Analysis: US Carbon Capture Pipeline Setbacks Reflect Challenges in Climate Fight

(Reuters) — A series of permit rejections for two high-profile carbon pipeline projects in the U.S. Midwest could bode poorly for carbon capture and storage (CCS) as a widespread solution to climate change, reflecting deep-seated public concern about its risks and environmental impacts.

Iowa-based Summit Carbon Solutions and Nebraska-based Navigator CO2 Ventures have both proposed huge pipelines to move carbon siphoned from Midwest ethanol plants to underground storage sites in other states, the most ambitious projects of their kind to date.

In North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois, however, the companies have had their permit applications rejected, or have had to slow work due to concerns from landowners along the proposed routes about safety and impacts to farms.

Whether the companies can ultimately sway state officials to approve their projects is a major test for CCS in the U.S., the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind China.

The administration of President Joe Biden sees CCS as critical to reaching the nation's goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 and included big tax credits in the Inflation Reduction Act for CCS projects.

CCS could also be a major theme at November's United Nations COP28 climate summit in Dubai, where oil- and gas-producing states are expected to advocate for the technology as a way to cut emissions without eliminating fossil fuels.

CCS technology has been around for years but has never taken off in part because it is expensive and unproven at scale. There are 15 operational commercial CCS projects in the U.S., with the collective capacity to store about 21 million tons of carbon - about 0.34% of the nation's emissions - according to the Global CCS Institute.

The backlash to the pipeline projects has shown that clean energy projects could have a hard time wooing critical public support, said Sasha Mackler, executive director of the energy program at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

"The problems on the ground associated with getting the permits and the local buy-in have proven to be a lot more complicated than many of us expected," Mackler said.

Landowners along Summit and Navigator's proposed routes have complained of a lack of transparency from the companies. Many are coordinating across state lines to oppose the projects, supported by environmental groups like the Sierra Club that have fought other pipeline projects like Keystone XL.

Navigator spokesperson Andy Bates said the company is conducting its outreach to landowners "in accordance with our core values of collaboration, transparency, and safety."

Summit spokesperson Sabrina Zenor said the company has secured easements for 75% of its project route and that it is continuing to work with landowners to answer questions and address concerns about the project.

State Hurdles

Navigator and Summit hope to capture as much as 27 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually from ethanol plants and transport it through than 3,300 miles (5,310 km) of pipeline to underground storage sites for permanent sequestration.

But both companies have had difficulty.

South Dakota's state utility board in September rejected both pipelines' permit applications, citing Navigator's lack of landowner support for its project and Summit's inability to comply with local siting ordinances.

North Dakota, the location of Summit's proposed storage site, denied the company's permit application in August because of concerns about potential harms to the environment and residents.

Navigator in February restarted its application process in Illinois, where it hopes to store its carbon, after failing to reach land agreements with enough residents living over the proposed storage site by a regulatory deadline.

Summit said it plans to reapply for its permit in South Dakota and that North Dakota regulators are currently considering its revised permit application.

Navigator said it is assessing next steps in South Dakota and in the meantime is pausing its work to sign on landowners in some parts of that state and in Iowa.

The pipelines have not yet faced decision points in Minnesota or Iowa, where both would need permits from state regulators. Summit is in the midst of a weeks-long hearing in Iowa.

Nebraska, which would house both pipelines, has no state regulatory process for carbon pipelines.

Clean energy infrastructure projects need to educate communities on risks and benefits, and engage residents early or they risk existential setbacks, said Sanya Carley, co-director of the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Extreme opposition at multiple points (of a pipeline) makes it very challenging for development," Carley said.

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