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Along the Route: Impact of pipeline installation on regional farmland

Along the Route: Impact of pipeline installation on regional farmland (File Image)
Along the Route: Impact of pipeline installation on regional farmland (File Image)
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The Midwest is known for its land. The rolling hills have been tended by generations of farmers to grow our nation's crops. But what could the installation of two liquid carbon capture pipelines do to this same land?

Experts say, a lot.

"So one, it is a disturbance to that land so it disturbs what you're currently doing, whether it's a crop or pasture land, a CRP Conservation Reserve Program piece of land, or range land, whatever forest, whatever it may be," said Aaron Daigh, "it is a disturbance to that land. And so it's going to affect what was growing there and how it grows afterward."

That disturbance is a focal point for a group of landowners who have yet to sign easements with Summit Carbon Solutions and Navigator CO2 Ventures.

"It will never be the same as because I know we built the land that we own now by many, many, many loads of manure from the stockyards. Over 10 years to get it to what it is," said Jim Colyer, a landowner in Northwest Iowa. "And when they stir that up, you cannot tell me that that ground is going to come back in what do they estimate, three years? It will never be the way it was."

Aaron Daigh is a soil and water science expert with the University of Nebraska Lincoln. He's studied the impact a disturbance, like a pipeline installation, can have on the land. "So there's a period of time that that piece of land is going to be out of production, that's not going to be growing a crop in it or a forage crop."

Moving the earth to install something like a pipeline changes the biological nature of the land, Daigh says. "But once that ground goes back down, it has been disturbed and it's been put back. So the physical and biological qualities of that land that made it productive, that's been shifted to another state. So lower quality at that point just due to the disturbance."

For farmland, the biological makeup of the soil is an important piece of the growing puzzle.

You can probably expect almost anything you're growing, whether it's corn, soybean, wheat, or pasture land, you're going to see probably around a 20% reduction of yield in that worked area and that disturbed area.

And as Daigh says, it could take a decade to see a full recovery, "that's what you can expect not just the next year but probably at least two, three years after that," he said. "It should start improving as you get more crops growing on it, its rooting system and its biology itself will start trying to help in the healing of that disturbed area. But it could take anywhere from six to over 10 years to see a full recovery to where you won't be able to notice that strip of land behaving differently than the areas right next to it."

"And a lot of destruction comes in the process of laying the pipe, not only with disturbing the soil, the subsoil, and the parent soil," said Woodbury County landowner, Deb Main. "But pipeline companies are paid to lay down the pipe as fast as they can, get the project done as fast as they can which one, allows for human error and two, working in wet conditions makes a huge mess. The soil clumps up and makes big, big, clumpy balls and things as big as rocks."

"Compaction," Colyer agreed.

"The compaction that happens in these pipelines is somewhat similar, quite similar to the compaction that happens on headlands for the crop fields where a lot of the loading offloading equipment and grain occurs at," explained Daigh.

"So whatever yield losses that you can see in those areas is probably going to be a bit worse just because of the level and depth of the disturbance, but that'll give some kind of expectation of how much yield loss you may have for a particular field is looking at the other parts of the field that have had mechanical compaction on them. And so if you're headlands are consistently losing or not yielding within 30-35% of the rest of the field, then that's probably going to be in the range of what you can expect on the pipeline after the pipeline's installed as compared to like 8% or 20% yield loss."

and the recovery of that land after construction is complete.

"If you are better off on your losses than half your neighbors and worse off than the other half, you can expect around a 20% drop in productivity for at least two-three years that will slowly recover," Daigh explained of estimating your crop losses. "Over the next six years to a decade afterward.

If you tend to be on the best-case scenario, you're better off than the vast majority of your neighbors you might only see an 8-10% drop in productivity. You will see some level of drop just simply due to the disturbance. If you're worse off, the context of the field made it of higher risk for yield loss. You could see up to 50-60 % crop yield loss.

Some landowners, like Vicki Hulse and Stee Maxwell, are part of the Conservation Reserve Program, a federally funded program that encourages landowners to leave pieces of their property untouched for native plants and wildlife. These pipelines are mapped to go right through it.

"So I have CRP and they're going to go through three parcels of that and the CRP, it's been in CRP for seven years," said Hulse. "And I just, I can't believe that they can put that CRP back like it was because it's not going to happen. After seven years, it's not going to happen that they can put it back like it was and then you have the wildlife, the deer, the birds, the pheasants, the bees, the pollinator program, and you're going to help the noise and everything that goes with putting that pipeline. And you're going to disrupt all of that."

That makes me sick to my stomach to think that's going to go on.

That CRP, Daigh says, will be even harder to get back. "But in a CRP setting, to where you have limited options for invasive plants, and particularly if an invasive or weed gets established and then spread seeds, it's a source not only for that disturbed area but now it's a potential for seed contamination to the adjacent area as well."

Navigator says they plan to get the land they acquire through easements back in working order quickly, installing their pipeline several sections at a time.

"What that allows us to do is take the project and put it into a little bit more bite-sized pieces but also simultaneously construct in a much shorter window of time," said Elizabeth Burns-Thompson, VP of Government Affairs for Navigator. "That minimizes the amount of time that we have to disrupt the ground itself so you're really only impacting one growing season for those farmers as opposed to multiple."

Summit's CEO, Lee Blank, says the unknown is the biggest issue. "I think the main hurdle really is just the unknown, like, Does my property come back to full production? We will make sure it comes back to full production. That's why they hired an agricultural executive to make that happen. I understand what full-production agriculture looks like."

While the hope is that the pipelines are a benefit to all, the reality is that no one really knows the impact they will have on the land this region is known for.

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