Linn County residents, environmental groups resisting CO2 pipeline efforts

Hundreds of Linn County residents filed into Veteran Memorial Building to ask questions of Navigator officials pushing a 1,300 mile carbon dioxide pipeline that crosses through Eastern Iowa. CREDIT NOAH TONG

A proposed carbon dioxide pipeline by Texas-based Navigator CO2 Ventures, called Heartland Greenway, that would run through the Corridor is drawing heavy criticism from residents and environmental groups. 

Amid an overwhelming sense of skepticism, worry, and in many cases, anger, the plan’s critics argue not enough detailed information on the route is publicly available for residents to be properly informed, the pipeline is potentially unsafe and Navigator does not have the residents’ best interests in mind. 

Perhaps the most common complaint during an informational meeting in Linn County on Dec. 6 was that affected residents did not receive detailed maps of the pipeline’s route in preparation for the meeting, leaving many residents frustrated and having to guess.

“You gave me a third grade map. This is a dog and pony show and you’re talking about condemning people’s land,” said one meeting attendee who identified himself as an engineer and property owner.

Iowa Utilities Board chair Geri Huser acknowledged in the future they could require companies to submit more detailed maps before the meeting.

“We are required to have this informational meeting before we can declare or let the company provide additional information,” she said. “Some companies provide us with very generic maps, but there are no rules that set out what has to come at this point in the process. Once we declare this meeting is complete, then they can give you a more detailed map.”

Navigator made their case for the pipeline, referencing the economic and environmental benefits that would follow, in what is the first step in the permit process. The company cannot file a permit for the complete pipeline until February at the earliest.

The cold reception toward Navigator was widespread at Veterans Memorial Building that night. Steve Pisarik, a farmer, asked the crowd to raise their hands if they were in favor of the pipeline going through their property. No one raised their hands. 

The pipeline, stretching 1,300 miles and through Benton, Linn and Iowa counties, captures carbon dioxide emissions at 20 different receipt points from ethanol and fertilizer plants before it reaches the atmosphere, transports it in liquefied form and stores it underground in Illinois. It is capable of storing up to 15 million tons of carbon dioxide per year once fully expanded, according to Navigator documents.

“There’s a real risk the pipes will rupture and that the CO2 will escape,” said Wally Taylor, attorney for the Sierra Club, a prominent environmental group opposing carbon pipelines in Iowa. “CO2 is an asphyxiant, which means it stops you from breathing, but it also has a lot of toxic effects as well.”

A CO2 pipeline rupture in Mississippi one year ago hospitalized 49 residents. The incident caused cars to shut off, with drivers leaving their vehicles to walk around “gasping for air, nauseated and dazed,” according to the Huffington Post. A local sheriff officer at the time said the scene looked like something you’d see in a zombie movie. 

Jimmy Powell, a chief operating officer for Summit Carbon Solutions, said at a public meeting that the Mississippi pipeline also contained hydrogen sulfide gas, which made the leak much more dangerous, according to the Des Moines Register.

Mr. Taylor called that rebuttal “baloney” in an interview with the CBJ before the Linn County meeting, saying that it is unknown how much hydrogen sulfide was in the pipeline and that carbon dioxide is still a significant health risk on its own. Steve Lee, senior vice president of engineering for Navigator, told the audience that the level of hydrogen sulfide in the pipeline was above 100 parts per million, an unsafe level for the Mississippi pipeline.

Navigator insists the $3 billion plan is safe, stating that there are more than 5,000 miles of CO2 pipelines operational in the United States today. The pipeline, said Navigator vice president of public and governor affairs Elizabeth Burns-Thompson, will exceed federal and state regulations and will be buried a minimum of 60 inches below the ground’s surface. Additionally, the pipeline will be monitored 24 hours a day, routine maintenance and inspections will be conducted, and the pipe will meet all necessary standards to not rust once underground.

But although the plan is supposed to “avoid population centers and sensitive and protected lands,” Linn County residents expressed alarm that the pipeline would come in close proximity with the Mount Vernon Community School District, the College Community School District and the Palisades-Kepler State Park. The Navigator officials said this was an oversight and they welcome all feedback so they can improve and change the route.

“The sole reason for these projects is to keep the ethanol industry going,” said Mr. Taylor. He believes carbon pipelines don’t come close to helping the environment as much as renewable energy. 

“From our experience with the Dakota Access Pipeline … you can see five or six years later where the pipeline is by the fact that the crops aren’t as good in that easement area,” he added. As a result, he says the value of the land often decreases when pipelines are involved.

Navigator thinks assertions of ‘greenwashing’ from the Linn County residents are untrue, and says the pipeline represents “substantial progress” toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the state. 

They also denied that they would engage in a process called Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR), where carbon dioxide is mostly used to squeeze oil out of existing wells, at any point in their process. Often opposed by environmentalists and clean energy advocates, other pipelines have used EOR in the past.

Commercially backed by Valero Energy and financed by BlackRock, a New York investment company, meeting attendees expressed their disapproval of what they see as outside interests propping up the ethanol industry instead of respecting the wishes of state residents.

At the conclusion of the Linn County informational meeting, Ms. Huser stated that Navigator sufficiently answered statutory questions, granting the company approval to begin easement negotiations with residents. Easements may also be obtained through eminent domain.

Navigator will offer three years of compensation for crop loss and damages via the easement payments, while those who use the land for non-farming purposes will be negotiated individually. Several attendees asked if they could be compensated in the form of royalties over many years because the pipeline will be on their property for decades. Navigator said there are no plans to negotiate in such a way at this time.

In-depth maps were then emailed to residents in the affected areas showing exactly where the pipeline would be located as of now. Similar meetings will take place this month and in January in the remaining counties the pipeline will pass through.

Summit Carbon Solutions are simultaneously attempting to construct their own 2,000-mile pipeline throughout western and north-central Iowa.

If the Iowa Utilities Board believes the proposal is beneficial for the common good and approves the pipeline, construction will take place from spring 2024 to summer 2025 and will be operational “decades upon decades” said Ms. Burns-Thompson. The plan would create 8,000 contract positions and an estimated 80 permanent jobs.