Q&A: Summit Exec on Status, Safety of Midwest CO2 Pipeline

ENERGYWIRE | Summit Carbon Solutions plans to build the nation’s largest carbon dioxide pipeline — and the safest, according to its chief operating officer. 

In a recent interview with E&E News, Jimmy Powell heralded the pipeline as a crucial part of the nation’s push to decarbonize. When complete, the pipeline will stretch for 2,000 miles, carrying carbon dioxide emissions across five states and injecting the planet-warming gas underground in North Dakota.

Environmental groups are wary of such projects, especially after a 2020 rupture of a Mississippi CO2 pipeline caused local evacuations (Energywire, Nov. 30). But Powell argued that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration would ensure Summit builds a pipeline that has a “very, very low probability” of dangerous failure. 

“This will be the safest, large-scale pipeline ever constructed and operated,” Powell said in a recent interview with E&E News. “And I say that because it’s new construction. It’s being designed, constructed and will be operated under the very stringent guidelines of the federal government.”

Powell spoke to E&E News after the project hit what Summit called a “major milestone”: securing easements for more than half of the proposed pipeline route. That shows “momentum,” he said, for a $4.5 billion project that aims to collect emissions from more than 30 ethanol plants across the Midwest.

“Frankly, we’re ahead of schedule,” said Powell, who has worked at Greenfield Midstream, Kinder Morgan, BP and other oil and gas companies. “I don’t think any pipeline project, at least in my memory, and I’ve been in this business for 30 years, has acquired … over a thousand miles of right of way in 10 months and that’s what we’ve done.”

Meanwhile, Summit sued two Iowa counties last month over local ordinances that would set requirements for the placement of the pipeline. The company claims the ordinances in Story and Shelby counties violate state and federal law because they seek to regulate project permitting, location and safety (Energywire, Nov. 21)

In an interview, Powell spoke to E&E News about pipeline safety, the status of the Summit project and why he thinks public education could drive support for CO2 pipelines.

Can you talk about how significant this milestone is for the project? 

Well, I think it’s hugely significant for a couple of reasons.

It gives us legitimacy. Many landowners — especially landowners that have been involved with infrastructure projects, whether it’s pipeline, transmission line, wind turbine or solar — they understand that there’s a permit component to it. They also understand that the agencies granting these permits, whether it’s local counties or state agencies or federal agencies, require that a certain amount of work is done. Whether it’s engineering, design, [or] right-of-way acquisition … there are several activities that lead up to [agencies] reviewing and granting and ultimately authorizing construction associated with a permit.

Many of these landowners that are pretty savvy in the process, they know that when you get to a point where you’ve acquired a lot of right of way and/or you’re pretty mature in your permitting process … then they know that it’s a serious project.

And so we’ve reached that point now. That gives you a lot of momentum.

What exactly is an easement agreement and how does it work? 

On the project, we have over 6,000 tracts of land, and for every individual parcel or tract, we have to have an easement agreement. It’s a contract, essentially, with the landowner that allows us access to their property to install the pipeline.

And it really has three components. One is crop damages, so if it’s an agricultural use or it’s in pasture grass, there’s a component that addresses how we will reclaim the property. Then the other two components are a temporary access and a permanent access. The temporary access is only available to Summit during construction.

The permanent access will be ours for the life of the easement.

The Biden administration broadly has been supportive of carbon capture and removal projects. How much does that matter for a project like this one? 

Well, I think it matters greatly. So it’s always good to have a push from the top down, so to speak, from the federal government down. You know, it still means that all stakeholders have to be aligned — all the way down in our case to the county level. Sometimes that takes time. But I think it obviously helps from a federal perspective because we are subject to federal permitting, so that’s with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife. So to have a push from the administration that supports projects like these is very, very helpful.  

How important are government policies, such as the 45Q tax credit [for carbon capture projects], to making this project a reality?

Well, I think anything that’s in transition is sometimes helped with incentives, and I think the 45Q and the increase in the value of the 45Q, and even the 45Z, which is the clean fuel production credit, helps projects like this come to reality.

Who assumes liability over the stored carbon dioxide? 

Summit has liability for the first 10 years. And then after the first 10 years the state of North Dakota assumes the liability.

How did you all decide on the number of plants that would be involved in this project? 

Well, it’s simple supply and demand, right, and so our commercial folks reached out to all of the ethanol plants in this footprint and initially had 32 plants that had agreed to join the project, and that was a sufficient number of plants and a sufficient volume of CO2 to justify the capital expenditure.

But as you can imagine, as the project matures … and more people have confidence that it will actually be constructed, more plants are actually approaching Summit about potentially shipping carbon dioxide on our system.

What do you say to critics who raise safety concerns and reference the rupture in Satartia, Miss.? 

This will be the safest, large-scale pipeline ever constructed and operated. And I say that because it’s new construction. It’s being designed, constructed and will be operated under the very stringent guidelines of the federal government, with [the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration]. And to those who say that it’s not regulated by PHMSA, that’s not true … it is heavily regulated.

