CO2 pipelines would be a boon for ethanol. But some question if they're really a climate solution (2023)


CO2 pipelines would be a boon for ethanol. But some question if they're really a climate solution (1)

Chandler Johnson


Harvest Public Media

Jeff Reints only has to look out across his field to see where most of his corn ends up.

“We're directly west of the Shell Rock POET ethanol plant approximately a short mile away,” he said while walking through corn stalks left from last year’s harvest.

Ethanol is a fantastic market for his corn, Reints said.

But when he found out the nearby ethanol plant would be a part of a proposed pipeline to carry away carbon dioxide, he was concerned. When he learned the pipeline would run underneath his northeast Iowa farm, he became staunchly opposed.

“This is some of the best farmland the good Lord has entrusted us with to be stewards of,” Reints said. “It's just a shame to think that just for private gain, that they're going to put that scar across our land.”

Three proposed pipeline projects would travel through Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and South Dakota, taking CO2 from ethanol plants and sending it into Illinois and North Dakota where it would be stored underground. The Biden administration is offering big tax incentives to help the U.S. reach net zero by 2050, which some ethanol proponents say are critical for the industry.

Farmers across the Midwest are fighting the carbon dioxide pipelines — largely over property rights. At the same time, environmentalists are raising concerns over whether carbon capture is the best way to curb emissions, especially compared to other strategies in the energy and agricultural sectors.

‘It’s life or death’

Summit Carbon Solutions, Navigator CO2 and Wolf Carbon Solutions — the three companies proposing to capture CO2 from Midwest ethanol plants and pipe it underground — say the projects will lower ethanol’s carbon emissions and help the farming economy.

Monte Shaw, the executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, said the state either needs to be friendly to carbon pipelines or risk devastation for its corn growers and ethanol plants.

“If Iowa screws this up, we’re in big trouble,” Shaw said. “We will absolutely lose a huge chunk of our industry and put the Iowa ag economy in a tailspin.”

CO2 pipelines would be a boon for ethanol. But some question if they're really a climate solution (3)

Katie Peikes


Harvest Public Media

Carbon capture and clean fuel production tax credits are promised in the Inflation Reduction Act, a “game changer” for ethanol, Shaw said. It’s expected that ethanol plants that get those tax credits will be able to expand their production. But in order to qualify, the fuel that ethanol plants produce needs to meet certain emissions standards.

California and some other states have fuel standards that are pushing ethanol to lower its carbon emissions. With carbon pipelines, Shaw said, Iowa ethanol plants would survive a critical turning point in the industry’s history. Without pipelines, the state’s ethanol business could be doomed.

“It will create winners and losers,” Shaw said. “It will create plants that stay in business and plants that go out of business. So when we say that it’s life or death for many ethanol plants, that is an honest reality of where we’re at.”

A recent report, paid for by the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, claims if Iowa ethanol plants are not able to participate in carbon capture pipeline projects but ethanol plants in neighboring states can, 75% of Iowa’s ethanol production would be lost to those states in the next five to 10 years, many ethanol plants would shut down, and Iowa’s ethanol industry would lose more than $10 billion a year without carbon capture in the state.

Ethanol is huge in Iowa.

The state is the largest corn producer in the nation and half of Iowa’s corn is used to make ethanol, mostly for gasoline fuel blends.

Yet Reints and many other farmers, as well as environmentalists, say they don’t buy the narrative that ethanol will shrivel up without carbon pipelines. Some point to better ways to sequester carbon or cut it altogether.

CO2 pipelines would be a boon for ethanol. But some question if they're really a climate solution (4)

A solution to climate change?

The proposals are creating unusual alliances between farmers, such as Reints, who are concerned about property rights and safety, and environmentalists who question whether sequestering CO2 from ethanol is the best way to cut emissions.

In February, farmers from across Iowa gathered at the Iowa State Capitol for a rally calling lawmakers to ban eminent domain, the power of the government to take private land for the carbon pipelines.

Jess Mazour, the conservation program coordinator for the Iowa chapter of the Sierra Club, helped organize the rally. She argues carbon pipelines are not a real solution to climate change.

“There are tried and true ways to solve our climate crisis that are better uses of our public tax dollars than this questionable technology that puts risky pipelines in our backyards, that destroys farmland,” Mazour said.

One way to combat climate change in the ag sector would be for farmers to focus on keeping carbon in the ground, Mazour said. That includes planting more cover crops that enhance soil health and store carbon in the soil.

Asked if carbon pipelines should be a part of efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions in general, Mazour said she doesn’t see it.

