Local landowners turn out to hear of proposed pipeline
Tuesday, September 28, 2021
County to name construction inspector next week
Information on a proposed $4.5 billion liquid carbon pipeline held the attention of Dickinson County residents for nearly two hours Thursday.
Summit Carbon Solutions intends to construct some 2,000 miles of pipeline across five Midwest states in order to carry carbon dioxide produced at ethanol plants to underground wells such as one such site near Bismarck, North Dakota. About 20 miles of the proposed Midwest Carbon Express would be located in the eastern side of Dickinson County. The Green Plains ethanol plant in Superior would be located near a junction joining two branches in southern Minnesota with an east-west branch planned for Clay County. Summit officials at Thursday's meeting said they expect the pipeline, which they said would be the largest carbon capture project in the world, will help bolster the ethanol industry and, by extension, benefit Iowans by allowing ethanol to be sold at a premium.
"Enhancing the long-term profitability of ethanol and agriculture is a major driver of this project," Jake Ketzner, Summit's vice president of government and public affairs, said. "Summit Carbon Solutions enables ethanol to be produced more sustainably, allowing it to better compete in a growing, low-carbon world."
An estimated 53 percent of Iowa's corn currently goes to produce fuel at ethanol plants, Ketzner said. Summit has agreements in place with 31 ethanol plants in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota — Iowa alone is home to 12 of those plants. Ketzner said facilities partnering in the project would see a 30-point reduction in their carbon intensity scores, and Summit hopes the plants will be able to produce carbon-neutral fuel by the end of the decade.
Ketzner said the project would allow the plants to sell ethanol to low-carbon fuel markets — such as California, Oregon, Washington and parts of Canada — at a premium, and the extra profit would be split between the plant and Summit Carbon Solutions. The project also intends to take advantage of tax credits put in place during the early years of the Trump Administration, and those credits are expected to account for about 20 percent of the pipeline's post-construction revenue.
Jimmy Powell, Summit's chief operating officer, said the company doesn't plan to start the project until it is fully funded, and construction costs are expected to be covered by a combination of investments and loans. The partnering ethanol plants do not have to put up any capital, according to Summit, but they have the option to invest in the project.
Some in the audience were concerned what would happen to the project and the greater ethanol market if the Biden Administration continues to push support for electric vehicles over the coming decades. Ketzner noted about 2 percent of vehicles are electric at this point, and he feels rural communities like those in Iowa need to position ethanol to be viable in the future. Jesse Harris, a spokesperson for Summit, agreed, saying the company is trying to look at the broader market landscape.
"We still believe very strongly that consumers are going to choose internal combustion engines," Harris said. "There's still going to be a market place for it and based on that, we want to make sure ethanol is well positioned to be able to be successful in the future."
The Iowa Renewable Fuels Association made a statement Friday, saying biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel support nearly 40,000 jobs in Iowa. The organization cited campaign promises made by then-candidate Biden and warned the president in a letter that "If you walk away from ethanol, you walk away from Iowa."
Others in the audience Thursday were concerned the pipeline might also be less useful if the price of corn should increase in the future and potentially draw supply away from the ethanol plants.
The bulk of the pipeline in Dickinson County is currently expected to run south from the Green Plains plant for a little more than a mile before switching to the west side of county road N14, swinging wide west of the city of Terril and crossing into Clay County.
The five-state pipeline would carry an estimated 12 million metric tons of liquid carbon dioxide each year — which Summit said would be equal to the volume of carbon dioxide that could be stored in 14.7 million acres of trees. The carbon will be held in sequestration wells at least a mile below the surface of the earth, where the carbon can fill spaces in permeable rock, while an impervious capstone keeps it from escaping. Ketzner said Iowa doesn't have the geologic footprint for such sites, but he claimed the site near Bismarck alone is capable of holding the entire country's C02 emissions for the next 50 years.
The gas will need to be compressed for transport. Powell said the pipeline will run at no less than 1,300 pounds of pressure per square inch and discharge at around 2,100 pounds per square inch. Some portions of the pipeline are expected to be as wide as 16 inches in Iowa — up to 24 inches in other portions of the project — and others may be as small as 4 inches in diameter. Powell said the pipeline will be buried at least 4 feet underground and typically run at a temperature of about 60 degrees. He didn't foresee it damaging any crops planted in the soil above the pipeline. He said Summit is also willing to pay for crop loss or limited access to fields due to the construction — paying 100 percent of the crop loss the first year, 80 percent the second and 60 percent the third.
