Carbon pipelines could extend ethanol’s viability, but some Iowa farmers say they’re not worth the tradeoffs

Donnelle Eller
Des Moines Register

Karmin McShane hiked from house to house, knocking on neighbors' doors to talk about Navigator CO2 Ventures' proposed 1,300-mile pipeline that will cut diagonally across Iowa.

The Texas company wants to slice through her family's farm in Linn County, where she and her husband recently moved to help take care of her mother, who has dementia.

"It's heartbreaking," said McShane, who has been handing out signs to residents who, like her, oppose the project. 

"My dad is 77. My mom needs care. And he feels powerless" to fight the pipeline, she said.

Navigator and Ames-based Summit Carbon Solutions have proposed buried pipelines to capture carbon dioxide emissions from some of the more than 40 ethanol plants in Iowa, the nation's leading ethanol producer. Liquefied under pressure, the carbon dioxide would flow through the pipelines to a Summit site in North Dakota and a Navigator site in Illinois for deep underground storage.

From left, Steve McShane, Troy McShane, Shawn Voigt and Karmin McShane put up a sign opposing a carbon capture and sequestration pipeline in Linn County.

The companies say the pipelines are needed to slash the carbon footprint of ethanol so the renewable fuel can remain viable as the nation pushes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.

But even though ethanol production absorbs half of Iowa's corn crop, the nation's largest, the companies are running into mounting opposition. Landowners, many of whom are farmers, are filing objections with the state utilities board and calling county and state leaders about the projects.

More:Some Iowa farmers who fought Dakota Access are in the path of world's largest carbon capture pipeline

Supervisors in Kossuth, Iowa and Wright counties have filed objections to the projects, and more are expected to follow.

Jeff Quastad, an Emmet County supervisor, said most farmers support ethanol. But their concern about pipeline companies' likely use of eminent domain to force the sale of property rights of way outweighs any fears about ethanol's future.

Emmet is one of 15 counties in Iowa where both companies have proposed building sections of their pipelines.

"I haven't talked with a single farmer who will voluntarily sign an easement. So I don't see how they'll go through this county without eminent domain," said Quastad, whose board is drafting a letter opposing the project.

A sign reading "Iowa farmers against CO2 pipeline" stands in a Linn County field.

Quastad said farmers aren't convinced the pipelines are the best way to extend the usefulness of ethanol, and they're worried about the companies' ability to build them without irreparably damaging the underground tiling that drains their fields.

Iowa is covered with a vast underground web of tiles that stretch across much of the state's nearly 24 million crop acres.

More:Critics of $4.5 billion carbon capture pipeline say Branstad appointees have conflict, should recuse themselves

"Agriculture is the biggest thing we have going. We have to have drainage," Quastad said.

In informational meeting held in counties across the state, Navigator and Summit officials have pledged to repair any damage the pipeline construction does to drainage tiles. They also have promised to preserve the fertility of any farmland they excavate, carefully segregating the valuable topsoil so it doesn't intermingle with clay and other subsoil as they dig.

That pledge doesn't reassure McShane and members of her immediate and extended families, who have five farms in the path of the proposed Navigator pipeline.

"They're cutting right through the middle of the farm, not along the edges," she said.

"My dad is just sick. His farm is bought and paid for. He's never asked anything of anyone," forgoing government subsidies along the way, McShane added. "Now a private corporation wants to take his land, and it's not right."

Signs opposing a carbon capture and sequestration pipeline, one of two that would cross Iowa.

Pipelines seen as way to keep ethanol — a major Iowa product — viable

Kraig Kruger, the manager of a Valero ethanol plant near Hartley, told residents at a Navigator meeting in Dickinson County this month that the world is changing, and it needs low carbon fuel to help drive down greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

President Joe Biden wants to cut U.S. greenhouse emissions in half by 2030 and proposes that by then, 50% of all new vehicles sold in the country should be electric. The U.S. has pledged to hold warming below 2 degrees Celsius — ideally below 1.5 degrees — to prevent the worst impacts of climate change.

