An Effort to Make the American Corn Industry Climate-Friendly Has Turned Into a Political Melee in the Midwest

It was not easy to convince Iowa farmers to allow workers to dig a 1,300 mile liquified CO2 pipeline network through their fields. But executives at Navigator CO2 Ventures tried their hardest. Ethanol refining plants in Iowa release millions upon millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. Navigator saw a business opportunity to capture those CO2 emissions and then bury them underground in Illinois, hundreds of thousands of miles away. They had to first get the support of locals before building the project.

At a January 19 Iowa Utilities Board meeting, Navigator executives presented their case. The company’s Heartland Greenway—one of a slew of CO2 pipeline proposals in Iowa—would be an investment in the state’s agricultural future, the representatives said. It would also cut the corn-ethanol sector’s CO2 emissions by roughly 15 million tons, according to their internal estimates, the equivalent of taking 3.2 million cars off the road. Plus, Navigator C02 Ventures—which shares much the same management and ownership (including private equity giant BlackRock) as Navigator Energy Services, a Dallas-based oil pipeline company—had a deep respect for rural Americans. “I, too, am an Iowan,” said Elizabeth Burns-Thompson, Navigator’s VP of government and public affairs, at the meeting. “I grew up on my family’s farm and have worked in agriculture all my professional life.”
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The event was followed by a flood of questions from the attendees. Is there an all-carbon budget for this project? (Navigator: no.) Can the pipeline burst. (Not likely.) Would the state use force to take farmers’ land? (Iowa officials: We’ll circle back on that.) Many people used the three-minute allotted time to speak their points. “I want everyone to know that, basically, this company is here to line their pockets with our land,” said one landowner. Undiluted anger erupted at times during the 4-hour-long question period. “Ms. Burns-Thompson,” said an attendee, “you ought to be ashamed of yourself, representing yourself as a local Iowa farm girl and sitting on that side of the desk.”

The country might see similar scenes. In Washington, D.C., politicians from both parties have gotten behind projects like Navigator’s, envisioning a national network of pipelines to transport CO2 from power plants and industrial emitters to geologic formations where it can be stored. Investment companies, fossil fuel businesses,Both agribusinesses and farmers are supported by the infrastructure bill. It includes $100 million to the Energy Department, along with $2.1 billion in loans, grants, and loans for financing the carbon-pipeline design. Meanwhile, tax codes offer huge incentives for those who want to construct these projects. Iowa, along with much of the rest of the agricultural Midwest, has become a test case for these kinds of projects, with pipeline projects to transport emissions from the region’s ethanol refineries nearing final approval. As the first major projects begin, local outrage has threatened to cause chaos and derail plans. This is essentially a test case for building CO2 pipelines from coast to coast.

A corn field in Winterset, Iowa, on Oct. 10, 2019.
Joe Raedle—Getty ImagesOn October 10, 2019, a cornfield in Winterset (Iowa)

The largest corn crop was harvested last year.The Iowa area covered about 20,000 acres of ground, which is roughly the same size as Maryland and Vermont combined. It was split into half for livestock feed. The remaining was made into various products such as corn syrup and used in other industrial processes. Another half went to biorefineries and was then fermented into alcohol. It was mixed with gasoline at home (about 10% of gasoline sold in the U.S.). It would appear that this is a positive story for the climate. While ethanol is made from corn, it releases carbon dioxide. However, ethanol can also be burned in cars. These are the exact carbon molecules that corn pulled out as it grew, so no carbon was lost to the atmosphere. But the rest of the process—shipping in seed, producing fertilizer, harvesting the corn, and trucking huge quantities of grain to processing facilities—produces a lot of emissions, leaving ethanol with a carbon footprint similar to that of gasoline.

The federal government raised a tax credit to companies who permanently store CO2 underground in February 2018. This move caught the attention of ethanol industry players. Previous projects to capture carbon from sources like coal power plants have exceeded costs and underperformed—but applying the technology to ethanol plants would be a simpler prospect. Coal plant emissions are only about 13% CO2—the rest being mostly oxygen and nitrogen, plus pollutant gases like SO2, NOx, and a lot of fine particulates (think smog)—and separating out the CO2 takes a lot of work. Ethanol refineries emit nearly pure CO2. Therefore, the process of capturing it is much cheaper. Ethanol plants could also make good money if they take advantage of this credit.

