Some answers to questions regarding carbon pipelines

Benjamin Chase/Plainsman A proposed carbon pipeline would transport carbon from site throughout the region, including that generated at the Glacial Lakes Energy plant in Huron.

HURON — A proposed carbon pipeline would run through sections of Beadle County and likely involve other areas of the Plainsman reading audience. A recent decision by the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) pushed back the formal plans for the route of the pipeline indefinitely, but with the ethanol plant on the West side of Huron, adjacent land owners are sure to be affected, no matter where the pipeline heads from that point.

So what exactly is a carbon pipeline? Who is building it? What are the benefits? What are the drawbacks?

Let’s try to dig into all of that.

What is a ‘carbon pipeline’?

While using pipelines to transport liquids over long distances has been a practice since clay sewer pipes were used by the Babylonians in 4,000 B.C., capturing and transporting liquid carbon is a new idea that is being proposed and working through legislatures in multiple upper Midwest states.

The basic idea of the pipeline focuses on capturing the carbon that is emitted during the process of producing ethanol at ethanol plants.

Currently, the majority of that carbon is sent into the atmosphere. In the case of a pipeline, that carbon would be captured in gas format, cooled until it is liquid, and then transported in a pipeline.

There are multiple carbon-capture pipelines currently proposed in the country, but the primary one that is being proposed through Beadle County is proposed by Summit Carbon Solutions, a company based in Ames, Iowa.

The pipeline would capture carbon from more than 30 ethanol plants in five states, transporting carbon from Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska through South Dakota to the final destination in North Dakota, where the carbon would be stored in deep mines that have open voids.

In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put together a set of regulations intended to put forth requirements for how carbon must be stored.

Part of those regulations include receiving a permit at the carbon injection well site from the EPA. At this time, there is not an approved nor a pending well site in North Dakota.

What will it save?

According to Summit’s proposal, its $4.5 billion project would put 12 million tons of carbon into underground storage each year rather than putting it into the atmosphere.

While the reduction of carbon from the atmosphere is a positive thing, Stanford University professor Mark Jacobson conducted multiple studies at a coal plant, using two different carbon capture technologies, and found that the non-biologic carbon removed from the atmosphere was very limited.

After testifying in front of the Iowa legislature in March about proposed ethanol carbon capture pipelines, Jacobson stated to National Public Radio (NPR) that finding ways to produce ethanol and/or drive more efficiently will have a much larger impact on the carbon emissions than carbon capture would.

“The real issue is it’s not a question of whether we should use ethanol versus gasoline,” Jacobson told NPR. “It’s really a question of whether we should use gasoline or ethanol when we have much more efficient vehicles, namely, electric vehicles.”

What is the proposal locally?

The current proposal from Summit Carbon Solutions is actually hard to nail down due to the PUC’s indefinite extension for the pipeline’s final route. Without a final route, even which land the pipeline could impact is unknown at this point.

What is known is that the proposal from Summit includes a steel pipeline that would range in diameter from four to 24 inches and be buried at least four feet underground. Landowners will have a 50-foot minimum easement for all pipeline sizes, with larger pipelines having larger easements.

Pipeline depth and setbacks can be negotiated by the landowner with Summit.

Right now, the proposal allows for crop damage reparations for three years, with nothing after the third year.

Is it safe?

There have been incidents of carbon pipeline leaks, with the most notable being a pipeline owned by Denbury, Inc., which ruptured in February 2020 due to movement in the soil caused by heavy rain.

That leak left 49 people hospitalized and 300 residents of Sartartia, Miss. were forced to evacuate.

The Sartartia leak only recently had an investigation completed by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, and the findings from that investigation indicate that federal standards for carbon pipelines will likely change notably after the incident.

How will it be regulated?

Currently, South Dakota is not regulating carbon pipelines through the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources (DANR), which is the department tasked with such regulation.

This means it is left to  individual counties to propose ordinances and guidelines within the county regarding pipeline depth and setback.

At a recent Beadle County Commission meeting, a Summit Carbon Solutions representative stated that Summit does not believe local governments should be regulating construction of pipelines. The indication is that Summit would prefer a statewide guideline rather than attempting to negotiate a host of individual county ordinances in construction of the pipeline.

With the DANR not putting forth any standards and as the PUC has not set any deadlines for Summit to present a finalized pipeline route, landowners cannot truly know whether their land will even be impacted by the construction of a pipeline.

This could make the signing of legally-binding easements for landowners premature until the DANR or PUC have a defined path or layout for what expectations may be for Summit, or any company, considering the construction of a similar pipeline in the future.