We are the first large-scale pipeline to utilize or employ PHMSA’s new ruling on valve spacing, which is [that] no valve will be spaced more than 20 miles apart. And then, finally, it’s the product being transported.

Unlike natural gas, crude oil or refined products, it’s not flammable or combustible. So, yes, it is an asphyxiant. It is under high pressure. Any pipeline under high pressure, whether it’s water or anything else, has some level of risk to it. But when compared to other forms of energy products that’s transported [via] pipeline, I think this will be the safest, and that’s borne out by the statistics.

If you look at the last 20 years of PHMSA statistics, there have been no fatalities and one recordable injury in CO2 pipeline operation. So that’s a pretty phenomenal record.

Do you all anticipate having to secure any land through eminent domain? 

We have the right of eminent domain in South Dakota, in North Dakota and in Nebraska today, and if we’re granted a permit by the Iowa Utilities Board, that will also give us the right of eminent domain in Iowa. So, at some point, with over 4,000 landowners and over 6,000 tracts of land on this project, if we have some minor gaps in the system, we may have to follow that process.

But I just want to point out — we’ve had the right of eminent domain for months and we’re still paying premiums to landowners, we’re still negotiating with landowners, we’re not threatening the use of eminent domain. We’re trying to reach agreement with landowners voluntarily without employing the right of eminent domain. But at some point, if there are a few roadblocks to completing the project and we’ve got a large volume of landowners that have agreed to the project, then we may have to consider that.

What permits do you all still need?

Well, largely we need about 3,000 permits. But about 2,900 of those are minor permits — so road use, conditional use, crossing permits with railroads and highway systems — and those are typically fairly short duration. Sixty to 90 days. The large permits — or the potentially impactful permits — are from the three states: South Dakota, North Dakota and Iowa. Actually, four states now with Minnesota because their public utility commission, via rulemaking, has assumed siting responsibility for the project. So we’ll need permits from each of those four entities. And then we’ll also need permits from the [Army] Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

Why do you think this project makes sense, not only for this region, but also for the United States more broadly?

There’s a global push to decarbonize and obviously there’s a United States push to decarbonize. And then it goes all the way down to the local level and it depends on the states — some are pushing decarbonization more aggressively than others.

I think everyone understands that … in an energy transition … you have to do it thoughtfully and practically, so you don’t jeopardize, especially in this country, people’s access to reliable energy sources. So I think our position is … whether or not you think you should eliminate fossil fuels, we think we should try to at least reduce fossil fuel emissions.

And so that’s part of what this project does. It supports agriculture. It supports ethanol. And in our five Midwestern states, agriculture is a huge component of that. And so we think that not only are we reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but we’re also helping with the economies in … not only these five states, but in the 82 counties in which the project will be constructed.  

How important is decarbonizing the ethanol industry, in particular, and is there a reason that this project specifically addresses that sector? 

Well, it’s important in these five states because their economies and their GDPs are largely dependent on agriculture. And that agricultural dependency is primarily corn. And so, these ethanol plants provide the demand for that corn, and it drives up the price.

If you look at, you know, several decades ago before the ethanol industry was in play, the commodity pricing was much, much lower than it is today, so I think the ethanol industry has helped the farmers realize better value for their products. And that’s good for not only the farm, it’s good for land values. So in these states where … half of the corn production essentially on average is sold to ethanol plants, it’s hugely critical for the economies, local and statewide.

Can you comment on the litigation around Story and Shelby counties in Iowa? 

Well, I don’t want to comment on specific litigation. I will just say that the federal government regulates the safety requirements, both design, construction and operation, for a pipeline system like Summit’s constructing. And then in Iowa, for instance, the utility board has jurisdiction over siting or routing of the pipeline. We think that all requirements in both of those areas — so siting and safety — should remain with those two entities. And anyone, whether it’s a county or anyone else, that tries to supersede those requirements could be problematic.

What do you think is one of the most misunderstood things about either this project or carbon dioxide pipelines in general? 

People are usually apprehensive about something that they don’t have a deep understanding about.

You asked a question about safety earlier, so, having worked for a couple of large energy companies — BP and Kinder Morgan — and having responsibility for operating thousands of miles of pipeline in refined service, gas service, crude oil service, I’m going to sleep much better at night operating a pipeline system that’s pushing carbon dioxide, simply because of the risk. The risk is much less to the environment, much less to human beings and the communities in which the pipeline will traverse.

I think once people understand what CO2 … I mean, it’s obviously naturally occurring in the atmosphere, it’s used in fire retardant products and fire prevention, but people don’t understand moving it in a pipeline system. So once we walk through how that will occur, and talk about the design and the construction, they get more comfortable.

I think it’s just educating the public around that, and then I think it’s just understanding that, regardless of your political viewpoint, you can’t transition from fossil fuels overnight. … We think the ethanol industry is a key component to that transition, because it’s a cleaner-burning fuel. We think part of the driver for this project is to extend the runway or the life of ethanol plants and that’s not only positive for the local communities and the farmers, but also for the people that work in those plants and people that have the energy demand in the midwestern United States.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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