DANGEROUS: Here’s What Iowans Need to Know About Carbon Pipeline Ruptures


Climate and Energy

by Emma Schmit

Two years ago, on a quiet winter night in the small town of Satartia, Mississippi, a fog sucked the oxygen out of the air. Cars rolled to a stop. Folks collapsed in their homes. The culprit — a nearby carbon pipeline had ruptured. 

Dan Zegart was the first national journalist to investigate the catastrophe, which hospitalized 49. Now, he’s covering the fight against pipelines in Iowa, where three corporations are plotting 3,000 miles of pipeline. 

These pipelines are part of the dirty energy industry’s newest scam: carbon capture and storage. Companies claim that they’ll store the CO2 carried by these lines safely underground. That they’ll help reduce emissions and fight climate change. But it won’t work, and it’s not safe. 

In an interview with our Senior Iowa Organizer Emma Schmit, Dan lays out dangers and risks of carbon pipelines. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Dan Zegart, investigative journalist, sits down with Emma Schmit, FWW's senior Iowa organizer

“I Was Surprised By The Sheer Level Of Chaos.”

You broke the story on how dangerous these pipelines can be. What took you by surprise going into it? 

The people in Satartia were not prepared. They were not notified by the company that this could happen. They had very little knowledge about the pipeline, and that didn’t really surprise me that much. 

But what did surprise me was the graveness, how bad the injuries were. People who had COPD under control who are now on inhalers full time. People who are disoriented still, have memory problems. One of the most seriously injured people can’t recognize his friends on the street. He can’t hold a job because he can’t remember what he’s supposed to do.

I was surprised by the sheer level of chaos that this caused this little place. And the heroic, almost battlefield mentality of the first responders who went in.

The folks who had been overcome by CO2 were wandering around, disorientated. Their cars had stalled because the CO2 displaces oxygen. They wandered into town, had absolutely no idea where they were.

When one of the first responders got to this one couple, they were so out of it he had to scream at them, “Get in my truck or you’re gonna die!” They still didn’t understand, so he had to physically put them into his truck. 

So think about that in the context of, let’s say, a break near a school, an old folks home, a strip mall. What’s gonna happen to those people? How are they gonna get to them without internal combustion engines? They’re not! There’s no guaranteed path to safety. 

Carbon Pipelines Are “A Much More Hazardous Type of Pipeline.”

What did the accident at Satartia teach us about carbon pipelines? 

We found that you can’t necessarily predict where the plume of CO2 is gonna go, how long it’s gonna be in the air. All the models that had been done to predict it — those were all wrong. So we’re back to the drawing board as far as engineering these pipelines. 

It’s back to the drawing board for public health, too, because no one knew it could have this kind of impact. And it’s back to the drawing board on the regulations side, because we know we need stronger safety regulations and much more scrutiny on this technology. 

The ones talking about carbon pipelines say, “We’ve been able to do it with this product, we can do it with CO2.” Nope! You can’t. It’s not something that should just be grandfathered in as, “Oh, it’s just another pipeline.” It’s actually, in many ways, a much more hazardous type of pipeline.

The people in Satartia were the guinea pigs. They were sacrificed for this technology. And unless we want a lot more sacrifices like that, we better put a stop to this because we don’t know what we’re doing.

The burst pipeline in Satartia blew a crater in the ground and powdered the surrounding dirt with white.
Image of the 24-inch pressurized pipe ruptured in Yazoo County forcing more than 300 residents to evacuate and sent 49 people to hospitals for treatment, according to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. Image courtesy of Yazoo County Emergency Management Agency

Big Oil Knows That Carbon Pipelines “Allow Them To Stay Alive Longer.” 

What are your thoughts on these three pipelines proposed for Iowa?

These companies jumped in for no other reason than the federal government is offering a tremendous amount of money for carbon capture and sequestration projects to be built. 

The amount of carbon that they’re actually going to sequester is tiny compared to what’s already going into our atmosphere. Trivial. If the current proposals for carbon capture were all built, and we built the additional 65,000 miles of pipeline to accommodate them, that would only take care of about 15% of current emissions.