However, capturing the emissions is only the first part—you also have to put them somewhere. Typically, that means finding special geologic formations where you can pump the CO2 underground and it won’t come back up. Iowa doesn’t have much of that. But North Dakota and Illinois, hundreds of miles from Iowa’s corn fields, both have plenty.

Summit Agricultural Group from Alden in Iowa proposed a project to bridge that geographical divide. The equipment would collect the emissions from 31 Iowa ethanol plants and other states. They then liquefy it and transport it via a new, 2,000-mile pressure pipeline to North Dakota. It would then be underground injected. Others have also proposed similar plans, such as Navigator which in March announced its own pipeline project to transport CO2 from Iowa and Illinois.

It looked as though the proposals would be approved by state regulators. After all, Iowa’s Republican Governor Kim Reynolds was a supporter of ethanol and carbon pipelines, and her predecessor, Terry Branstad had, after three years as President Donald Trump’s ambassador to China, become a policy advisor at Summit in March 2021. The public check on Navigator and Summit’s ambitions is meant to be the Iowa Utility Board (IUB), a three-member council with the authority to approve or deny pipeline proposals, and to decide if companies can use eminent domain to get control of private land they need to build through. The board’s composition was not balanced in spring 2021. Two members were appointed by Branstad in his governorship from 2011 to 2017, and the third had just been filled by Reynolds.

Signs opposing a carbon capture and sequestration pipeline are seen in Linn County, Iowa, Dec. 14, 2021.
USA TODAY NETWORK/Reuters Linn County in Iowa has signs opposing the construction of a carbon sequestration and capture pipeline. They were visible Dec. 14, 2021.

These pipelines were necessary in some ways. Ethanol was a booming industry in Iowa for many years. Production quadrupled between 2004-2018 thanks to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency directives to gradually replace gasoline with biofuels. But with electric vehicles taking off and the Biden Administration pursuing electric charging infrastructure, Iowan politicians worried ethanol’s days could be numbered, which could be a big problem for the state’s corn-growing industry. The CO2 pipeline project could help ethanol to remain relevant in the green-energy future.

“The alternative to that is that ethanol doesn’t evolve, and it doesn’t have the opportunity to compete as greatly with electric vehicles from a carbon footprint perspective,” says Justin Kirchhoff, president of Summit Ag Investors, a division of Summit Agricultural Group.

Local environmental activists are skeptical that Summit and Navigator will be able to store as much CO2 as they say they can—they point to studies showing that past carbon capture projects were relatively ineffective in reducing emissions when the carbon cost of actually running the necessary equipment was taken into account. Some experts think that’s an unfair comparison since the CO2 coming out of ethanol plants is so much more concentrated than in those other projects, and they cite potentially huge emissions benefits—Navigator’s project, for instance, could reduce Iowa’s annual CO2 emissions by 5% to 8%.

Even if this is true, environmentalists believe that the federal government should eliminate corn fuel entirely and not spend billions to reduce its carbon footprint. Ethanol isn’t energy-dense enough to power sectors like aviation and shipping, and environmentalists see attempts to keep it in the energy mix as a strategy to delay phasing out gasoline cars and prop up an uneconomical, ecologically costly corn ethanol industry. “We’re really just seeing big businesses working together to keep these industries that are on their deathbeds alive,” says Emma Schmit, an Iowa-based organizer at Food & Water Watch, a non-governmental organization. “People on the ground see it for what it is: a lie.”

After the projects were announced, Iowa’s Sierra Club chapter and other environmental groups started sending out flyers and published letters in local papers, asking Iowa landowners to reach out if the pipeline companies contacted them. They organized weekly meetings starting in October 2021 to discuss group actions, like jointly declaring they wouldn’t sign agreements to let pipeline developers use their property, and later brought in lawyers to talk about a joint legal fight. “It started out small,” says Jess Mazour, conservation coordinator for Iowa’s Sierra Club chapter, speaking in late January. “There were about 10 of us, then there were 20, and it grew and grew every single week. Now there’s more than 700 people in our group who are refusing to sign easements, and it grows more every single day.”

