South Dakota, carrying 12 million tons of CO2 northward each year from 32 ethanol plants in five states to a site in central North Dakota, where the CO2 would be buried and permanently stored more than a mile underground.
The South Dakota portion of the Summit Carbon Solutions project was submitted for permitting by the state Public Utilities Commission in February, and a public hearing is expected to be held before the end of 2022.
A second CO2 pipeline, a $3 billion, 1,300-mile project proposed by Navigator COs Ventures, would capture 15 tons of CO2 each year from 20 ethanol and fertilizer plants in five states. The Navigator pipeline would cross 62 miles in South Dakota and terminate at a site in central Illinois where the CO2 would be buried 6,400 feet underground. Navigator has contacted affected landowners in South Dakota and plans to submit its pipeline permit application to the PUC this summer, said Elizabeth Burns-Thompson, a spokeswoman for Navigator.
The CCS projects would capture carbon dioxide released during the fermentation process required to produce ethanol; the Navigator project would also capture carbon from fertilizer plants.
Capturing carbon in the Summit project would be the equivalent of eliminating emissions from 2.6 million cars each year, said Jake Ketzner, vice president of communications for Summit. Navigator says its CCS project would remove the equivalent of carbon emissions from 3.2 million cars a year.
In a recent news release, Summit said its CCS project would create more than 11,000 jobs, generate $371 million in tax revenues, provide $2.1 billion in investments with local contractors and suppliers, and pay landowners about $310 million in five states.
Piping chemicals underground for hundreds of miles is not without risk.
In February 2020, a 24-inch carbon dioxide pipeline ruptured in Satartia, Miss., causing a green gas to be emitted from the break. No residents or responders died, but about 300 people were evacuated and nearly four dozen people were treated at local hospitals.
Officials with Summit and Navigator say the CCS industry has learned from that incident, and that safety is the top priority for both companies.
Charlie Johnson is an organic farmer who leases farmland near Madison, S.D., and who opposes the CCS pipeline that may pass through the land he farms.
Johnson believes that there are more worthwhile, viable and sensible solutions to reducing climate change and carbon emissions.
“What we’re doing is creating stress and anxiety for thousands of landowners, we’re tearing up the land, we’re investing billions of dollars that could be invested better,” Johnson said. “Let’s get back to simpler approaches; let’s get back to capturing carbon by using nature itself.”
Johnson argues that the ethanol industry and its heavy reliance on using land to grow corn, which requires fertilizers, is doing more harm than good to the environment. The billions used to fund CCS research and operations could be better used to protect prairie and forest lands that naturally consume CO2, he says.
Dana Siefkes Lewis is the chief administrative officer of Redfield Energy and the president of the South Dakota Ethanol Producers Association.
Siefkes Lewis said some but not all of the 15 ethanol plants in South Dakota have signed on to supply CO2 to the Summit pipeline; Redfield is one producer that is planning to supply carbon dioxide to Summit.
Siefkes Lewis said the company is looking at carbon capture as one of several ways to reduce its carbon footprint.
“Everything is on the table as far as what would lower our carbon score, so we’re looking at any idea because we can’t put everything in the carbon-capture basket,” she said.
Meanwhile, POET Biofuels, the world’s largest producer of ethanol, with company headquarters in Sioux Falls, so far has decided not to participate in the CCS pipelines proposed in the state, according to Erin Smith, spokeswoman for POET.
POET’s goals include reducing the carbon intensity of its biofuels by 70% by 2030 and becoming fully carbon-neutral by 2050.
POET already uses captured carbon to produce dry ice, which is used in transportation of many food and medical products, including COVID-19 vaccines, according to the company’s website.
— This article was produced by South Dakota News Watch, a non-profit journalism organization located online at SDNewsWatch.org.