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Iowa carbon pipeline opponents voice concerns to federal regulators

Aug 26, 2023Aug 26, 2023

Federal pipeline safety regulators were in Des Moines this week where they heard directly from opponents of three carbon capture pipelines planned for construction in Iowa and the Midwest.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is in the early stages of updating regulations to prepare for a surge in CO2 pipeline construction and to respond to a carbon dioxide pipeline rupture in Satartia, Mississippi in February 2020 that sent dozens of nearby residents to the hospital.

Landowners, industry representatives, safety advocates and technical experts spoke on panels at a downtown hotel, outlining gaps in regulations and research.

The meeting grew tense Wednesday as Iowa landowners implored PHMSA officials for a moratorium on pipeline permits until new safety rules are finalized, which could take years.

"I want them to wait," said Kathy Stockdale, who said lines proposed by Summit and Navigator would cross on her farm in central Iowa. "If I knew that in two years a new car was coming out with better safety features, I would wait and buy that car in two years rather than this year."

PHMSA officials indicated they are leaving the meetings with a long list of issues to consider.

The agency currently does not regulate contaminants in the carbon dioxide moved through pipelines. Advocates urged the agency to set limits on water in the lines, because excess moisture mixed with CO2 could generate corrosive carbonic acid.

Industry researchers and safety advocates agreed there should be more studies to improve the models that predict where a plume of carbon dioxide will spread across the landscape in the case of a rupture. A model adopted for the Denbury Gulf Coast Pipeline in Mississippi never anticipated that carbon dioxide would reach Satartia, yet the town had to be evacuated after the rupture.

Landowners repeatedly pushed PHMSA officials to make national standards to place pipelines a safe distance from homes, communities and livestock. But the federal agency has no role in those decisions. Routing and siting are left up to state and local authorities.

"We’re not going to stand up here and make promises," said PHMSA deputy associate administrator Linda Daugherty, who compared it to asking the police to change the speed limit. "You’re asking us to do something we don't have the authority to do."

That drew frustration from landowners like Jan Norris whose farm is on the path of Summit Carbon Solutions’ proposed project.

"I’m kind of feeling right now like all of us in red shirts are guinea pigs," said Norris, referring to pipeline opponents wearing red to the meetings. "You’re working on (safety regulations) and I appreciate all the work you’re doing, but it's not going to get here fast enough."

Summit, Navigator CO2 Ventures, and Wolf Carbon Solutions have proposed projects that would travel more than 3,000 miles across Iowa and the Midwest to transport and sequester carbon dioxide produced by ethanol and fertilizer plants.

Only around 5,300 miles of CO2 pipelines currently exist, but by some estimates 60,000 miles of new carbon pipelines could be built in the coming decades prompted by lucrative federal tax incentives meant to help the U.S. meet goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"We have this massive, global effort to deploy (carbon capture and storage) at scale, and at a scale that it's never been done before and at a level of complexity that we’ve never seen," said Steven Feit of the Center for International Environmental Law.

A panel on Thursday discussed what emergency response plans should be in place for carbon pipelines. Cedar County Emergency Management Director Jodi Freet said rural first responders don't have the equipment, training or enough people to respond to a carbon pipeline failure.

Ideally, Freet said, all responders on the pipeline route would have air tanks on hand to protect them if they have to rescue residents in an area flooded by carbon dioxide. Volunteer departments, she said, don't have the budget for that.

"If we think about a firefighter who wears an SCBA, the self-contained breathing apparatus, the average price of an SCBA is $6,300," Freet said. "That's a lot of pancake breakfasts to pay for that lifesaving equipment."