A farmer loads corn into his semi-tractor trailer used to haul grain to ethanol plants in Primghar, Iowa on Sept. 23, 2019.
Kathryn Gamble—The Washington Post/Getty ImagesThe farmer load corn onto his semi-tractor trailer, which he used for transporting grain to Primghar’s Ethanol Plants in Iowa. This was Sept. 23, 2019.

Opposition to anything new is the main reason.It all comes down to property rights and economics when it comes to the construction of CO2 pipes. Deborah Main (72), who is the owner of a farm on 195 acres northeast of Sioux City discovered that Summit was planning to build across her property late last summer. “My first reaction was that this project is ludicrous,” she says. “They are taking my land and filling their pockets with government money.” (She’s also concerned about a potential pipeline rupture and thinks the pipeline will be bad for the global climate.) Main signed an easement agreement with hundreds of Iowans after joining a Sierra Club landowners group. Many farmers are familiar with stories from landowners who were not compensated for damage to their farmlands due to previous pipeline intrusions. “Everyone’s concerned about this,” says Richard McKean, a retired farmer who owns land in the path of the Navigator pipeline. “Our land is our livelihood.”

Towards the end of last year, with hostility rising in public forums, anti-pipeline lawn signs sprouting up around the state, and individual objections piling up in the IUB’s electronic filing system, Navigator and Summit brought out the big guns. In mid-December, a letter from Terry Branstad arrived in mailboxes of those in the pipeline’s path. “If the Sierra Club gets its way, there will be nothing left of Iowa’s ethanol industry,” the former governor wrote on Summit letterhead. “They are not your friends and will be long gone after they have destroyed the ethanol industry and the value of your corn-producing land.” Days later, he was on local Iowa news, making the case that Iowa farmers needed the CO2 pipeline to remain competitive in an energy-transition future.

The lines between political parties have become blurred as the controversy surrounding the pipelines has spread. Some people who oppose the pipelines were long sympathetic to organizations like the Sierra Club. Others, like those in the state’s largely conservative farming community, were less-likely allies, but found common cause opposing projects they felt would damage their land for private gain. The Republican Party controls the Iowa legislature, as well as the governorship. However, pipeline opposition has caused a split in the Iowa caucus. Tom Jeneary, a Republican representative in the Iowa House, says he’s been contacted by more than 150 constituents asking him not to let the pipelines go forward. “When you have that many people in the district that you are privileged to represent saying, ‘Please don’t do this,’” Jeneary says, “I don’t do it.” He supported a bill (ultimately defeated in committee on Feb. 17) that would have limited pipeline companies’ ability to seize control of farmers’ land. If the IUB pushes forward with pipelines despite landowner opposition, Jeneary says there’s likely enough support in the legislature to call a special session to block the approvals. It would then be up to Governor Reynolds whether to sign or veto this legislation.

Pipeline progress is still moving forward, in spite of public anger. Summit applied for a permit to the IUB in January 28. Navigator should file its application within the next weeks. Iowans living in those areas continue to witness the momentum of these projects. Deborah Main, a resident of Summit, was returning from church late last month when she saw Summit surveyors parked just a quarter mile from her home. Main watched them for several days to ensure they didn’t come onto her property. But, she was anxious to see them driving on her road. When they finally left, Main knew her relief would likely be temporary—under Iowa law, a certified letter and 10-days’ notice was all Summit needed to force her to let surveyors on her farm. “I feel this letter is coming any day,” Main says, “and I’m going to have to unlock my gate, and let them in.”

There’s reason for some observers in the climate world to be uneasy as well. While carbon capture for ethanol may be controversial, it’s becoming more common to believe that the global economy will need some in steel and cement sectors in order to cut down on emissions and prevent catastrophic climate change. Some people will be forced to allow CO2 pipes through their land. In Iowa, though, some key environmental campaigners say it won’t happen in their state. “We’re closing the doors,” says Mazour, of the Sierra Club. “We don’t want them here.”


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