“I think rather than putting a Band-Aid on emissions, let’s stop burning them in the first place,” she said.

CO2 pipelines would be a boon for ethanol. But some question if they're really a climate solution (5)

Lucius Pham



The three companies proposing pipelines through the Midwest argue capturing CO2 is important to getting the U.S. to net zero emissions.

Summit Carbon Solutions says its proposed 2,000-mile pipeline will be able to capture and store 12 million metric tons of CO2 each year from ethanol plants in Midwest states including Iowa, South Dakota and Minnesota — the equivalent, it says, to taking 2.6 million cars off the road every year.

Wolf Carbon Solutions, which also plans to transport 12 million metric tons of CO2 each year through a 280-mile pipeline running from Iowa to Illinois, says it will “[lower] the carbon intensity of ethanol, bolstering its position as a premier alternative fuel.”

Navigator CO2 is proposing a 1,300-mile pipeline network from South Dakota and Nebraska, through Iowa and into Illinois. Spokesperson Elizabeth Burns-Thompson said Navigator will capture 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year.

“We will not meet our goals if we don't institute a variety of tools and tactics, carbon capture being one of those,” Burns-Thompson said. “Is it the golden key? No. But when partnered alongside other developments, investments, tools, technologies, that is how we make true progress and we do so in a quantifiable fashion.”

University of Minnesota engineering professor Jason Hill studies the environmental impact of energy and food. He points out that ethanol’s emissions come from multiple sources—not just the production of ethanol. That includes growing corn, producing fertilizer to grow corn, transporting the fuel, distributing it and burning it.

So while the pipelines will mean some calculated reduction of CO2, Hill said it won’t make as big of a difference as advertised.

“When you zoom out and look at the broader implications of pumping that carbon dioxide underground, the picture doesn't look so rosy,” Hill said.

One of the biggest factors he said is that the pipelines perpetuate using liquid fuel for transportation in the long-term.

“When in fact, we know that vehicle electrification, using clean electricity sources or cleaner electricity sources can more quickly get us to our carbon reduction targets,” Hill said.

The Biden administration sees both electric vehicles and carbon capture as key to curbing emissions. The Inflation Reduction Act increased available tax credits, providing $85 per metric ton for CO2 captured and stored, up from the previous $50 offered.

Recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed new emissions standards with more stringent tailpipe emissions and estimates that by 2032, 67% of new car and light-duty truck sales will be electric.

CO2 pipelines would be a boon for ethanol. But some question if they're really a climate solution (6)

Lucius Pham


Iowa Public Radio

Pressure on the ethanol industry — both from lower emission standards and electric vehicles — doesn’t worry Jeff Reints.

He said even if the ethanol industry did contract somewhat, "We've worked through thousands of other storms in farming. We'd work through that one. Ingenuity will prevail.”

Reints points across the field to a new facility, which breaks soybeans down into soybean oil for renewable diesel.

“Which is a huge new demand coming,” Reints said. “We’ll adapt.”

This story was produced in partnership withHarvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

CO2 pipelines would be a boon for ethanol. But some question if they're really a climate solution (7)

Chandler Johnson


Harvest Public Media


What is the problem with CO2 pipelines? ›

CO2 pipelines are susceptible to ductile fractures, which can, like a zipper, open up and run down a significant length of the pipe, they can release immense amounts of CO2, hurl large sections of pipe, expel pipe shrapnel, and generate enormous craters.

How much CO2 is produced when making ethanol? ›

Other common forms of ethanol include E15 and E85. One gallon of ethanol produces 4% fewer emissions than gasoline, 8,595 grams of CO2 (gCO2) compared to 8,887 gCO2.

Is CO2 produced in ethanol fermentation? ›

Ethanol fermentation, also called alcoholic fermentation, is a biological process which converts sugars such as glucose, fructose, and sucrose into cellular energy, producing ethanol and carbon dioxide as by-products.

Why do we need a CO2 pipeline? ›

We can now capture carbon emissions instead of releasing them into the atmosphere. Pipelines are needed to deliver those emissions from where they're captured to their permanent underground storage area hundreds or potentially thousands of miles away.

Are pipelines really bad for the environment? ›

Pipelines can pollute air, water, soil and climate when they leak. Pipelines that cross rivers and streams are more vulnerable to breaks when heavy rain and floods occur.

How bad would the Keystone pipeline be for the environment? ›

Keystone XL would have crossed agriculturally important and environmentally sensitive areas, including hundreds of rivers, streams, aquifers, and water bodies. One was Nebraska's Ogallala Aquifer, which provides drinking water for millions as well as 30 percent of America's irrigation water.

