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Carbon capture in Iowa: A lifeline or a pipe dream?
In absence of smarter rules to limit the environmental impacts of farming, Iowans should be wary of new lifelines for the ethanol industry.
Three companies looking to invest in carbon-capture infrastructure in Iowa are running into opposition from environmentalists and property owners.
The three proposed carbon pipeline projects would go underground under thousands of miles of Iowa land. They would carry carbon dioxide from ethanol plants to be sequestered in out-of-state storage sites.
Iowans ought to be cautious about these CO2 pipelines. The underlying technology has potential but given the existing environmental and ecological situation in Iowa, it may be unwise to pursue these projects as currently envisioned.
Ethanol blends such as E10 and E15 are better for the environment than traditional gasoline but they carry costs beyond emissions. Ethanol incentivizes mass production of corn, far outpacing what the market would demand without federal biofuel mandates in place. That leads to a host of land use and water quality issues, exacerbated by Iowa’s lax agriculture regulations.
If Iowa had better laws to mitigate the risks of intensive row cropping — like mandatory buffer strips along waterways, restrictions on planting in the flood plain and limits on spreading manure, as a few examples — pipelines serving ethanol production would be easier to support.
With their multicounty scope, the projects also are running up against property rights issues. At least one of the companies involved, Summit Carbon Solutions, has signaled it would need eminent domain authority, meaning they weren’t able to work out voluntary deals with affected land owners.
Eminent domain should be a last resort. Any project that seeks to condemn private property should meet extremely high standards for public benefit.
The Gazette editorial board has traditionally backed ethanol, but we have also been staunch advocates for water quality protections. We find it increasingly difficult to throw our support behind projects and policies that will give cover to a system that ends up eroding our soil and putting fertilizer in our water.
“Let’s face it. This system is designed to provide cheap commodity grain to large corporations that also want to sell stuff to the farmers. That whole scheme has got to change if we’re going to get the environmental outcomes that we want,” Chris Jones, a University of Iowa water quality researcher, said during an Iowa Ideas conference panel last year.
The whole scheme has got to change but for now the whole scheme is leaning heavily on the ethanol industry. More than half of Iowa’s corn, or 1.5 billion bushels, goes to ethanol, according to the Iowa Corn Growers Association. Some of the byproducts have other uses but much of that corn would not be grown if not for renewable fuel mandates and tax incentives. The natural resources that corn affects could be preserved.
On one hand, the ethanol industry is a boon for Iowa’s agriculture economy. On the other hand, it’s ultimately a detriment to our soil and water. In absence of smarter rules to limit the environmental impacts of farming, Iowans should be wary of new lifelines for the ethanol industry.
The pipelines are being vetted at the same time Gov. Kim Reynolds is pressing for a law to require most gas stations to eventually upgrade their pumps to supply higher blends of ethanol. Her proposal appears to have broad bipartisan support.
These efforts should be considered in a broader context about the future of energy policy in Iowa and the United States. If the status quo for automobile fuel persists for the life of the infrastructure, pipelines and new pumps certainly appear to have a positive environmental impact. Each pipeline would enable sequestering millions of tons of CO2 per year, The Gazette’s Erin Jordan reported last month, which is significant.
“This proposal to use carbon pipelines would improve it a lot. It would really get to where ethanol could be viewed as a green fuel — much, much lower than petrol gasoline — so that's the promise of it. My own view is if ethanol is going to continue, let's say for another decade or two, then we need to reduce emissions from it,” Jerald Schnoor, UI and environmental engineering professor, told the editorial board in a recent interview.
But we should hope and expect biofuels and electric vehicles to advance in the next couple decades past the need for the current level of corn-based fuel that imposes such costly externalities. In the big picture, there is a balancing act at play here between the short-term benefits of current biofuels and the long-term benefits of transitioning to much cleaner sources.
Emerging industries sometimes need support to grow to maturity, like ethanol got with the Renewable Fuel Standard in 2005, requiring fuel to contain certain levels of renewable contents.
Federal and state governments have an important role to play in supporting new technology, even in the long run if market conditions require it. But we can’t prop up every energy source in perpetuity — these pipelines, for instance, would only be viable thanks to billions of dollars in federal tax credits.
We have to focus limited resources on what works best and be willing to cut loose the things that don’t.
Is corn-based ethanol America’s forever fuel, the thing that will enable the country to solve its transportation emissions problems? If that was ever a real possibility, it’s looking increasingly unlikely.
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