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A growing battle over carbon capture and climate change riles Iowa

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A growing battle over carbon capture and climate change riles Iowa


In September, Bonnie Ewoldt and her husband received a letter of certification from a company called Summit Carbon Solutions, telling them they were laying a pipeline on their 170-acre soybean and corn farm in Crawford County, Iowa. The pipeline will run from an ethanol plant in the Midwest to an underground storage site in North Dakota.

They had never heard of such a thing.

“We just thought it was ridiculous,” recalls Ewoldt, 76.

A retired high school teacher and former local newspaper columnist, Ewoldt began researching the project online.

A few months ago, Summit advertised the $4.5 billion pipeline as “the world’s largest carbon capture and storage project,” saying it would reduce its carbon footprint by reducing its carbon footprint as the country races to curb the effects of climate change. Helping Iowa’s ethanol industry stay alive. But first, Summit needs to bury the line under thousands of pieces of private property, most of which are farmland.

Ewoldt worries about her farm being damaged or losing value. She believes the project violates farmers’ deep emotional connection to the land. She became an anti-pipeline activist, writing letters to Iowa newspapers and organizing an opposition group of farmers.

She is now one of hundreds of adherents allied with some environmentalists who say the pipeline project plan is unsafe, noting that a leak in a carbon dioxide pipeline in Mississippi in 2020 sickened dozens of people. Summit said the pipeline will be safe during construction, and once the carbon dioxide begins to flow, it will be in a purer form than the Mississippi pipeline.

Opponents also argue that the pipeline, one of dozens of carbon-capture projects launched in recent years, with billions of dollars in federal subsidies, will do little to combat climate change.

Two more companies have announced plans to build similar pipelines in Iowa, putting the state at the center of an escalating war on carbon capture, an old technology mostly used to squeeze more oil out of the ground but is now Promoted as an environmental cure.

The conflict in Iowa has sparked protests and tense public hearings, a pattern that has unfolded in states across the country amid a carbon capture and storage boom. According to the Clean Air Task Force, an advocacy nonprofit, only 12 such projects are operating commercially in the U.S., but 85 are in development, 51 of which are only Announced for expanded carbon capture in 2021.

While carbon capture has not been proven economically sustainable and its environmental benefits are questionable, it is now seen by some as a last-ditch hope for curbing global warming emissions before the world reaches a tipping point of unprecedented heatwaves, droughts 1. Fires, floods and extinctions.

President Joe Biden has made carbon capture and storage a cornerstone of his climate plan. Biden’s infrastructure law enacted in November includes more than $8 billion in carbon-capture projects, and he has also proposed more generous tax breaks for developers who have not yet received congressional approval. This is the basis for the more than $8 billion in direct funding and tax credits the federal government has given to carbon capture projects since 2010 — despite the fact that government regulators have found evidence of high failure rates and improperly claimed tax credits.

COP26 Summit - Day 3
President Joe Biden has emphasized carbon capture in his plan to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Jeff J. Mitchell / Pool via Getty Images file

A variety of polluting industries—ethanol, natural gas, coal, chemicals—see carbon capture as a way to deliver on emission reduction commitments and compete in carbon credit schemes, while maintaining the productivity of existing operations. Proponents of the technology say increased federal subsidies could lead to a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 250 million metric tons by 2035. That’s still just a fraction of the more than 5 billion metric tons the US will emit in 2020.

Lee Baker, international director of carbon capture for the Clean Air Task Force, said the Iowa projects “exemplify the next generation of carbon management projects” in which private companies and investors see a viable future for the technology.

“Climate regulation will come, and we want to be on the path to net-zero emissions,” Baker said.

The rise of carbon capture has divided environmentalists. Some say it’s worth trying anything to avoid climate catastrophe. Others argue that carbon capture is a waste of money and could make things worse by prolonging the life of polluting industries.

“This is a hoax that will waste our opportunity to deal with this crisis, and it needs to be stopped,” said Jim Walsh, policy director at Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit advocating for ending fossil fuel production and diversion. 100% renewable energy including wind and solar.

The transformation of carbon capture from an oil extraction tool to an approach to combating global warming reflects the complex politics of climate change, in which the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions drives all of the above strategies and unlocks a raft of government funding, much of which favors polluting industries.

“We really have to try anything,” said Gregory Nemet, who studies how public policy can promote climate-friendly technologies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “If we want to solve the climate problem and make it safe, we have to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, and that’s not far off.”

A pipeline installed as part of the Petra Nova carbon capture project transports carbon dioxide captured from emissions from the NRG Energy Inc. WA Parish power station in Thompson, Texas, on February 16, 2017.
The Petra Nova carbon capture project in Texas uses carbon dioxide to enhance oil recovery until it ceases operations in 2020.Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Iowa may now be the biggest test of the technology.

