CO2 pipelines would be a boon for ethanol. But some question if they're really a climate solution
Three companies want to capture carbon dioxide from Midwestern ethanol plants, transport it by pipeline and store it underground. Many in the ethanol industry claim it’s essential to the industry’s survival. Environmentalists and even farmers argue the pipelines are a boon for the industry — not a real solution for climate change.
This story is a part of a Harvest Public Mediaseries on CO2 pipelines.
Jeff Reints only has to look out across his field to see where most of his corn ends up.
“We're directly west of the Shell Rock POET ethanol plant approximately a short mile away,” he said while walking through corn stalks left from last year’s harvest.
Ethanol is a fantastic market for his corn, Reints said.
But when he found out the nearby ethanol plant would be a part of a proposed pipeline to carry away carbon dioxide, he was concerned. When he learned the pipeline would run underneath his northeast Iowa farm, he became staunchly opposed.
“This is some of the best farmland the good Lord has entrusted us with to be stewards of,” Reints said. “It's just a shame to think that just for private gain, that they're going to put that scar across our land.”
Three proposed pipeline projects would travel through Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and South Dakota, taking CO2 from ethanol plants and sending it into Illinois and North Dakota where it would be stored underground. The Biden administration is offering big tax incentives to help the U.S. reach net zero by 2050, which some ethanol proponents say are critical for the industry.
Farmers across the Midwest are fighting the carbon dioxide pipelines — largely over property rights. At the same time, environmentalists are raising concerns over whether carbon capture is the best way to curb emissions, especially compared to other strategies in the energy and agricultural sectors.
‘It’s life or death’
Summit Carbon Solutions, Navigator CO2 and Wolf Carbon Solutions — the three companies proposing to capture CO2 from Midwest ethanol plants and pipe it underground — say the projects will lower ethanol’s carbon emissions and help the farming economy.
Monte Shaw, the executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, said the state either needs to be friendly to carbon pipelines or risk devastation for its corn growers and ethanol plants.
“If Iowa screws this up, we’re in big trouble,” Shaw said. “We will absolutely lose a huge chunk of our industry and put the Iowa ag economy in a tailspin.”
Carbon capture and clean fuel production tax credits are promised in the Inflation Reduction Act, a “game changer” for ethanol, Shaw said. It’s expected that ethanol plants that get those tax credits will be able to expand their production. But in order to qualify, the fuel that ethanol plants produce needs to meet certain emissions standards.
California and some other states have fuel standards that are pushing ethanol to lower its carbon emissions. With carbon pipelines, Shaw said, Iowa ethanol plants would survive a critical turning point in the industry’s history. Without pipelines, the state’s ethanol business could be doomed.
“It will create winners and losers,” Shaw said. “It will create plants that stay in business and plants that go out of business. So when we say that it’s life or death for many ethanol plants, that is an honest reality of where we’re at.”
A recent report, paid for by the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, claims if Iowa ethanol plants are not able to participate in carbon capture pipeline projects but ethanol plants in neighboring states can, 75% of Iowa’s ethanol production would be lost to those states in the next five to 10 years, many ethanol plants would shut down, and Iowa’s ethanol industry would lose more than $10 billion a year without carbon capture in the state.
Ethanol is huge in Iowa.
The state is the largest corn producer in the nation and half of Iowa’s corn is used to make ethanol, mostly for gasoline fuel blends.
Yet Reints and many other farmers, as well as environmentalists, say they don’t buy the narrative that ethanol will shrivel up without carbon pipelines. Some point to better ways to sequester carbon or cut it altogether.
A solution to climate change?
The proposals are creating unusual alliances between farmers, such as Reints, who are concerned about property rights and safety, and environmentalists who question whether sequestering CO2 from ethanol is the best way to cut emissions.
In February, farmers from across Iowa gathered at the Iowa State Capitol for a rally calling lawmakers to ban eminent domain, the power of the government to take private land for the carbon pipelines.
Jess Mazour, the conservation program coordinator for the Iowa chapter of the Sierra Club, helped organize the rally. She argues carbon pipelines are not a real solution to climate change.
“There are tried and true ways to solve our climate crisis that are better uses of our public tax dollars than this questionable technology that puts risky pipelines in our backyards, that destroys farmland,” Mazour said.
One way to combat climate change in the ag sector would be for farmers to focus on keeping carbon in the ground, Mazour said. That includes planting more cover crops that enhance soil health and store carbon in the soil.
Asked if carbon pipelines should be a part of efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions in general, Mazour said she doesn’t see it.
“I think rather than putting a Band-Aid on emissions, let’s stop burning them in the first place,” she said.
The three companies proposing pipelines through the Midwest argue capturing CO2 is important to getting the U.S. to net zero emissions.
Summit Carbon Solutions says its proposed 2,000-mile pipeline will be able to capture and store 12 million metric tons of CO2 each year from ethanol plants in Midwest states including Iowa, South Dakota and Minnesota — the equivalent, it says, to taking 2.6 million cars off the road every year.
Wolf Carbon Solutions, which also plans to transport 12 million metric tons of CO2 each year through a 280-mile pipeline running from Iowa to Illinois, says it will “[lower] the carbon intensity of ethanol, bolstering its position as a premier alternative fuel.”
Navigator CO2 is proposing a 1,300-mile pipeline network from South Dakota and Nebraska, through Iowa and into Illinois. Spokesperson Elizabeth Burns-Thompson said Navigator will capture 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year.
“We will not meet our goals if we don't institute a variety of tools and tactics, carbon capture being one of those,” Burns-Thompson said. “Is it the golden key? No. But when partnered alongside other developments, investments, tools, technologies, that is how we make true progress and we do so in a quantifiable fashion.”
University of Minnesota engineering professor Jason Hill studies the environmental impact of energy and food. He points out that ethanol’s emissions come from multiple sources—not just the production of ethanol. That includes growing corn, producing fertilizer to grow corn, transporting the fuel, distributing it and burning it.
So while the pipelines will mean some calculated reduction of CO2, Hill said it won’t make as big of a difference as advertised.
“When you zoom out and look at the broader implications of pumping that carbon dioxide underground, the picture doesn't look so rosy,” Hill said.
One of the biggest factors he said is that the pipelines perpetuate using liquid fuel for transportation in the long-term.
“When in fact, we know that vehicle electrification, using clean electricity sources or cleaner electricity sources can more quickly get us to our carbon reduction targets,” Hill said.
The Biden administration sees both electric vehicles and carbon capture as key to curbing emissions. The Inflation Reduction Act increased available tax credits, providing $85 per metric ton for CO2 captured and stored, up from the previous $50 offered.
Recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed new emissions standards with more stringent tailpipe emissions and estimates that by 2032, 67% of new car and light-duty truck sales will be electric.
Pressure on the ethanol industry — both from lower emission standards and electric vehicles — don’t worry Jeff Reints.
He said even if the ethanol industry did contract somewhat, "We've worked through thousands of other storms in farming. We'd work through that one. Ingenuity will prevail.”
Reints points across the field to a new facility, which breaks soybeans down into soybean oil for renewable diesel.
“Which is a huge new demand coming,” Reints said. “We’ll adapt.”
This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.