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Carbon Dioxide Pipeline Probably Won’t Leak…But If It Does, You Won’t Be Able to Escape the Cloud in Your Gas-Powered Car

Say, what happens if that big carbon dioxide pipeline rich Iowa Republicans want to build across their state and ours springs a leak?

Don’t worry, says Summit Carbon Solutions—it probably won’t!

Summit spokesman and director of environmental of permitting, Chris Hill, doesn’t want to dismiss those concerns, even though he says a leak or rupture in the planned pipeline has a low probability of happening.

“Public safety is our No. 1 priority,” Hill said. “I understand folks like to gravitate toward what happens if there’s a rupture, but it’s important to understand that there is multiple layers of protection to ensure that doesn’t happen.”

…The 2,000-mile pipeline, of which about 474 miles will go through South Dakota, is made with “high strength, carbon steel” highly regulated and monitored to ensure public safety [Nicole Ki, “What Happens in the ‘Highly Unlikely’ Event of a Pipeline Leak or Rupture? Summit Answers,” Sioux Falls Argus Leader via Farm Forum, updated 2022.04.29].

Yeah, but what if—

Hill said he is confident that ruptures are “highly unlikely.” There’s not been a single fatality associated with CO2 pipeline systems in the U.S., 5,000 miles of which have been operating since the ’70s, he said [Ki, 2022.04.29].

But, Chris, what if it does?

In the event of a leak or a rupture, Hill says the system is automated to detect and shut down the system without human intervention. A Summit control center in Ames, Iowa monitors and controls the system from a distance.

“We’ll also have operators based in South Dakota that will also help us operate the line,” he said.

…In addition to the system’s isolation valves and automated shutdown triggers, Summit is mandated by regulations to identify risks of leaks prior to them occurring, he explained. If a leak is smaller and not significant, Hill says Summit will fly the line every two weeks to monitor right of way to see if there’s any observations that can be made.

“If there’s a small leak, it’ll likely be observed by an operator in the field,” Hill said.

The leak will make an audible noise, going from high to low pressure.

“And of course, we would shut down the system and repair that leak,” he said [Ki, 2022.04.29].

The pipeline operators had better come with electric trucks and oxygen tanks, since carbon dioxide leaking from carbon-capture pipelines can shut down internal combustion engines and people, as seen in Satartia, Mississippi, when a Denbury Resources CO2 pipeline ruptured:

Some two dozen individuals were overcome within a few minutes, collapsing in their homes; at a fishing camp on the nearby Yazoo River; in their vehicles. Cars just shut off, since they need oxygen to burn fuel. Drivers scrambled out of their paralyzed vehicles, but were so disoriented that they just wandered around in the dark.

…Denbury Inc, then known as Denbury Resources, operates a network of CO2 pipelines in the Gulf Coast area that inject the gas into oil fields to force out more petroleum. While ambient CO2 is odorless, colorless and heavier than air, the industrial CO2 in Denbury’s pipeline has been compressed into a liquid, which is pumped through pipelines under high pressure. A rupture in this kind of pipeline sends CO2 gushing out in a dense, powdery white cloud that sinks to the ground and is cold enough to make steel so brittle it can be smashed with a sledgehammer.

Even Durward Pettis, a contract welder for Denbury and chief of the local Tri-Community Volunteer Fire Department, didn’t figure out that the mystery fog was CO2 for a full 15 minutes. He’d directed first responders to set up three roadblocks to prevent traffic from entering the area. But it wasn’t until 7:30 p.m. that word went out that they’d need self-contained breathing apparatus, or SCBA, to enter Satartia and evacuate the town’s 42 residents, many of them elderly, and about 250 otherswho lived just outside town. By then, rescuers and residents were already in motion, fleeing the gas or evacuating others.

Even once Pettis figured it out, none of the sheriffs’ deputies and volunteer firefighters had any emergency training in CO2 leaks. Neither did staff at two area hospitals, which had detrimental consequences for gas victims, according to interviews with many of the 49 who were hospitalized.