But emissions are continuing to go up, and that will become an even smaller percentage. And in the meantime, we’re gonna forgo opportunities to produce less carbon, as we move through the century.

Why, after knowing all the safety concerns, how this technology doesn’t work, are we still trying to make carbon capture happen?

Because the oil companies have realized that the prospect, even the idea of carbon capture, allows them to stay alive longer. Maybe they’ll never have to change if we bury the emissions. 

Unfortunately, carbon has no value. CO2 is the industry’s waste. So they’re forcing taxpayers to pay to throw out their garbage. Nobody else gets paid to throw out their garbage. We don’t subsidize restaurants to throw out their rotting fish. That’s up to them.  

“No One Wants To Be Poisoned.”

In Iowa, this issue has brought your standard rural Republican together with your left wing Democrat. Why has this issue resonated and overcome the divide that has grown over the past decade?

First of all, it attacks what in many ways is a fundamental value in our democratic system, in our capitalist system, which is that private property is sacrosanct.

If you can’t own your own land without some for-profit company coming in, and their product is not even gonna help you, then anybody could do it. Some landowners went through that already with Keystone XL or the Dakota Access Pipeline. They’re not having it this time. 

And I think the other issue that’s brought this very unusual coalition together is safety. No one wants to be poisoned, and there’s a good chance of that with these pipelines. 

It’s extraordinary because I’ve been in meetings where you have 100 farmers and 15 or 20 people who are definitely on the climate side of things. You’ll have people who voted for Trump, people who voted for Biden, or Bernie, or whomever, and that stuff doesn’t ever get in the way. 

People just talk to each other as neighbors. That’s the American way, you know. Coalition-building. It’s supposed to be. You have the makings of a movement in people talking to each other, people putting their differences aside. There aren’t many examples of that in American life in 2022. 

We Can Stop Carbon Pipelines When We Stand Together.

What would you say to folks who are currently fighting pipelines near them?

I’ve covered 10 or 12 of these pipeline fights. They weren’t carbon pipelines, because this is the first time this technology is being built. But in those dozen or so, a few of them have failed. The infrastructure was rejected, or the people who were funding it had had enough. 

With the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, one of the biggest projects on the drawing board was stopped dead. Investors pulled out. The Mountain Valley Pipeline was all but done before this whole side deal came up between Biden and Manchin. 

There’s tremendous resistance that’s been built. So if you don’t think you can stop this — it can be stopped. And the common element in all the successes is people standing together.

Iowans, tell the state Utilities Board to say NO to dangerous carbon pipelines!

An Economist Breaks Down The Costs of Carbon Pipelines In Iowa


Food SystemClimate and Energy

by Emma Schmit

Iowans are facing a monumental threat in a David-and-Goliath showdown: it’s the people against the pipelines and their dirty energy backers. The proposed hazardous pipelines would carry carbon dioxide from ethanol and fertilizer facilities across 2,000 miles in Iowa. They would extend thousands of miles across five states from Illinois to North Dakota, bolstering a failing technology known as “carbon capture.”

Three corporations stand to profit from polluting industries’ latest scam. The projects are eligible for billions of taxpayer dollars earmarked for climate action, without actually making a dent in the climate crisis. Food & Water Watch is helping Iowans fight the projects every step of the way.

This week, Senior Iowa Organizer Emma Schmit corresponded with Dr. Silvia Secchi to discuss the proposed pipelines. Dr. Secchi is an economist and professor at the University of Iowa’s Department of Geographical and Sustainability Sciences. She is a published author on the environmental impacts of agricultural land use in the Corn Belt. Her research focuses on the relationship between agricultural, conservation and energy policy in the region. 

In this interview, Emma and Dr. Secchi talk about the projects’ unfair costs to Iowans and our alternatives to actually fight climate change. We’ve edited this interview for clarity and length. 

Carbon Capture Will Benefit Corporations, Not Iowans

What’s your stance on Iowa’s proposed carbon pipelines? What’s your top concern?

I wouldn’t say that I oppose the proposed carbon pipelines, but the science shows that they aren’t a good carbon mitigation strategy. The only reason they’re being considered is because of who the beneficiaries are and their political clout in both parties. They don’t make any sense otherwise — socially, economically and environmentally. 

