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Published March 8, 2022

Carbon Capture Pipeline: The Environmentalists’ Side

Written by
Charlene Nelson
| The Dakotan
North Dakota landscape [Photo: North Dakota Tourism]
North Dakota landscape [Photo: North Dakota Tourism]

The carbon capture pipeline that Summit Carbon Solutions plans to build across five Midwest states  seems on its face to be an environmentalist’s dream come true. It promises to capture and store millions of tons of carbon dioxide — a major component of greenhouse gases. When it first begins operation, the pipeline will capture 12 million tons of CO2 per year from dozens of ethanol plants, fertilizer plants, and other CO2 producer in a five-state region. According to Governor Doug Burgum, that’s the equivalent of taking 2.6 million cars off the road.

Since CO2 is a major component of greenhouse gasses, it may surprise some to learn virtually all of the  environmentalist groups in the region are opposed to this carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) project.

Similar to the environmentalists’ concerns over the DAPL project, the biggest concern that opponents of the Summit pipeline have is safety. CO2 is a colorless and odorless gas, which means that if there’s a rupture, there could be a lot of harm before anyone was aware of the leak.

Scott Skokos, executive director of the North Dakota Resource Council (NDRC) says that a carbon capture project of this size is untested. There are doubts that a project of this scale and size can truly be properly monitored for ruptures, leaks, and general safety concerns. 

“In a perfect world, we’d have a lot more testing on smaller projects to test for safety, environmental integrity, and effectiveness. Nothing on this scale has ever been done before,” Skokos said.

Todd McMicheal, spokesman for a group of farmers impacted by the pipeline project, points out that there will be 20-30 miles between turn-off valves. “The pipe will be carrying CO2 with 1400-2100 psi pressure. That means an awful lot of CO2 will escape before anyone can shut it down.” McMichael says he is concerned that a farmer trying to pull out a tractor mired in mud could easily disrupt four feet of soil and puncture the buried pipeline. “The first clue that there was trouble would be when his tractor died. Would he be able to get out of the field before he was overcome by CO2 fumes?” asks McMichael.  

Environmental groups point to a CO2 disaster in Mississippi. A pipeline, similar to the one proposed for North Dakota, carrying CO2 ruptured in February 2020. The first indication of a problem was when cars began to stall, unable to operate when CO2 displaced the oxygen. More than 300 people were evacuated, many of them unconscious by the time rescuers reached them. 45 victims were taken to area hospitals. Some have suffered prolonged and, perhaps permanent, lung damage and memory loss.

The EPA, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and industry researchers have done several studies on the impact that seeping CO2 can have on aquifers and underground drinking water. According to these studies, the CO2 changes the acidity of the water, which “enhance[s] the solubility of inorganic hazardous constituents.” In other words, heavy metals and other inorganic compounds that otherwise would be inert become soluble in the more acidic water.

Each of the several studies examines a different aspect of the chemical reactions that occur when CO2 is injected into ground water sources. All of them indicate that there are significant chemical changes to the groundwater and at least one study calls these changes to the water “potentially deleterious.”

These effects on ground water are hypothetical and are only worrisome if the underground storage or pipes rupture or are otherwise compromised. But environmentalists say that the hypothetical risk is not worth the meager benefits of the pipelines. “The risks far outweigh the benefits,” says Skokos.

Peg Furshong, director of operations for Clean Up the River Environment (CURE), an environmental group based in Minnesota, agrees. Adding to the poor cost-benefit ratio, Furshong says that the project is wholly inadequate to the need. While the pipeline promises to remove 12 million tons of CO2 per year, “that’s not even a drop in the bucket. The five states in the pipeline path alone generate over 300 million metric tons,” says Furshong.

And the promise of removing 12 million tons of CO2 may be a little overly optimistic. According to Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, a similar CCUS facility at an Archer Daniel Midlands (ADM) ethanol plant in Illinois has yet to meet its promise of capturing 1 million tons of CO2 per year.  According to the EPA, by 2017, after eight years of operation, ADM was storing barely half of what was promised — round 519,000 tons.

Other watchdog groups such as Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) report the same underperformance. According to IEEFA, in countries around the world, every carbon capture program, whether for coal, gas, or ethanol, has failed to meet its performance goals. In many areas the increases in the facilities CO2 emissions outpaces the capture. At the Shute Creek carbon capture plant in Wyoming, routinely vents captured CO2, because there are no buyers.

Skokos says that unlike many national environmental groups NDRC’s first consideration is North Dakota landowners. NDRC sees this CCUS project as an untested, unproven, and expensive experiment, and North Dakota landowners are the guinea pigs. According to Skokos, “Millions of dollars from the Legacy Fund and other taxpayer monies are going into this project with total disregard for the landowners.”

Because of this NDRC will be holding public meetings to inform landowners about the project and to introduce them to the Domina Law Firm. NDRC says it hopes to help landowners understand and preserve their rights as the project moves forward. The first of these meetings will be at the Oakes Community Center on Tuesday, March 8 at 6:00 p.m. in Oakes, ND.

Duane Ninneman, executive director of CURE summarizes:  “As we work to clean up our energy and industrial sectors, there will be an ongoing debate around the role and development of CCUS and bioenergy — and there should be… Corporate executives and their investors should not be the ones who get to dictate what that looks like and who the winners and losers will be. The places and communities we call home and the lives we cultivate here are too precious for that.”

Related stories:

Carbon Capture Project Comes to North Dakota

Carbon Capture Project: The Farmer’s Side of the Story

Carbon Capture Project: The Taxpayer’s Side

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