Is ethanol really better for the environment? ›

Is ethanol bad for the environment? Today's corn-based ethanol reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by roughly 40 – 50 percent compared to regular gasoline, according to recent studies by Harvard, USDA and the Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory.

Does ethanol reduce CO2 emissions? ›

Life Cycle Emissions

Carbon dioxide (CO2) released when ethanol is used in vehicles is offset by the CO2 captured when crops used to make the ethanol are grown.

Is ethanol better than CO2? ›

Safety. Ethanol extraction is flammable, but not nearly as much as light hydrocarbons such as butane and propane. However, for those that want peace of mind, CO2 can offer more safety than other extraction methods since carbon dioxide is not flammable and less toxic than ethanol.

Is CO2 a byproduct of ethanol? ›

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a byproduct of ethanol production. Most ethanol producers treat this CO2 as a waste stream, but they could be missing out on a valuable revenue opportunity.

How do you separate CO2 from ethanol? ›

For recycling use, carbon dioxide was easily separated from ethanol using a high pressure distillation column.

Is CO2 and ethanol produced when beer is made? ›

Since Pasteur's work, several types of microorganisms (including yeast and some bacteria) have been used to break down pyruvic acid to produce ethanol in beer brewing and wine making. The other by-product of fermentation, carbon dioxide, is used in bread making and the production of carbonated beverages.

How much CO2 would the Keystone pipeline produce? ›

Other studies refer to the emissions associated with oil transported by the Keystone XL pipeline – 830,000 barrels per day, and 181 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per year.

Are CO2 pipelines liquid or gas? ›

CO2 is transported in three states: gas, liquid and solid. Commercial-scale transport uses tanks, pipelines and ships for gaseous and liquid carbon dioxide. Gas transported at close to atmospheric pressure occupies such a large volume that very large facilities are needed.

How many CO2 pipelines are in the US? ›

There are around 50 CO2 pipelines currently operating in the US, which transport approximately 68 million tonnes per annum of CO2. CO2 pipelines and ships pose no higher risk than is already safely managed for transporting hydrocarbons such as natural gas and oil.

What are bad things about pipelines? ›

Leaks, emissions, and other damage from pipelines can destroy vegetation, harm local wildlife, and add to local water and air pollution levels. Operators can help avoid these issues by strict inspection and maintenance routines.

Why is the pipeline a bad idea? ›

Environmentalists opposed the pipeline in part because of the oil it would carry — oil sands crude from Alberta. It requires more processing than most oil, so producing it emits more greenhouse gases.

What is the greatest threat for pipelines? ›

Threat #1 - Corrosion

Internal Corrosion: Pipelines are vulnerable to internal corrosion from the materials they transport. Many carry liquids and gasses that are hazardous and corrosive and this degrades the surface of the metal. Highly pressurized pipelines are also susceptible to hoop stress failures as well.

Why did we shut down the Keystone pipeline? ›

Dec 8 (Reuters) - Canada's TC Energy shut its Keystone pipeline in the United States after more than 14,000 barrels of crude oil spilled into a creek in Kansas, making it one of the largest crude spills in the United States in nearly a decade.

Why are people upset about the Keystone pipeline? ›

In the here and now, more energy is required to extract oil from the Alberta oil sands than in traditional drilling, and Environment Canada says it has found industry chemicals seeping into ground water and the Athabasca River. This risk to local communities is one of the reasons many have opposed the project.

Is the Keystone pipeline bad for climate? ›

Myth #1: Keystone XL won't contribute to climate change

But even the State Department's own analysis found found the pipeline, once operational, would cause the equivalent emissions of 300,000 cars a year, and it noted that tar sands were 17% more carbon intensive than the average barrel of US crude oil.

Is ethanol worse than gas for the climate? ›

The five-year study, partially funded by the National Wildlife Federation and U.S. Department of Energy, found that ethanol is at least 24% more carbon-intensive than gasoline, Reuters reports.

Is ethanol bad for the climate? ›

The research, which was funded in part by the National Wildlife Federation and U.S. Department of Energy, found that ethanol is likely at least 24% more carbon-intensive than gasoline due to emissions resulting from land use changes to grow corn, along with processing and combustion.

Is ethanol good for climate change? ›

Grain-based ethanol cuts greenhouse gas emissions significantly—by 44 to 52% compared to gasoline, according to the Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory. Similarly, researchers from Harvard, MIT, and Tufts concluded that today's corn ethanol offers an average GHG reduction of 46% versus gasoline.