“It was bad enough that I thought my mama wouldn’t make it, and she still has trouble breathing,” said Army veteran Hugh Martin, who fled Satartia in a pickup truck with his 78-year-old mother as he struggled to remain conscious. “She never had asthma or COPD, now she’s on inhalers full time.”

Even months later, the town’s residents reported mental fogginess, lung dysfunction, chronic fatigue and stomach disorders. They said they have trouble sleeping, afraid it could happen again [Dan Zegart, “The Gassing of Satartia,” HuffPost, 2021.08.26].

The risk can spread far from the break in a carbon dioxide pipeline, and federal regulations haven’t caught up with the engineering and environmental challenges of this new technology:

In contrast, a CO2 pipeline’s impact area may be measured in miles, not feet. This is likely because:

  • CO2 pipeline ruptures can release many tons of CO2,
  • the compressed CO2 will expand into gas phase upon pipeline rupture and fill a much larger volume that it did inside the pipe, and
  • the CO2 may not disperse quickly because it is heavier than air, meaning that it will tend to flow toward and settle in low lying areas including ravines, valleys, and basements.

Current federal pipeline safety regulations do not provide any methodology for assessing the hazard zone for CO2 pipelines or require that pipeline operators adequately address this risk [Richard B. Kuprewicz, “Accufacts’ Perspectives on the State of Federal Carbon Dioxide Transmission Pipeline Safety Regulations as It Relates to Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Sequestration Within the U.S.,” Accufacts report for Pipeline Safety Trust, 2022.03.23].

So if Summit and Navigator build their carbon dioxide pipelines in South Dakota, keeping your ears peeled for those “highly unlikely” leaks won’t be enough to detect suffocating clouds that can shut down gas engines and lungs miles from the leak’s origin. Perhaps pipeline neighbors can ask the pipeline companies to supply you and your family with a Tesla and some oxygen tanks, just in case.


  1. Mark Anderson 2022-05-05 10:30

    Just think of the great movie that could be made of that catastrophe Cory. Why are the steering it away from populated centers anyway if it’s so safe?

  2. Jake 2022-05-05 11:11

    To think that the three members of the PUC will “rule” on this matter going forward is scary, to say the least. In their minds it’s a proven, good thing for South Dakotans (those moneyed interests
    that want to build it). Like saying, sorta, for 3 people to give the “OK” to build the “A” bomb back in WW2.
    Or 9 elites (SCOTUS) to decide the fate of all women’s bodies in the USA-more than 50% of our population…..

  3. Jake 2022-05-05 11:13

    After all, just what IS the problem with sacrificing a few people for the benefist of a “non tax-paying corporation or two ??)

  4. mike from iowa 2022-05-05 11:24

    TransCanada’s spill analysis for Keystone XL, which would cross Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska, estimates 2.2 leaks per decade with half of those at volumes of 3 barrels or less. It estimated that spills exceeding 1,000 barrels would occur at a rate of once per century.Nov 27, 2017

    Wasn’t there 2 major spills in less than a decade?

  5. buckobear 2022-05-05 11:35

    “Public safety is our No. 1 priority,” Hill said.
    Booswa !!
    Making as much money anyway we can IS our #1 priority.

  6. All Mammal 2022-05-05 12:57

    My dad told me when I was knee high to a grasshopper, “All pipes break. Guaranteed.”
    I never forgot.

  7. Arlo Blundt 2022-05-05 18:25

    Yep, All Mammel, your Poppa was correct…worked with welders on a pipeline when I was 19…they took great pride in their work (they had recently been in Saudi Arabia welding giant pipe) but once in a great while they’d “screw the pup” and an imperfect weld would result. They’d say, “ahh, it’ll hold til it breaks and by that time, we’re drinkin in a honky tonk in Tulsa”.

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