California and other states have adopted low carbon fuel standards to reduce  emissions. Other states are following suit. Capturing and sequestering the carbon emitted in ethanol production is seen as a way to extend the fuel's use even if there is a decline in consumption of gasoline, with which it must be blended under a 2005 federal law aimed at bolstering U.S. energy independence.

More:Iowa's Kim Reynolds, six other Midwestern governors take step in getting waivers for year-round E15 use

"If we're not able to hook up to this pipeline, we won't be able to sell any ethanol into California," Kruger said.

The $3 billion Navigator pipeline "allows us to stay competitive and continue to use corn," Kruger said. "We grind 140,000 bushels per day, for 50 million bushels a year."

The pipelines would serve states beyond Iowa. In addition to crossing 36 Iowa counties, Navigator's project, Heartland Greenway, would reach into Nebraska, Minnesota and South Dakota, as well as its destination, Illinois.

Summit, a spinoff of Bruce Rastetter's Summit Agricultural Group in Alden, proposes building a $4.5 billion pipeline that would cross 30 counties in Iowa. The 2,000-mile Midwest Carbon Express pipeline would reach into Minnesota, Nebraska and South Dakota en route to its North Dakota storage area.

More:EPA proposal to retroactively scale back renewable fuel blending requirements draws scorn

Valero Energy Corp., the world's second-largest ethanol producer, with five plants in Iowa, expects that using Navigator's pipeline will allow it to cut 3.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually.

The project, which the Fortune 500 oil and gas company is anchoring, is part of Valero's plan to eliminate its carbon emissions by 2035.

"This really allows us to stay in business," Kruger said. "If you don't have that low carbon intensity score, you won't have a place for your product."

Steve and Karmin McShane paint a sign in opposition to a carbon capture and sequestration pipeline in Linn County.

Could Iowa ethanol plants do their own carbon sequestration?

Are pipelines really necessary?

Nick Bowdish, CEO of Elite Octane, an ethanol plant near Atlantic in western Iowa, said the company hasn't joined a pipeline project, but instead is investigating the possibility of sequestering carbon near the plant.

"Rather than sending the corn plant's CO2 back into the air, we'd like to be part of a solution to bury it back in the earth and be net carbon-negative," Bowdish said.

Iowa doesn't have laws controlling underground injection, according to state Department of Natural Resources records that the Climate Investigations Center made public.

Elizabeth Burns-Thompson, Navigator's vice president of government affairs, said at the meeting in Dickinson County that the pipeline is needed because the "requisite geology is not found throughout most of Iowa" to sequester carbon dioxide.

More:Planned carbon sequestration pipeline gains support of southeast Iowa fertilizer plant

The Iowa Geological Survey, however, studied the issue three years ago and found that some areas in southwestern Iowa could be compatible. 

Iowa has rock formations deep underground that are similar to those at the site near Decatur, Illinois, owned by ethanol producer ADM, where Navigator proposes to permanently sequester carbon.

"We really can't say if we can or can't," said Keith Schilling, Iowa's state geologist, but it "shouldn't be dismissed" as a possibility.

Iowa's rock formations lie deep below the state's aquifers, with several layers of rock protecting drinking water, said Schilling, adding that more study would be required before sequestration could be pursued.

Top ethanol producer considers pipeline alternatives, says there are several

Residents in Dickinson County, where the Iowa Great Lakes are located, questioned why South Dakota-based Poet, the world's largest ethanol producer, hasn't joined a pipeline project. Poet has a dozen ethanol plants in Iowa.

Doug Berven, Poet's corporate affairs vice president, said the Sioux Falls company has talked with Navigator and Summit officials about their projects and is weighing its options. 

"There are many ways to sequester carbon, and a pipeline is one," he said.

