By Leanna First-Arai
Farmers, ranchers, and other rural community members across five Great Plains states and Illinois — many of whom were previously sued by developers of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines wanting to build through their land — are finding their property, safety and livelihoods encroached upon yet again by corporations. This time, they’re coming up against developers, many with fossil fuel ties, who are seeking to cash in on climate solutions tax credits to build a massive network of carbon dioxide (CO2) pipelines across the United States.
The concept of whisking away carbon pollution from industrial facilities to inject into caverns below the Earth’s crust for storage is at least a 15-year-old concept. In 2007, Lee Raymond, the former CEO of ExxonMobil called the practice “the Holy Grail on coal-fired power plants,” noting, however, that more comprehensive carbon capture, transit and sequestration systems for other industrial facilities would be a “huge, huge undertaking” that has “never been demonstrated at scale.”
Since then, various iterations of maps have emerged in government documents and those produced by energy-focused nonprofits including the Clean Air Task Force and the Carbon Capture Coalition, offering a snapshot into a potential future network of tens of thousands of miles of carbon dioxide pipelines and utilization or disposal sites. The maps depict nodes and arteries snaking from southern Maine and northern Montana all the way to the Gulf Coast, and waggling through Idaho, the Pacific Northwest and California.
Among the largest pipe systems in the works is the Midwest Carbon Express, which is being developed by Summit Carbon Solutions. As the Des Moines Register reported, $250 million of the $4.5 billion project will be funded by the largest oil driller in North Dakota, Continental Resources, whose founder, Harold Hamm, helped popularize fracking. The network is designed to shuttle carbon pollution from ethanol plants in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and South Dakota some 2,000 miles, to be sunk underground in Bismarck, North Dakota.
Another CO2 pipeline planned for the area, but extending further southeast into Illinois, is called the Heartland Greenway. It’s a project of Navigator CO2 Ventures, and is designed to accomplish a similar objective, ultimately storing CO2 below ground in central Illinois. The Heartland Greenway is expected to be 1,300 miles long.
As currently planned, the Midwest Carbon Express is slated to cross through the sandy soil of the Krutz family farm in Orchard, Nebraska, where Beverly Krutz, a retired second-grade teacher, lives with her husband, Robert Krutz, an ex-dairy farmer. The couple grows native grasses to feed cattle, which they’ve been doing for 36 years. “This is what we live and survive for,” Beverly Krutz told Truthout.
Back in 2015, the couple refused to negotiate the sale of an easement — legal access to a portion of their property — to TC Energy, the company that sought to build the now-canceled Keystone XL pipeline. Representatives repeatedly showed up on their land uninvited, parking 10 vehicles deep along the road abutting the Krutzes’ pasture, ducking under the fence, escorted by the sheriff, and surveying the land against the Krutzes’ will.
Developers were granted the power of eminent domain, which they used to sue the Krutzes. They won, and gained access to the Krutzes’ land.
But in July 2021, the Keystone XL pipeline was canceled. On account of a new legal “easement team” co-op formed by a firm called Domina Law, the Krutzes, along with dozens of other landowners, got their easements back. TC Energy was forced to pay all the families’ legal fees.
They thought they’d dodged a bullet, but just weeks later, in August 2021, the Krutzes got another letter, which eerily resembled the one from TC Energy. This time, it was Summit Carbon Solutions that wanted to survey their land and negotiate an easement.
“It feels like you’re a little pawn. The big people get to step on you all the time,” Bob Krutz said. “You’re nothing but a pebble on the ground.”
In addition to their opposition to the concept of eminent domain for private gain, the Krutzes can’t imagine their sandy soil would keep a pipeline down for long. When Nebraska was hit by historic flooding in 2019, most of their pasture was underwater. Had the Keystone XL been built, the Krutzes said, “anything that would have been buried … would have been on top of the ground.”
The Krutzes worry first and foremost about the risk of an explosion, citing the rupture of a CO2 pipeline in Satartia, Mississippi, in 2020, which sickened dozens. That incident was the first of its kind anywhere in the world, as the head of the World Health Organization, Marcelo Korc, told HuffPost.
Their worries are grounded in developers’ apparent rush to cash in on “45Q” tax credits, first made available in 2008, which enable companies to earn around $30 per metric ton of CO2 sequestered each year. Bolstered by the Biden administration, that payment is on track to increase to $50 per metric ton by 2026. So, if an average coal-burning power plant is outfitted with the technology to capture and bury even just half of the plant’s annual CO2 emissions, developers involved would be eligible for an estimated $100 million in tax credits for one year (in 2026 dollars), or $1.2 billion over the first 12 years of the pipeline’s life. To qualify for the credit, facilities must be built by 2026. So, the gold rush is on. “It feels like you’re a little pawn. The big people get to step on you all the time.”
