By Jared Strong
Two engineers for the Illinois Commerce Commission say federal regulators should finalize new rules about carbon dioxide pipelines before state regulators approve pending permits for construction.
The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration “has acknowledged that its rules are outdated and inadequate,” Brett Seagle, a commission engineer, recently testified in regard to a pipeline proposal by Wolf Carbon Solutions. “The lives and safety of Illinois citizens must come before business concerns.”
Seagle said the commission should deny Wolf permission to construct and operate its pipeline system — which would extend into eastern Iowa — for safety concerns and other reasons.
The project is one of three such proposals in Iowa in recent years.
An attorney who represents landowners in several states who oppose the pipelines is seeking to use Seagle’s testimony as evidence in Summit Carbon Solution’s pipeline permit process in Iowa. The company’s evidentiary hearing with the Iowa Utilities Board, which began in August, resumed this week after a monthlong hiatus.
Public safety is a chief concern of landowners whose property lies in Summit’s path.
The company seeks to build a five-state, 2,000-mile pipeline system to transport captured carbon dioxide from ethanol producers to North Dakota for underground sequestration.
The project’s opponents have repeatedly called for a halt to new carbon dioxide pipeline permits until PHMSA — which sets safety requirements for the construction and operation of the pipelines — finalizes new rules. State regulators issue route permits for construction.
PHMSA announced a new rulemaking process in 2022 in response to a major carbon dioxide pipeline failure in Mississippi in 2020. The agency has estimated that it will publish its proposed changes to the regulations in June 2024 but has not said when it might officially adopt them.
PHMSA held a two-day meeting in Des Moines in May to discuss the regulations but officials did not say what might change.
Brigham McCown, a former acting administrator of PHMSA and one of Summit’s witnesses for its permit request in Iowa, has testified there is no safety reason to wait for the rule changes before approving a new carbon dioxide pipeline permit.
He argued that federal agencies routinely update safety regulations and noted PHMSA has not asked for a permit moratorium. He said the current regulations are sufficient to ensure Summit’s pipeline is safe.
“Would we stop all flying for years, waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration to update a regulation?” McCown said in his written testimony filed with the Iowa Utilities Board. “Should we stop all automobile production until the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration finalizes a new rule? … Of course not.”
But two engineers for the Illinois commission disagreed with McCown when they recommended the commission reject pipeline proposals by Wolf and by Navigator CO2.
“It is my opinion that PHMSA’s current regulations pertaining to carbon dioxide pipelines are not sufficient to guarantee the public’s safety in all possible scenarios,” Seagle said in October in regard to Wolf’s proposal.
Another commission engineer, Mark Maple, had similar concerns about Navigator’s project.
“It is very possible that PHMSA will issue new rules for characteristics such as a minimum setback distance from homes and structures that could cause (Navigator’s) proposed pipeline to not conform with the regulations,” Maple testified in June.
Summit’s project does not include Illinois.
Navigator recently abandoned its pipeline proposal due to the “unpredictable nature of the regulatory and government processes.”
Wolf’s permit requests in Illinois and Iowa are still pending. The company did not immediately respond to a request to comment about Seagle’s recommendation to deny its permit in Illinois.
Brian Jorde, a lawyer who represents about 150 people or entities who have intervened in Summit’s permit process in Iowa, recently submitted Seagle’s testimony in the Wolf case as evidence in Summit’s.
Summit argues that the submission violates a long-expired procedural deadline and wants it stricken from the record. It’s unclear when the board will rule on that request.
Steve King’s surprise appearance
Testimony in Summit’s evidentiary hearing resumed Monday and is set to conclude next week.
The day’s testimony featured landowners who have declined to sign land easements with Summit and are subject to the company’s eminent domain requests. Those easements allow Summit to use land it doesn’t own to construct and operate its pipeline system.
Four people testified. Former Congressman Steve King, an outspoken critic of using eminent domain for the pipeline projects, attempted to testify on behalf of another landowner who was unable to attend, but he was rebuffed.
The board had previously declined to allow the daughter of an affected landowner to testify on his behalf.
“In the interest of being consistent, we are also going to be denying you the opportunity to testify,” Erik Helland, the IUB chairperson, told King.
King protested and eventually concluded: “I will see you in court.”
The landowners who testified Monday objected to being forced into easements for many of the same reasons that dozens of others have cited throughout the hearing. That included worries about long-term damage to farmland and underground tiling, the use of eminent domain for a project that might not serve a public benefit, and the threats to humans and animals posed by pipeline ruptures.
Carbon dioxide is heavier than air and under certain circumstances can form a plume that travels long distances after a catastrophic pipeline breach. It is an asphyxiant.
The project’s opponents often cite a 2020 pipeline break near Satartia, Mississippi, which sickened dozens and nearly killed three people. The potential threat to the town had not been identified before the incident, and local emergency responders didn’t know there was a pipeline in the area.
“The citizens of Iowa and the Midwest would be nothing more than laboratory rats and are possibly expendable in the case of a rupture,” Nancy Miller, an O’Brien County landowner, testified Monday. “It’s a terrible way to view human life.”