Some in the audience expressed concern over potential ruptures of the pressured pipeline. Powell said the severity of the situation would depend on how large the hypothetical rupture might be, but he said Summit intends to hardwire monitors into the pipeline at regular intervals to read pressure, temperature, valve status and other factors from the project's hub in Ames. He said they aim to be able to shut valves within 30 seconds when the need arises. Carbon dioxide is not flammable. Powell noted it in fact stunts combustion, but by the same token, it can cause suffocation.
Ketzner said the U.S. is already home to about 5,000 miles of carbon pipeline which serves 40-plus ethanol plants.
"In the 20 years of carbon pipelines being operational in the United States, there's never been a fatality," Ketzner said.
Powell said the company will have several setback distances from the pipeline depending on the type of work or structure in question. Assistant Spirit Lake Fire Chief Chris Hoerichs said the local fire department would expect to evacuate a 100-meter radius in the event of a C02 leak. Though Hoerichs agreed with the Summit panel in saying the gas is both non-flammable and can dissipate in the air, he warned that lesser concentrations of carbon dioxide can cause loss of concentration and other issues. Hoerichs urged caution and research on the subject.
Josh Byrnes, member of the Iowa Utilities Board, said notice of the pipeline project was given to all landowners along the project's proposed corridor — including those who may not necessarily be in the pipeline's actual path. Summit must wait to apply for the pipeline's permit until after public meetings in each of the 31 counties along the proposed path have been completed. He said the company must also submit a land restoration plan as part of the project — an aspect which the county-level governments will be responsible for inspecting.
Counties may assign the inspection of trench work, back fill, tile repairs and other related work to their respective county engineer's office. Otherwise, Iowa law also allows them to hire a firm to inspect the work on the county's behalf. So far, two proposals for inspection during the Midwest Carbon Express project have been submitted to the Dickinson County Board of Supervisors — one from ISG of Des Moines and the other from Beck Engineering of Spirit Lake. Iowa law also requires Summit to cover costs of the inspection work, meaning the county would bill the pipeline and pass the payment on to a firm – assuming the county hires one at all. Dickinson County Engineer Dan Eckert previously recommended the county hire a firm, as he said it would take a fair amount of preparation and planning for his office to act as inspectors during the project.
The board chose to hold off on the decision until after Thursday's informational meeting. The matter appeared on Tuesday's agenda, but the five-member board chose to allow themselves a bit more time to decide. Supervisor Tim Fairchild — who said he owns property which would be affected by the pipeline — told his fellow board members he wanted to be sure to give both companies a fair shake given the scope and potential revenue involved in the project. Some members of the board had expressed a possible preference in naming the local firm as inspector, but Supervisor Steve Clark indicated the county may need to consider more in this situation.
"I think we need to really be looking at which inspection service is going to best serve the people it most directly affects in that situation," Clark said. "It's a pretty small minority of the property owners over there, but it's a pretty big thing to those people. It has the possibility of affecting those acres of land for a long time. I think we need to make sure it's done right. I think that's our main concern."
The board of supervisors intends to make its decision during the Oct. 5 meeting.
Representatives of both Beck and ISG had previously explained to the board that their workers would not be responsible for inspecting the actual pipeline itself — just the construction work as it relates to preparing and restoring the land it crosses. However, Byrnes said Thursday that the designated inspector would have the power to put a hold on construction if Summit's restoration plan were violated. In addition, Summit would be required to inform landowners as to who will be conducting the inspections.
Summit intends to begin construction work on the pipeline in 2023 and have the Midwest Carbon Express operational by 2024, according to Thursday's panel. The pipeline is designed with a lifespan of at least 25 years — the same length of time its state permit would be valid. Powell said, with proper care, the pipeline could last much longer, and he cited a gasoline pipeline he had worked with in the past which was built in the 1950s and is still operational today.
Under Iowa Code, landowners may require the pipeline be removed from their land if the company ceases to use it.
Thursday's public meeting was just the first step in the Midwest Carbon Express' potential approval. In addition to dozens of in-person meetings, the Iowa Utilities Board will host a virtual information session on Oct. 12. Interested parties may sign up for the virtual session through iub.iowa.gov. IUB member Josh Byrnes made several points local landowners may find helpful as the process continues:
• Landowners may submit official written comment for the IUB to consider during its review process — only written comment will be considered
• Summit Carbon Solutions may not begin to negotiate property easements with landowners until after all public informational meetings are complete.
• Property easements do not transfer ownership to Summit Carbon Solutions.
• If eminent domain is granted for a property, landowners have the right to fair compensation and may be able to enter negotiations before condemnation proceedings, retain legal counsel of their choosing and collect legal fees for some expenses.
• Surveyors are to give landowners 10 days notice before entering the property.
• Surveying a property does not commit a landowner to an agreement.
• Iowa law allows a landowner to back out of an easement agreement within seven days.