Editorial: Carbon pipelines have a long way to go to earn Iowans’ trust

Source: By Editorial Board, Des Moines Register • Posted: Monday, April 11, 2022

If companies want buy-in from Iowans along with government approval of their projects, they should prove that the pipelines can be an effective tool in saving the planet from catastrophic warming.

Three companies propose burying carbon dioxide pipelines underneath hundreds of miles of Iowa soil in order to keep planet-warming gas from entering the atmosphere. It’s tempting to judge their plans solely on some prominent red flags:

  • Bruce Rastetter, the Iowa agriculture magnate whose company is planning the furthest along of the projects, is quite open about his intent to help secure longer-lasting relevance for biofuels — when instead we should be working on what comes after ethanol.
  • The cheerleaders for these plans include former Gov. Terry Branstad, Gov. Kim Reynolds and Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig, three elected officials with abysmal records on water quality. Their hollow assurances about water inspire no confidence that mitigation of global warming is anywhere near top of mind. Too much of the advocacy for the pipelines has zeroed in on profitability.
  • Iowa is only about six years removed from bitter clashes over an oil pipeline that secured permission to knife through the state, and now familiar battles over public use and eminent domain are surfacing.

Many environmental activists oppose the carbon pipelines, whose business model at the outset rests heavily on generous federal tax credits. Spending tens of billions of dollars on climate mitigation is a great idea, groups such as Food and Water Watch argue, but why not put that sort of money toward a quicker pivot away from fossil fuels? Why invest in catching dangerous emissions when that helps perpetuate the creation of those emissions? Or participate in carbon offset markets where fuzzy accounting can mean illusory achievements? Why not focus on a wholesale rethinking of animal and plant agriculture?

Even without broaching the subject of the pipeline companies’ negotiations with the property owners whose land they need, it’s not a slam dunk that the pipelines would benefit the average person.

The red flags are substantial, but they are not the end of the story. Carbon sequestration has real-world virtues, not least of which is that the technology to do it on a non-trivial scale already exists. Iowa’s geology is not suitable for sequestration, which is why carbon captured at our biofuels plants would have to be piped out of state. John Thompson, technology and markets director for the Clean Air Task Force, told this editorial writer that the amount of carbon dioxide emissions the pipelines could eventually displace in one year is comparable to the amount of CO2 emissions from coal that Iowa’s solar and wind energy production has averted in a three-year period.

The pipelines would “make an important dent in our national numbers,” Thompson said.

State legislators, the Iowa Utilities Board and hundreds of property owners will be able to weigh in on this for at least another year, perhaps much longer. Property owners have highlighted concerns about pipeline safety, potential yield losses and the prospect of eminent domain, which reduces their leverage in negotiating voluntary easements.

It is, of course, entirely sensible for the companies and the landowners to hold out for their own best interests. But if the pipelines are worth building, then doing something tangible about emissions should be the most important objective here.

In that scenario, government officials, pipeline executives and regulators should go out of their way to make easement offers attractive and require the utmost care and accountability in building and operating the pipelines. Receiving up to $50 for each metric ton of carbon sequestered seems as if it should give Summit Carbon Solution, Navigator CO2 Ventures and Archer-Daniels-Midland a bit of margin on the acquisition and construction side of things.

Matt Fry, senior policy manager for carbon management with the Great Plains Institute, capsulized the issue for this editorial writer: “We have two basic objectives here as we move forward in this climate solutions issue. One is that we have to have reliable energy sources. We have to have reliable industrial resources. We need all these things to exist as humans.”

The second, he said, is that “we need to meet our mid-century climate objectives,” adding, “Those two aren’t polar opposites. They can co-exist.”

The latest United Nations climate report, issued last week, warns that dramatic, immediate mitigation measures are required to avert an “unlivable world.”

The decision on whether and how these pipelines will move forward rests with the Iowa Utilities Board and, in all likelihood, the courts and their interpretation of eminent domain law. The Iowa Constitution allows private land to be taken by eminent domain “for public use.” Another law says that for the utilities board to grant approval for a hazardous pipeline, it must “promote the public convenience and necessity.”

If companies want buy-in from Iowans along with government approval of their projects, they should concentrate on proving that the pipelines can indeed be an effective tool in saving the planet from catastrophic warming — truly a public “necessity.”

To meet that high standard and earn Iowans’ trust, the entrepreneurs behind the projects must do much more in coming months to support and publicize independent assessments of the technology, its financing and its effectiveness. And Iowa’s regulators and lawmakers must insist on it.

— Lucas Grundmeier on behalf of the Register editorial board

This editorial is the opinion of the Des Moines Register’s editorial board: Carol Hunter, executive editor; Lucas Grundmeier, opinion editor; Rachelle Chase, opinion columnist; and Richard Doak and Rox Laird, editorial board members.

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