Carbon capture pipelines: Climate solution or catastrophe waiting to happen?
A sign opposing proposed carbon capture pipelines is seen on a manure spreader on the farm owned by Raymond and Kathy Stockdale in Iowa Falls, Iowa. Two proposed pipelines would run through the Stockdales' property. | Francis Chung / E&E News / POLITICO via AP

DES MOINES, Iowa—“My friend, she’s laying on the ground, and she’s shaking. She’s kinda’ drooling out the mouth, I don’t know if she’s having a seizure or what. We need somebody quick!” A 911 caller stranded on the highway in Satartia, Miss., pleaded for help. She and her friend had started walking after their car inexplicably stopped working, but now they were in bigger trouble.

The combustion engine of the car had sputtered and died. The same thing was now happening to her friend’s lungs, as asphyxiation began to take hold. Not far away, a ruptured pipeline was spewing a dangerous cloud of carbon dioxide (CO2), engulfing the town and denying oxygen to cars and people alike.

The panicked audio from that phone recording reeled from a loudspeaker, bouncing off the walls of skyscrapers and parking garages in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, on May 31. A crowd of 40 people were fighting for space against two lanes of traffic and the sounds of the city at rush hour. They held signs: “Health over Wealth,” and “These Roots Run Deep: No CO2 Pipelines!” Activists with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (ICCI) had gathered outside a meeting of the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHSMA) to make their voices heard.

Inside the Marriott hotel, ICCI activists were giving testimony opposing carbon capture pipeline projects that the companies Summit Carbon Solutions, Navigator Heartland Greenway, and Wolf Carbon Solutions have been advocating for in the state. Protesters were pressuring PHMSA to push a state and federal moratorium on such projects while the Biden administration works on regulating the untested technology.

The ICCI has been fighting for the interest of working-class Iowans since 1975. | Photo courtesy of Anthony Arroyo

ICCI’s action was a snapshot of the ongoing struggle against the perpetrators of climate change, with environmental and community organizations around the world demanding real solutions to the most existential issue of our time.

A tech “solution”

Carbon capture technology has been touted by the fossil fuel industry and its political allies as a “free market solution to climate change.” But is it? Climate activists are no strangers to pipelines. The struggle against oil arteries like Enbridge’s Line 5, along with the historic Indigenous victory over the Dakota Access Pipeline, have been at the forefront of the war against climate destruction. But over the years, as energy corporations have been forced to admit that climate change is not only a danger to the planet but to their bottom line, a new kind of pipeline can be seen cresting over the horizon: CO2 pipelines.

Advocates for carbon capture claim it’s a viable option for “saving the planet.” The technology is meant to capture CO2 as it is emitted from energy plants and other industries. Saudi Aramco’s website says: “We believe carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS) will play a key role in global efforts to reduce emissions while ensuring the world can continue to thrive.” It might as well say: “We believe carbon capture utilization and storage will play a key role in our industry’s effort to greenwash the status quo at the expense of a livable planet.”

The real implementation of CCUS is revealed only a few paragraphs down on Aramco’s website:

“CCUS technologies capture CO2 emissions at source or directly from the air. CO2 emissions are then transported away and stored deep underground or turned into useful products.

“Capturing carbon has been used for decades to help improve the quality of natural gas, but pioneering new technologies mean we can now remove and sequester CO2 indefinitely. Moreover, we are exploring new ways to add value to waste CO2 by turning the gas into marketable industrial and commercial products.”

As with all corporate marketing, the truth is hidden between the lines. The reality is that the vast majority of captured CO2 is used for industrial purposes, namely as a highly pressurized gas in the dirty fracking industry. According to Food and Water Watch, over 95% of all carbon captured is used in the process of Enhanced Oil Recovery. In no way can the capturing of carbon, being used to drill for more carbon, ever be a solution to a climate crisis caused by the burning of carbon.

Ethanol fuel plants, like this one next to a cornfield near Nevada, Iowa, are among the facilities that carbon capture companies want to hook up to their network of pipelines. While carbon capture may appear to be a solution for environmentally harmful emissions, it comes with its own dangers and may end up just diverting captured CO2 to other polluting uses, like fracking. | Charlie Riedel / AP

Technology like CCUS is a prime example of the greenwashing that constitutes the “climate plan” of the capitalist class. As critics have pointed out, electric cars and solar panels rely on highly-pollutive mining and ore refinement; similarly, carbon capture could amount to another attempt to lull people into the mistaken belief that more consumption will be the solution to climate catastrophe. Furthermore, CCUS has become not only a profitable cleaning solution for the fossil fuel industry’s dirty laundry issue—it’s a complete sink for taxpayers as well.

Lobbyists for corporations like Aramco, Summit, and others have brokered government agreements expanding tax cuts and incentives for carbon capture projects to the tune of $251 million. It’s a giveaway to the fossil fuel industry masquerading as a climate change plan of action. For industry and politicians alike, it amounts to a political win-win. Lawmakers, especially co-opted Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin, get to proclaim their dedication to addressing climate change, while their capitalist benefactors open up new avenues for profitmaking.

Meanwhile, real solutions to climate change—like reaching 100% renewable energy, the planting of regenerative flora, or the development of non-car-centric infrastructure—remain underfunded, if they’re funded at all.

Beyond this mirage lies the even more immediate and dangerous consequences of this unproven technology—which takes us back to the example of Satartia. Imagine the 911 call played by ICCI activists outside of the PHMSA forum not echoing from a loudspeaker years after the fact, but heard in real time in your own ears as a woman watches her friend keel over on the street and start seizing. A repeat of that disaster, which saw a plume of CO2 wash over the streets and surrounding woods in Satartia, is exactly what ICCI wants to prevent. People passed out in their vehicles, gassed by a corporation whose unshakable belief in the bottom line trumped human life. This is the tangible horror behind the unproven CCUS technology. A horror brought to reality in Satartia, where 40 people were hospitalized with CO2 poisoning.

