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These companies say their carbon pipelines would curb climate change. Farmers object

More than 100 farmers gathered in the rotunda of the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines to protest three carbon pipelines proposed in Iowa.
Clay Masters
/
Iowa Public Radio
More than 100 farmers gathered in the rotunda of the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines to protest three carbon pipelines proposed in Iowa.

Updated April 4, 2022 at 5:32 PM ET

Three companies want to build carbon capture pipelines through a large swatch of the Midwest they say will help curb climate change. Carbon capturing involves removing the carbon dioxide emissions from an industrial process and then piping to be stored elsewhere.

The construction of pipelines in the Midwest has been the topic of climate and landowner controversy for more than a decade. Both the Keystone XL and the Dakota Access pipelines made for years of debate over whether the U.S. should still be using crude oil with a warming climate.

These carbon-capture pipelines are much different.

Iowa is the country's top corn producer and almost 60% of that grain goes to produce ethanol, according to the Iowa Corn Growers Association. Archer-Daniel-Midlands (ADM), Summit Carbon Solutions and Navigator CO2 Ventures want to capture the carbon these plants emit into the air while making that fuel and then pipe it to be stored deep underground.

Chad Hart is an agricultural economist at Iowa State University and says the carbon would go deep underground in North Dakota or southern Illinois.

"Where there are deep mines that have open voids that can be filled with carbon dioxide as a way to reduce the amount of carbon being released into the atmosphere and sequester more of it underground," Hart says.

Hart says as American ethanol consumption levels off the industry wants to develop a carbon market especially with federal incentives to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

"COVID was a big shock to the system, not only for the ethanol industry, but the liquid fuel markets as a whole," Hart says, so the ethanol industry is "looking for what are these co-product opportunities that possibly create more stability in the financial return to an ethanol plant."

"We've got to start thinking about what we're doing to farmland. That's our lifeblood of this state"

Emma Schmit chairs the local Democratic Party in Calhoun County and she's working to drum up opposition to the pipelines in her reliably Republican rural part of northwest Iowa. She's an organizer with the environmental advocacy organization Food and Water Watch and says landowners rights are what's uniting rural residents.

"Everybody across the political spectrum believes in the fact that a private corporation shouldn't be able to take your property for their own benefit without giving anything back," Schmit says.

More than 100 landowners and environmentalists turned out at the Iowa capitol to speak out against the pipelines on March 29. That included Kim Junker who farms with her husband near New Hartford, Iowa. She says farmers in her county can't get a meeting with Iowa's Republican Governor Kim Reynolds.

"We just want to be heard," Junker says. She's resisting Navigator CO2's pipeline on her land. "We've got to start thinking about what we're doing to farmland. That's our lifeblood of this state."

A gas pump at a Kum and Go Convenience Store in Windsor Heights, Iowa shows cheaper prices for ethanol gasoline than standard gasoline.
Clay Masters / Iowa Public Radio
/
Iowa Public Radio
A gas pump at a Kum and Go Convenience Store in Windsor Heights, Iowa shows cheaper prices for ethanol gasoline than standard gasoline.

It's not a question of ethanol Vs. gasoline but if to use either when there are more efficient vehicles — electric vehicles

Farmers are mainly fighting the potential use of eminent domain. That's where the government can acquire land deeming it in the public interest. The Republican-lead Iowa legislature recently advanced a proposal that would delay the use of eminent domain for these pipeline projects until early 2023.

Mark Jacobson, who teaches Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University, argues that the bigger issue is American energy production. He says studies show carbon capture systems failing to significantly reduce emissions.

Jacobson says vehicles that run on ethanol are not very efficient on their own and the amount of land required for growing corn to produce the fuel is enormous when compared to electric-powered vehicles.

"The real issue is it's not a question of whether we should use ethanol versus gasoline," Jacobson says. "It's really a question of whether we should use gasoline or ethanol when we have much more efficient vehicles, namely, electric vehicles."

Congresswoman Cindy Axne (D-IA) speaks with representatives from various Iowa agricultural trade groups and farmers at the Iowa Pork Producers headquarters in Clive, Iowa on March 25.
Clay Masters / Iowa Public Radio
/
Iowa Public Radio
Congresswoman Cindy Axne (D-IA) speaks with representatives from various Iowa agricultural trade groups and farmers at the Iowa Pork Producers headquarters in Clive, Iowa on March 25.

Of course, you don't see a lot of electric cars on highways yet here in the corn belt and lawmakers like Congresswoman Cindy Axne (D-IA) are continuing to push for increased ethanol production.

"Why the heck are we not expanding ethanol year round across this country right now? There's a war with Russia and Ukraine, we are seeing, you know, prices go up at the gas pumps. So let's put our own product out there across the country."

But that product faces a new test with these pipelines as the ethanol industry seeks both a new revenue stream and a way to boost its green credentials. The fight over the ground under all that corn used to make ethanol is not going away anytime soon.

Copyright 2022 Iowa Public Radio