Company touts carbon pipeline as safest transportation option

Environmental advocate says the projects aren’t safe enough

By: - April 7, 2023 12:17 pm

A carbon dioxide pipeline break in 2020 in Mississippi sickened dozens. (Photo courtesy of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration)

If ethanol producers intend to transport captured carbon dioxide away from their plants, pipelines are the optimal choice for safety, said Elizabeth Burns-Thompson, a vice president of Navigator CO2 Ventures.

The company is one of three that have proposed building carbon dioxide pipelines in the state, and those projects have met fierce resistance from landowners and conservationists, in part, due to safety concerns. The other companies are Summit Carbon Solutions and Wolf Carbon Solutions.

Elizabeth Burns-Thompson, a vice president of Navigator CO2 Ventures, on Iowa Press. (Screenshot courtesy of Iowa PBS)

Burns-Thompson defended her company’s project during an episode of Iowa Press, which was set to initially air Friday night and is available online.

There are lucrative federal tax incentives for the plants to capture and sequester the carbon dioxide they would otherwise emit into the atmosphere. The potential for localized, underground sequestration is largely unknown in Iowa, so many ethanol plants have forged agreements with the pipeline companies.

A small number of plants already capture carbon dioxide and sell it for other commercial purposes.

There are other ways to ship out the carbon dioxide, including by truck, rail and barge, but “when you look at the safety record of all modes of transportation, pipelines are leaps and bounds (better) in terms of the factors of safety,” Burns-Thompson said.

The other Iowa Press guest this week, Jessica Mazour, of the Sierra Club Iowa Chapter, pointed to a pipeline break in 2020 in Mississippi that sickened at least 45 people and prompted an evacuation of the area that affected about 200 people, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Jessica Mazour, of the Sierra Club Iowa Chapter, on Iowa Press. (Screenshot courtesy of Iowa PBS)

“These projects are not as safe as these pipeline companies say,” Mazour said. “And this kind of goes back to just the tactics that we’ve seen all three pipeline companies use. They’re willing to say or do anything to get their pipelines approved.”

The Mississippi incident was largely caused by a lack of regular, visual inspections of the pipeline route, said Linda Daugherty, an administrator for the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, in a presentation to Iowa lawmakers last month. There was obvious soil movement in the area of the Mississippi pipeline break that likely preceded the failure on Feb. 22, 2020.

“They have to monitor it, because moving land affects pipelines,” Daugherty said. “It does. We’ve had way too many pipeline failures in the last several years related to land movement.”

There are unintended releases of carbon dioxide from existing pipelines elsewhere in the country every year — about 100 of them in the past two decades, resulting in one injury, Daugherty said. The Mississippi release was the largest so far at the equivalent of 31,400 barrels of carbon dioxide.

Carbon dioxide that leaks from pipelines can hug the ground — as it did in Mississippi — under certain conditions and choke people, animals and internal combustion engines.

“What the normal situation is: you have a release of carbon dioxide, you’ve got warm air and it goes up in the air,” Daugherty said. “There’s already CO2 in the atmosphere. It just goes up. There’s wind, and it’ll mix it up and disperse it.”

Still landowners and some counties have grave safety concerns about the projects. Several counties have created their own restrictions for the pipelines which are being challenged in court.

Burns-Thompson said Navigator representatives have been meeting with emergency responders this year to discuss the project and how a leak might affect specific communities. She said those conversations will lead to localized response plans, the potential acquirement of new equipment and training drills.

“Those are costs that are borne by us as the company, and we’ve made that clear in every meeting that I’ve been part of to date,” she said.

Mazour said the company has not done enough to ensure the safety of people along the proposed route.

“We’ve spoken with quite a few (emergency medical services) people across the state who have not heard anything from any of the pipeline companies and feel ill-prepared,” Mazour said.

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register.