The systems have many skeptics. Climate experts acknowledge that CO2 does indeed need to be removed from the atmosphere. But many of the highest-profile projects have been found to ultimately release more carbon dioxide than they store. At an ExxonMobil carbon capture project near LaBarge, Wyoming, only three percent of captured CO2 has actually been permanently sequestered underground, while the remainder has been used to inject into the earth to recover more oil from depleted wells, or vented into the atmosphere, according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
Carbon dioxide has distinctly different properties from the kinds of petroleum-based liquids that currently run through our pipeline networks. According to Pipeline Safety Trust, when CO2 is released from a pipeline, it’s heavier than air. Invisible plumes can crawl across various types of terrain, then settle in low-lying areas, like valleys and ravines. The gas is an asphyxiant and can lead to death, in addition to depriving emergency response vehicles of oxygen and stalling them, significantly slowing or impeding rescue operations.
In the midst of the flurry of proposed lines, existing policies do not ensure the safe transport of the gas, Bill Caram, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, said in a statement in March, ahead of the release of a full report on the matter. “There are little to no regulations around appropriate siting, limiting dangerous and corrosive impurities, or building the pipelines to withstand the unique properties of transporting high pressure CO2,” Caram said.
While the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration — the federal agency charged with regulating pipelines — does regulate pipes transporting CO2 at concentrations above 90 percent, developers dealing with less-pure CO2 can currently operate without complying with any oversight, the report details.
Kert Davies is director of the Climate Investigations Center, which filed a flurry of Freedom of Information Act requests in 2021 to state and federal agencies to obtain more comprehensive information on the hushed network of carbon capture pipelines across the U.S., following the explosion in Satartia. Davies told Truthout that the existing plans are on track to add additional risks for residents of rural and urban areas already overburdened with industrial facilities — “where everything else has been put.”
“You’re going to put [them] in poor people’s neighborhoods, along industrial corridors that are already heavily impacted communities,” Davies said. “You’re not going to put [them], you know, through Lexington, Massachusetts.”
The documents the Climate Investigations Center obtained allude to some 100,000 miles of CO2 pipelines in total. “It means there’s going to be a thousand eminent domain fights across the country,” Davies added.
One of these fights is brewing in Dixon County, Nebraska, where Shelli Meyer grew up helping to raise cattle and hogs. Meyer’s farm has been in the family for four generations. Just days ahead of the holidays, in December 2021, her father handed her a letter that had arrived from Heartland Greenway. “The look on his face I’ll never forget,” she said. “All he could see in the letter was ‘eminent domain.’”
Meyer’s grandparents had managed to hold onto their farm through the farm crisis of the 1930s. Her parents did the same during a wave of farm bankruptcies in the 1980s, which ultimately resulted in the number of U.S. farms dropping from 300,000 to 30,000. The thought of having a portion of that land seized to bury a pipeline with unknown risks after the “blood, sweat and tears” it’s taken to keep the farm afloat has been devastating, filling the family and surrounding community with “stress and anxiety,” Meyer said.
When a developer is granted the power of eminent domain by a state agency, it is required to prove its project is for “public use.” Much like midstream oil and gas pipeline developers that came before them, developers like Summit and Navigator appear to be leaning on the argument that thousands of jobs will be created through the pipeline’s construction and operation.
They’re also making the case that the project will support farming communities, which Meyer doesn’t buy. One flier she received from Summit reads: “Our project is a win for every farmer in Nebraska, as well as a critical step in helping future generations of farmers enjoy strong corn prices and high land values for decades to come.”
Meyer says that this is illogical, and it’s insulting that developers think farmers will fall for it. In actuality, some landowners worry their insurance companies might drop their policies if a CO2 pipeline is built through their property, and they’d be left uninsured, which would have grave implications for property values.
In the coming months, landowners including the Krutzes and Meyer will connect as best they can with others in the same position in Nebraska and beyond. Organizations including the Sierra Club and Dakota Rural Action are preparing for hearings in Iowa and South Dakota, scheduled for the fall. Meyer, the Krutzes and dozens of other residents will turn to the Nebraska arm of an innovative legal co-op which helped cancel and reverse easements for landowners impacted by Keystone XL, the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines.
“The bright side is that landowners, I think because of Dakota Access, because of Keystone XL, because of all these other pipelines around the country have seen the damage that pipelines do to property, especially farmland, that they’re really stepping up and standing up,” Jane Kleeb, of Bold Nebraska, a citizen advocacy group, said. “But our federal and state governments are way behind where the citizens are.”
Leanna First-Arai is a freelance journalist who covers environmental and climate (in)justice. Her work has appeared in Undark, Sierra Magazine, Yes! Magazine, Outside Magazine, on New England Public Radio and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter: @FirstArai.
This article was published on April 9, 2022, at Truthout.org.