How bad is ethanol for the environment? ›

Ethanol and ethanol-gasoline mixtures burn cleaner and have higher octane levels than gasoline that does not contain ethanol, but they also have higher evaporative emissions from fuel tanks and dispensing equipment. These evaporative emissions contribute to the formation of harmful, ground-level ozone and smog.

Does ethanol produce less CO2 than fossil fuels? ›

The most recent DOE study , published by Argonne National Laboratory in 2021, found that U.S. corn ethanol has 44%–52% lower GHG emissions than gasoline.

Is ethanol gas more environmentally friendly? ›

Overall, ethanol is considered to be better for the environment than traditional gasoline. For example, ethanol-fueled vehicles produce lower carbon dioxide emissions.

Does ethanol reduce air pollution? ›

Ethanol is a renewable fuel made from various plant materials collectively known as "biomass." More than 98% of U.S. gasoline contains ethanol to oxygenate the fuel. Typically, gasoline contains E10 (10% ethanol, 90% gasoline), which reduces air pollution.

Does ethanol clean carbon? ›

The ethanol in E85 clears carbon deposits from these areas. E85 is such an effective cleaner that some people run one or two tanks worth of E85 through their engine instead of using an engine cleaner.

Is ethanol more efficient? ›

Fuel Economy and Performance

The impact to fuel economy varies depending on the energy difference in the blend used. For example, E85 that contains 83% ethanol content has about 27% less energy per gallon than gasoline (the impact to fuel economy lessens as ethanol content decreases). FFVs are optimized for gasoline.

Does having a CO2 pipeline on your property lower the value? ›

Because crops can still be grown over a pipeline easement, the value of a permanent CO2 pipeline easement on farm ground may be as low as 25% of the land's per acre value. And remember: you won't be paid for the whole field--just the total acreage encompassed by the easement.

What is the problem with CO2 gas? ›

Climate change is primarily a problem of too much carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. This carbon overload is caused mainly when we burn fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas or cut down and burn forests.

Are there existing CO2 pipelines in the US? ›

Today, there are nearly 50 CO2 transportation pipelines in the U.S. with a combined length of over 4,500 miles, operated by over a dozen different companies.

Is CO2 corrosive to pipelines? ›

Corrosion associated with aqueous environments containing carbon dioxide (CO2) and/or hydrogen sulphide (H2S), is a well-known phenomenon in oil and gas industries. This type of corrosion is of particular importance in transportation through steel pipelines.

What are the disadvantages of CO2 emissions? ›

Greenhouse Effect/Climate Change. Plant & Crop Life. Human & Animal Health.
Human and animal health affected by high CO2 levels
  • Heat Waves – Already the deadliest extreme weather type, an increase in CO2 directly leads to increased Earth temperatures. ...
  • Pollution – Pollution currently kills 9 million people per year.
Sep 8, 2020

Is releasing CO2 bad for the environment? ›

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere warms the planet, causing climate change. Human activities have raised the atmosphere's carbon dioxide content by 50% in less than 200 years.

Is CO2 the worst greenhouse gas? ›

Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide—the most dangerous and prevalent greenhouse gas—are at the highest levels ever recorded. Greenhouse gas levels are so high primarily because humans have released them into the air by burning fossil fuels.

Is CO2 the biggest cause of climate change? ›

CO2 produced by human activities is the largest contributor to global warming.

Why is CO2 bad for climate change? ›

Without carbon dioxide, Earth's natural greenhouse effect would be too weak to keep the average global surface temperature above freezing. By adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, people are supercharging the natural greenhouse effect, causing global temperature to rise.

What is the biggest CO2 emitter in the US? ›

The largest source of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities in the United States is from burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation.

What is the longest CO2 pipeline in the world? ›

The Alberta Carbon Trunk Line, when completed, will be the world's largest CO2 pipeline. The 240-kilometre pipeline will collect captured CO2 from a fertilizer plant and the new Sturgeon Refinery near Edmonton, and pipe it to mature conventional oilfields near Clive, Alberta.

How many pipelines are being built in the US right now? ›

There are four petroleum pipeline projects in the United States currently in the construction phase, including new pipelines and expansions.

What is the downside of carbon steel pipeline systems? ›

Vulnerability to Corrosion

One of the primary disadvantages of carbon steel pipes is that they are vulnerable to corrosion. This is because carbon steel pipes are made of iron, which is a naturally reactive metal. When iron is exposed to oxygen and water, it forms a substance known as rust.

What are the worst CO2 emitters? ›

The US, China and Russia have cumulatively contributed the greatest amounts of CO 2 since 1850.


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