Update on Iowa CO2 Pipelines

Field Corn

While driving to the Democratic office in North Liberty after a shift of door knocking, I passed a seemingly endless line of black tank cars waiting to be loaded with ethanol or corn syrup in Cedar Rapids. That Iowa’s vast agricultural promise, countless thousands of acres of fertile soil, would come to this is saddening and frustrating. As a state we’ve become entrenched with what we know (i.e. corn growing) and don’t want to consider alternatives. Such entrenchment is why Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) is being proposed in Iowa to support the ethanol business.

Art Cullen cut to the chase in a July 15 Storm Lake Times editorial, titled “Pipelines Will Happen,” saying, “The pipelines will get buried. The Iowa rainmakers will get theirs as we pretend that we are addressing the planet being on fire.”

While Cullen may be right, the corn ethanol business and CCS make no sense in 2022.

Johnson County Supervisor Jon Green expressed his skepticism in an email:

My introduction to CCS was in Wyoming with the Two Elk project.

The first thing I learned was this has been tried many, many times, with millions of dollars of public money chasing these technologies. I have yet to learn of a single project that worked at a scale sufficient to make the technology feasible. So I begin from a position of deep mistrust when someone comes along and says they can magically make it work.

But let us set those concerns and experience aside: even if these projects do exactly what they promise, the effects will be small (in terms of carbon reduction, although the tax incentives are staggering) and only provide incentives to continue producing ethanol, a carbon loser.

I realize we can’t just flip a switch and electrify the entire country tomorrow, but every dollar we invest into pipelines is a buck that could’ve been used for solar panels or wind turbines.

Nov. 14, 2022 email from Johnson County Supervisor Jon Green.

When I wrote a series of posts about CCS a year ago, it was a process of personal learning. Since then, it became increasingly clear that the technology doesn’t work well enough to meet its promise, as Green said. It is a big money game in which the rich get richer and the opinions of Iowans may be faithfully recorded on the Iowa Utilities Board website, yet in the end will be ignored without considerably more uproar than we are seeing now.

Des Moines activist Ed Fallon has been following resistance to CO2 pipelines and is more optimistic.

When the first of these pipelines was proposed by Summit, proponents were sure it would be a slam dunk because Iowa corn farmers love ethanol. What Summit underestimated was the depth of resistance among farmers to having their land forcibly taken through eminent domain. In fact, farmers’ opposition has proven so strong it’s quite possible these pipelines will be defeated. That’s especially true if landowners, farmers, and other opponents continue to stand together.

Nov. 13, 2022 email from Ed Fallon.

From my experience with S.A.F.E. (Saving America’s Farmland and Environment) in 2013 I understand how business proposals centered around land use can be defeated. In that campaign MidAmerican Energy proposed to build a nuclear power plant near Wilton on prime farm land. When farmers organized around stopping the plan and formed a coalition, even Republicans like Jeff Kaufmann came on board and the plan was stopped. Fallon’s comments are consistent with my experience in Wilton. The difference is the CO2 pipelines will run for hundreds of miles instead of on a specific, limited parcel.

Use of eminent domain to construct CO2 pipelines is to some extent, an Iowa issue. Sheri Deal-Tyne, who has been researching CCS for the last year explains:

Eminent domain is certainly at the forefront in Iowa and other Midwest states. We in the Midwest are being targeted for these projects because of the relatively “pure” stream of CO2 that comes off of ethanol production. This pure stream means it is cheaper to capture carbon at an ethanol plant than it is at a coal plant. Eminent domain is going to have less meaning in places like Texas and Louisiana.

Nov. 14, 2022 email from Sheri Deal-Tyne.

On Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, the Iowa Utilities Board will hold a meeting to discuss federal preemption pertaining to CO2 pipelines. This is an important meeting as Deal-Tyne explains:

The December meeting on preemption is important because currently there are no federal regulations regarding the siting of the pipelines. This is handled at the state level, and varies by state. The Pipeline Safety Act is relatively new, and CO2 pipelines were added as an afterthought. Following the Satartia, Mississippi accident, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued for new rule making around CO2 pipelines, as well as scientific research in to what the safety protocols should be. But at the project level, the companies are claiming that there are regulations and that they are following them. Currently Summit has argued that the IUB does not have authority to consider safety issues because it falls under Federal jurisdiction. (this is where the preemption comes in).

Nov. 14, 2022 email from Sheri Deal-Tyne.

A year after first writing about CCS, the core issue remains: getting to a decarbonized environment means ceasing the production of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. The persistence of desire to perpetuate ethanol production in a decarbonized environment by collecting and burying CO2 would be a possible solution if the technology worked. It doesn’t. It hasn’t yet worked despite millions of dollars spent to make it work. There is no prospect that it will. That’s why I say CCS and corn ethanol make no sense.

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