Carbon captured at production sites like energy plants or manufacturing centers has to be transferred via pipeline for processing or sequestration. There are currently 5,300 miles of CO2 pipelines crisscrossing the United States, with that number expected to explode to over 65,000 miles over the next several years; no doubt as a result of the aforementioned tax incentives.

This wave is coming, and it will disproportionately affect people of color and other marginalized communities. According to Princeton University, 75% of Black Americans live in “fence-line communities,” those in direct proximity to highly-polluting facilities such as power or chemical production plants. This fact couples with the interminable struggle of Indigenous communities against extractive industries like mining conglomerates or oil producers.

The scene outside the Des Moines Marriott on May 31. | Photo courtesy of Anthony Arroyo

Why should we expect this new network of dangerous and untested CO2 pipelines to be laid any differently?

Iowa action spotlight

This is why actions like ICCI’s are so important. ICCI has been fighting for working-class Iowans since 1975. Its members have led in the struggle for environmental protections—hopping in the trenches against industrial agriculture, extractive industries, and the cabal of corporate sycophants who have wormed their way into the Iowa Statehouse. At the PHSMA meeting in Des Moines last month, ICCI put pressure on the body to implement a state and federal moratorium on new carbon capture projects. They hope such a move will buy some time to organize and educate the public about carbon capture infrastructure.

Berleen Wobeter, an ICCI member speaking to PHSMA, cast serious doubt on corporate promises of safety surrounding the project. “Why are we even considering permits for Summit, Navigator, and Wolf when PHMSA is on the record saying they need more time to study these dangerous projects?” he asked. “These three companies cannot prematurely promise safety before they even know what safety standards are.”

Others shared Wobeter’s safety concerns but also drew attention to the duplicitous nature of such projects. Mahmud Fitil of the Great Plains Action Society spoke against corporate-backed faux solutions to climate catastrophe. “Carbon Capture and Storage is dangerous, unproven technology…. It’s a greenwashed scheme for profiteers to get rich off government tax subsidies rather than a solution to the climate emergency that Iowans deserve,” Fitil declared. “As Indigenous people, we remain committed to the water, the land, and the future generations.”

John Aspray, a senior organizer with Iowa’s Food and Water Watch, condemned the project for its potential for immediate ecological damage: “We can’t allow pipeline profiteers to build these dangerous boondoggles through our backyards, against our will, without robust safety regulations to keep us safe. It is crucial that the Biden administration put a moratorium on carbon pipeline permitting now—before it’s too late.”

Outside in the streets, representatives from different community and environmental organizations rallied, despite police and security efforts to bar them from the forum. Corporate spokespeople struggled to dismiss concerns over their projects, but for now, PHMSA has heeded the calls of the community. The body decided that it will take at least a year or more before the safety regulations necessary to greenlight the Iowa carbon capture project will be mandated.

While ICCI and Iowa residents were successful in buying time against the proposed project; they, and climate activists around the world, know it’s an uphill battle.

Real solutions, not corporate schemes

We are constantly bombarded with a host of tech-bro-inspired solutions promising to solve the climate crisis without fundamentally changing the system. The conversation around the exploitative and all-consuming nature of capitalism is not only sidelined—it is scoffed at by political analysts and pundits who lampoon systemic change as a pipedream.

But the truth is that the extractive fossil fuel industry is largely to blame for the most pressing crisis in human history. It is a well-established fact that capitalism puts profit above people and sustainability. Climate change will not be solved by hair-brained schemes centered around profit-focused tech, but rather in common-sense solutions that reduce consumption and fundamentally change the way we interact with our planet.

Opponents of carbon capture pipeline projects rally in Des Moines outside the meeting of PHMSA on May 31. | Photo courtesy of Anthony Arroyo

While Wall Street investors dream of magical answers to the problems capitalism has created, environmental scientists, activists, and working people around the world are realizing: “Either capitalism goes, or we go.” They envision solutions like embracing regenerative agriculture. Changing our for-profit food and extractive systems into collective management of the land and its resources. Advocating for “Land Back” policies which return the sovereignty of the land to the Indigenous people who kept the land in balance for eons before the terrors of colonialism. A reimagining of society, where the accumulation of wealth and the psychosis of mass consumption are not the driving social forces of our civilization.

Experts tell us that if we do not curb our dangerous addiction to consumerism, and phase out our system of private accumulation, then the planet and our species will be forced to foot a bill we as a species will be unable to pay.

With this vision of what’s possible versus what’s coming if we choose to do nothing, we should all take encouragement from activists like those from ICCI who are fighting on the front lines. Each of us has a responsibility to fight back, to join organizations and coalitions. We have a world to save.

This article reflects the opinions of its author.

We hope you appreciated this article. At People’s World, we believe news and information should be free and accessible to all, but we need your help. Our journalism is free of corporate influence and paywalls because we are totally reader-supported. Only you, our readers and supporters, make this possible. If you enjoy reading People’s World and the stories we bring you, please support our work by donating or becoming a monthly sustainer today. Thank you!


Dillion Daniels
Dillion Daniels

Dillion Daniels is an Iowa-based activist, working-class writer, and independent media host. He works extensively with community organizations, including Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and the CPUSA. He hosts a YouTube show, Entitled Millennials, which covers current events through an anti-capitalist lens.