Berven said the company can reach its goal of zero carbon emissions without a pipeline. Part of the approach is a partnership with Farmers Business Network, an ag tech company that's created a platform called Gradable that quantifies farmers' carbon footprint.

Farmers can take actions like reducing the amount of energy-intensive nitrogen fertilizer they use or sequester carbon in the soil by not tilling the land or by using cover crops and adding other conservation practices. They can generate credits that can be sold to companies like Poet that use the grain, or on a carbon trading market.

More:U.S. bakers say Iowa is gobbling up soy oil for biodiesel, driving prices higher and limiting supply

Berven said Poet is cutting its emissions, too, capturing carbon to make dry ice or add fizz to sodas, using solar panels to power its headquarters and looking to expand its use of biogas from livestock operations to power its plants, among other efforts.

"Ethanol is already 50% better than gasoline," Berven said, based on a Poet-financed Harvard study looking at ethanol's comparative greenhouse gas emissions. "Poet will be 70% better than gasoline by 2030. And we'll be carbon neutral by 2050."

Berven sees ethanol replacing more and more gasoline as the nation pushes closer to its carbon reduction goals. Renewable fuel is "immediately available, clean and economically competitive," he said.

Iowa leaders ask: Will carbon pipelines really make a difference?

With the debate growing, the Navigator and Summit pipeline projects have been the hot topic at Iowa State Association of Counties district meetings this month, said Lucas Beenken, the group's public policy specialist.

"Most supervisors we've heard from are indifferent on the pipeline itself," he said. "But they are opposed to the use of eminent domain."

Wright County supervisors in a letter to the Iowa Utilities Board said they're "vehemently opposed" to the Summit project, citing possible damage to the county and private landowners' drainage systems and the likely use of eminent domain.

"They say they're going to fix it, but the tiles will never operate the way they should," said Rick Rasmussen, chairman of the Wright County board of supervisors.

Kossuth County Supervisor Roger Tjarks agreed, telling state utility leaders the north Iowa county's objection to the project centers on eminent domain.

Tjarks said his board doesn't believe a carbon capture and sequestration project serves a public good, the test that developers must pass to gain eminent domain powers. "It's a big business,"  he said. "Does big business have the right to use eminent domain?"

The Biden administration has pointed to carbon sequestration and direct carbon capture as technologies that the U.S. should advance to meet its climate goals. 

Navigator says its pipeline has the capacity to capture about 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually; Summit, up to 12 million metric tons. The companies say the projects each would achieve the equivalent of removing roughly 3 million cars from the road annually.

Rasmussen, Quastad and others question why the projects should be supported through lucrative federal tax credits, valued around $50 per ton of sequestered carbon. Congressional leaders are looking at raising the amount to $85 a ton.

The tax credits, which can be collected over 12 years, could generate up to $15.3 billion for Navigator and $12.24 billion for Summit.

"The only people it’s going to benefit are the freaking people putting the pipeline in," Rasmussen said.

Jennifer Zwagerman, director of the Drake University Law Center, said the Iowa Utilities Board should require the pipeline developers to meet a high standard when considering whether the pipelines serve the public good.

"Even if there is a potential for some sort of public benefit, in the end a private company … is going to be taking over this land," Zwagerman said, "not the government" as happens when a highway is constructed, for example.

From left, Karmin and Troy McShane, Shawn Voigt and Steve McShane paint signs in opposition to a carbon capture and sequestration pipeline in Linn County.

Tjarks personally questions whether capturing carbon at Midwest ethanol and fertilizer plants will impact global warming.

"Does it help the prices of corn? Of course," he said. "If that's the only way ethanol plants can survive, then it's a mistake not to support it."

But capturing carbon from ethanol plants in Kossuth or other Iowa counties will make little difference in global warming, he said.

"It's a gnat on the ass of an elephant," Tjarks said. "It's immaterial."

Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at deller@registermedia.com or 515-284-8457.