My main concern is that the public truly understands these issues, because we are literally paying for the pipelines through federal subsidies. The pipelines would not be built without them. It is critical that we have clear, evidence-based conversations on costs and benefits. That includes who benefits and who pays for these projects; what we call the distributional effects. 

Let me give you an example: if a project costs $100 million and the benefits are $200 million, you may say it makes sense. But if the $200 million go to Jeff Bezos and people in rural Iowa pay the $100 million, would you still go ahead? And with the pipelines, the benefits are clearly not higher than the costs to start with.

Pipeline companies have often exaggerated the societal benefits they generate. Have you seen this with any of the Iowa projects?

Yes, I have. It is common for these companies to hire consultants who, on the basis of data provided by the company itself, estimate egregious and inaccurately high benefits. This has been the case for the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone, and now for the ethanol CO2 pipelines. 

I urge everybody to look at the disclaimers that are present in these reports. They essentially say that the report is a PR stunt and should not be used for any other purpose. It is particularly important that elected officials don’t take these reports’ claims at face value, because they aren’t vetted and aren’t peer reviewed.

We Don’t Need Carbon Capture To Tackle Climate Change

Proponents pitch carbon capture as critical technology to address the climate crisis. But it actually stands to increase the profits of dirty energy corporations. What are some legitimate practices we can implement instead to mitigate the climate crisis?

I am so glad you asked this question because this is the really critical one. Our agricultural system is a big contributor to climate change. One of the main reasons is that it’s very reliant on fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are in artificial fertilizers and pesticides. They’re integral to confinement operations (factory farms) and the overproduction of livestock animals.

If we modified our agricultural system, which exists as it does because of federal subsidies and not because of market forces, we could help both the climate and rural communities. Those changes could include less fossil fuel-intensive inputs, such as artificial fertilizer. We could also raise fewer animals (and use their manure as fertilizer) and add more perennial plants to the landscape. 

Former Iowa State University Professor Matt Liebman talked about some of these changes in our “We All Want Clean Water” podcast. These are solid, science-backed changes, and we could implement them all through the Farm Bill. These changes make a lot more sense socially, economically and environmentally than doubling down on corn ethanol.

Iowans Are United: No Carbon Pipelines!

In Iowa, the proposed carbon pipelines are creating unlikely alliances, from farmers and environmentalists to folks from both sides of the aisle. 

In your opinion, why has carbon capture become both a unifying issue?

A lot of credit has to go to the organizers on the ground who have done an amazing job listening to people. They’ve made the concerns really apparent to the rest of us. I think that people in Iowa really understand who the beneficiaries of the pipelines are. 

These types of projects have short-lived economic benefits that largely go to specialized corporations and contractors from out of state, but the environmental risks and costs are long-term. 

They’ll fall on local communities that do not have the resources to address them and should not be asked to. People in rural Iowa can see that they will be stuck with the costs of these projects for a very long time. 

With what’s happening with the pipelines, we have a real opportunity to think about the future of the Heartland. We can think about how we spend public money to address climate change and help rural communities.

What else do Iowans need to know about these projects?

The oil and gas industry is a big proponent of carbon capture. It allows the industry to continue to pollute and receive government subsidies while appearing to “solve” the climate issue. These kinds of policies do not benefit the majority of Iowans. And Iowans are, in fact, stuck paying for them. 

The only reason these pipeline proposals are put forward is because we have been trained to think that we cannot change the way we farm and use energy. But we farm this way and use energy this way because of policies our government put in place. The policies aren’t working for most of us, and they should be changed. 

There is nothing inevitable or pre-determined about the way we farm. We can and should demand better from our government in the fight against climate change.

Help Us Fight Iowa’s Carbon Pipelines

We can stop the pipelines planned for Iowa. The first of three major projects has reached the Iowa Utilities Board, which has final power to approve or deny permits. The Board needs to hear what Iowans really think about carbon pipelines.

Tell IUB: Carbon pipelines have no place in Iowa!

