Jan. 19—Three companies want to build pipelines to carry carbon dioxide from Iowa ethanol plants to underground sequestration sites in neighboring states, standing to benefit from billions of dollars in federal tax credits and from West Coast fuel sales if the ethanol industry can reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
Summit Carbon Solutions, Navigator CO2 Ventures and ADM have announced plans for the underground pipelines. But do these projects — opposed by some Iowans who don't want the pipelines under their farms or near their homes — make a dent in the total amount of CO2 the United States must remove from the atmosphere to avoid the worst impacts of climate change?
And would these billion-dollar projects focused on ethanol plants become obsolete as electric vehicle use grows?
Three proposed pipelines
Navigator, a Texas company, is proposing a 1,300-mile pipeline that would pass through 36 Iowa counties, including Linn, Benton, Cedar, Delaware and Iowa.
Carbon dioxide from ethanol and fertilizer plants would be put under pressure, turned into liquid and piped to a site in south-central Illinois, where it would be injected more than a mile underground.
Navigator says it would sequester 7 to 8 million metric tons of CO2 a year when the pipeline becomes operational in 2024 or 2025 and increase to 15 million metric tons a year after that.
Summit Carbon Solutions is planning a 2,000-mile C02 pipeline through Iowa to North Dakota, with the project focusing on ethanol plants in northern, north-central and Western Iowa.
Summit would sequester between 8 and 12 million metric tons of CO2 per year, said Chris Hill, director of environmental and permitting.
ADM and Wolf Carbon Solutions — the newest partnership to announce pipeline plans — said they will build a 350-mile pipeline to transport CO2 from ethanol facilities in Cedar Rapids and Clinton to ADM's sequestration site in Decatur, Ill. The companies have not yet released a map of that proposed pipeline's route.
The project would sequester up to 12 million metric tons of CO2 per year, ADM said.
Altogether, these three projects — if built — would sequester between 27 and 39 million metric tons of CO2 a year. If they operate for 10 years, they would sequester between 270 and 390 million metric tons cumulatively by 2035.
Iowa does not have a statewide goal for carbon dioxide emissions, the Associated Press reported.
But the state's CO2 emissions in 2019 were 86 million metric tons, said Arvind Ravikumar, an associate professor in the Hildebrand Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.
"If you remove 33 million tons a year, you're reducing Iowa's emissions by 40 percent," Ravikumar said, referring to the average annual carbon capture proposed by the three projects combined. "That's a big number."
On a national scale, the Net Zero America report by Princeton University says that for the United State to reach net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050, part of the solution is sequestering between .9 and 1.7 gigatons of CO2 per year.
One gigaton equals 1,000 million metric tons. So the maximum annual CO2 sequestration offered by the three Iowa pipeline projects together per year would be between 2 and 4 percent of the U.S. annual goal.
That's 50 percent more CO2 storage than has happened so far in the United States, said John Thompson, markets and technology director for the Clean Air Task Force, an international environmental organization.
"Right now, the U.S. captures about 23 million metric tons of CO2 from natural gas processing and fertilizer processing and injects it deep underground for storage and enhanced oil recovery," Thompson said.
Only about 5 million metric tons of underground injection so far involves only permanent storage of CO2, and most of that has been done by ADM with pilot projects at its Decatur site, Thompson said.
"We've had CCS (carbon capture and storage) as demonstration programs, but this is leading to a CCS industry," Thompson said. "That's a very, very big deal."
But are the these pipelines the best investment to reduce the impact of climate change?
Thompson says yes.
"We're not going to meet our climate goals without carbon capture," he said. Sequestering CO2 from ethanol plants removes that pollution from the atmosphere right away and can happen as even as electric vehicle use grows, Thompson said.
"These pipelines are designed to pay out over 12 years," he said. "During that period, we're going to find out how cheap we can get carbon capture. This money will not have been wasted."
Ravikumar agrees carbon capture is necessary, too, but would like to see it used to reduce the carbon footprint of industries other than ethanol.
"There are projects where we can put carbon capture on that we know will be needed in our economy in the long term, like heavy industry, like fertilizer manufacturing, like cement manufacturing," he said. "Why not invest there rather than in corn ethanol plants that have declining market share over time?"
Gov. Kim Reynolds started a Carbon Sequestration Task Force in June and the group has had four meetings, according to its website. No minutes are posted yet from those meetings.
Reynolds hasn't spoken specifically in favor of the pipeline projects, but when talking about ethanol in her Condition of the State address Jan. 11, she said:
"I'm proposing that we invest in carbon-capture solutions to sustain and build on our leadership in renewable energy."
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