Of the three pipelines proposed for the state, Summit Carbon Solutions’ project is the largest and one that has drawn the most widespread opposition. If approved by state authorities, the project will be able to transport 12 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, far more than any pipeline currently operating.

The carbon dioxide will come from plants that produce ethanol, a fuel made from fermented corn. This process produces large amounts of carbon dioxide as a by-product. Summit’s plan is to capture the gas and turn it into a liquid before it’s released.

The liquefied emissions will be jetted north through 2,000 miles of pipeline to collect more carbon dioxide from more than 30 ethanol plants in five states before reaching a storage site in Bismarck, North Dakota. The carbon dioxide would then be driven thousands of feet underground, creating giant porous rock formations that would then be capped.

Nearly all carbon-capture projects operating in the U.S. use carbon dioxide to pump more oil from the ground, injecting it into slushy reservoirs, reducing the viscosity of the oil and making it easier to pump to the surface. This decades-old technology helps projects make money, but it also helps burn fossil fuels.

Summit said it would not do so in its North Dakota project, but would instead store carbon dioxide underground. Environmentalists said they did not believe the summit would live up to the pledge.

Summit said its plans will help ethanol plants, which face an uncertain future with the rise of electric vehicles, stay in business by becoming suppliers of an increasingly valuable commodity: fuels with a lower carbon footprint, favored by California and Other low-carbon states are valued. – Carbon fuel standard.

Justin Kirchhoff, president of Summit Ag Investors, said the project will expand the plant’s “long-term profitability and viability, which is important to rural America as half of its corn crop is converted to ethanol,” the company said in a statement. The company, like Summit Carbon Solutions, is a division of the Iowa-based Summit Agriculture Group.

The company will also rely on federal tax credits, Kirchhoff said. Without points, the summit pipeline “would not be financially viable,” he said.

Valley Springs landowner Rick Bonander testifies against a proposed carbon dioxide pipeline by Iowa-based Summit Carbon Solutions before the Minnehaha County Commission on March 15, 2022.
South Dakota landowner Rick Bonander testified on March 15 against Summit Carbon Solutions’ proposed carbon dioxide pipeline.Nicole Ki/Argus Leader via USA TODAY Network

The project needs approval from the Iowa Public Utilities Commission to begin construction, a decision not expected for several months.

Summit also needs access to land owned by tens of thousands of people, mostly farmers, to build the pipeline. Summit said the company has paid $20 million to the landowner and has licensed more than 100 miles of land in Iowa. But some landowners, worried about the impact on their crop yields or angry that a company is trying to gain access to their backyards, are turning away cash from the company for easements on their land. If Summit can’t win their support, the company can ask the Public Utilities Commission to use eminent domain to force the deal.

That angered landowners even more and prompted state legislatures to try to ban the use of eminent domain on the pipeline. The bill was opposed by Summit and two other pipeline developers but failed to pass. Landlords and their lawmaker allies are still struggling.

Karmin McShane paints a sign against carbon capture and storage pipelines in Lynn County, Iowa, on December 14, 2021.
Karmin McShane painted a sign against carbon capture pipelines in Lynn County, Iowa, in December.Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen via USA TODAY Network

Opponents point out that Summit has hired some of Iowa’s most powerful political figures, including former Republican governor Terry Branstad, a senior policy adviser at Summit Carbon Solutions; Bruce Rastetter, a major Republican Donor, who runs parent company Summit Agriculture Group; Jess Vilsack, General Counsel of Summit Carbon Solutions and son of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

“It’s about the strong versus the weak,” said Jessica Mazur, who organizes the opposition for the Iowa chapter of the Sierra Club.

Courtney Ryan, a spokeswoman for Summit Carbon Solutions, said in an email that the company is “proud to have a bipartisan team advancing this project, which reflects its commitment to Midwest agriculture and The importance of ethanol.” She also said the summit “follows every federal and state guideline.”

Ewalt wants them to fail.

She and her husband no longer work on the family farm they bought 50 years ago, when they were in their 20s. They sold their house there, moved north to Dickinson County, Iowa, and now leased the farm to a young man working the land. Ewalt hopes corn will remain a profitable crop. She wants to help the environment. But she said it wasn’t worth giving an easement to a company that would excavate her land for a pipeline.

“It’s valuable to farmers,” Ewoldt said. “The land is only part of you. We treasure our agricultural background. This is who we are. This is who I am.”

So she would reject the pipe maker’s offer. So will many others. But the pipeline may still be built.

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