Food & Water Watch Lawyers Are Fighting Carbon Pipelines


Climate and Energy

by Emma Schmit and Adam Carlesco

Corporations have proposed three carbon pipelines that would cut through 2,000 miles of Iowa land — whether landowners want them or not. 

These pipelines are part of a larger scheme known as carbon capture and storage. Through these high-pressure pipelines, corporations want to transport CO2 from polluting ethanol and fertilizer plants. From there, the carbon could be used for enhanced oil recovery. Similar to fracking, oil companies inject carbon into near-depleted oil fields to draw up the very last dregs of oil.  Alternatively, corporations may sequester the carbon underground, giving them larger tax credits from the federal government.

Carbon capture is expensive and unsound technology that has sparked a host of concerns throughout affected communities, including in Iowa. These concerns include pipelines’ safety risks, the cost to taxpayers, corporations’ use of eminent domain and carbon capture’s dubious climate credentials. Now, Iowans from all walks of life have united in opposition. Polling from our partner organization, Food & Water Action, found that 80% of Iowans oppose the use of eminent domain for these projects. 

Food & Water Watch is ready to fight tooth and nail to stop the CO2 pipelines. Pipeline companies have a long road ahead of them before their projects can break ground. Our lawyers will be there at every step, ensuring that the public’s health, safety and quality of life take priority over corporate interests. Here’s how we’ll do it.

First, Carbon Pipelines Need Permits

Carbon pipelines are highly underregulated, particularly by the federal government. But pipeline corporations will have to worm their way around a few environmental safeguards. Companies need permits to cross waterways, federal lands and the habitats of endangered species. 

Before construction can begin, these pipeline proposals will need permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for any dredging and filling in a U.S. waterway. The developers must also receive a right-of-way from the Bureau of Land Management if the pipelines cross any federal lands. Permitting agencies will also consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure no endangered species are impacted by the project.

Many states are a regulatory Wild West for carbon pipelines. These are the first carbon pipelines ever proposed in Iowa, so agencies are essentially writing rules as the projects move ahead. That said, companies have to meet a variety of state-level requirements to obtain the permits needed to break ground. These can differ from state to state, but in Iowa, the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) is responsible for approving or denying the proposed carbon pipelines.

FWW Will Stand Before The Iowa Utilities Board

For each of the three pipeline proposals, the three-member IUB must decide whether the project serves the public interest. (Members of the board were appointed by Governor Reynolds and her predecessor, former Governor Branstad. Notably, Branstad now works for Summit Carbon Solutions, the first pipeline company to begin IUB’s permitting process.) 

The IUB must consider the projects’ impacts on public health, the environment and safety. To do that, it relies on those impacted by the project to raise issues affecting them, through the proceeding’s docket. Based on those testimonies, the project’s purported need and any other factor bearing on the public interest, the IUB will decide whether to approve the proposals or not. 

We’ll Be With Iowans Every Step Of The Way

We have a long road ahead of us to push back on these pipelines. The timeline of IUB hearings will stretch well into 2023 — and that’s just for Summit’s project. But Food & Water Watch is committed to this fight and will be with Iowans every step of the way.

This month, Food & Water Watch became an official legal party to Summit Carbon Solution’s IUB docket. We now have legal standing to engage in the IUB’s permitting process. This allows us to better fight for the interests of our 24,000 Iowa members and supporters by voicing concerns throughout the permit hearings and requesting rehearings as needed. After the hearing, the IUB will deny or grant the permit, as well as the use of eminent domain. If the Board does greenlight Summit’s dangerous proposal, we’ll be ready to appeal.

We’re putting our all into this fight, from our lawyers, to our organizers, to our policy experts. But our most powerful support will come from you. Will you join us?

With so much on the line, it’s critical that the Iowa Utilities Board hears from you. Our opponents may spend billions to fight this issue, but they will never match the power created by people coming together. It’s up to us to hold the agencies designed to protect us accountable. We must demand that the IUB puts the interests of Iowans before the interests of private corporations. Tell the IUB that Iowans do not support hazardous carbon pipelines by sending a message now.

Tell the IUB: No Carbon Pipelines!