Carbon Capture from Nebraska Ethanol Plants Proposed

Source: By Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media • Posted: Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Green Plains ethanol plant near York, Nebraska
This Green Plains ethanol plant near York, Nebraska is part of an extensive proposal to capture, ship and store carbon dioxide. (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebrasaka Public Media News)

Big plans are being proposed to capture carbon dioxide from ethanol plants in Nebraska and pipe it away for storage. Supporters say that’ll help fight climate change, but critics say it’ll just postpone long-range solutions.

Standing on County Road O outside the Green Plains ethanol plant near York, Nebraska, in the foreground you can see a long string of black railroad tank cars stands ready to carry ethanol from the plant. In the background are tanks where corn is fermented and carbon dioxide is vented into the atmosphere. But soon, that carbon dioxide could be captured and sent via pipeline hundreds of miles for storage in North Dakota.

“The goal of our project is to capture the carbon dioxide emissions that are currently being emitted to the atmosphere at these facilities – capture it, compress it, place it into a pipeline and then transport it to North Dakota where it would be stored permanently and safely in the geologic storage locations that are deep underground,” said Jesse Harris, spokesman for Summit Carbon Solutions – a company formed earlier this year, headquartered in Ames, Iowa.

Harris said Summit has contracts with 31 ethanol plants in Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota and Nebraska. If approved, Harris said, the project would be the largest carbon capture and storage project in the world.

The Nebraska locations include plants in Norfolk, Plainview, Atkinson, Central City, Wood River and York. Those last four are opertated by Omaha-based Green Plains, Inc. Green Plains CEO Todd Becker, said he’s excited about the project.

Map of Nebraska communities with ethanol plants proposed for carbon capture
Map of Nebraska communities with ethanol plants proposed for carbon capture (Map by Joe McMullen, Nebraska Public Media)


“If we could decarbonize our fuel, decarbonize our feed ingredients that we produce, our innovative products that we’re going to produce then we could have low-carbon corn oils and low-carbon protein and low-carbon ethanol and low-carbon crops then — decarbonizing for the state — I don’t know anything more exciting than that in agriculture,” Becker said.

Summit Carbon’s Harris said that would produce big environmental benefits by reducing greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere that contribute to climate change.

“Our project currently would have the capacity of capturing about 12 million tons of CO2 every year, which is the equivalent of about 2.6 million vehicles – essentially taking 2.6 million vehicles off the road,” he said.

That approach has bipartisan support from the Biden administration and in Congress, where funding is included in infrastructure legislation. But not everyone’s thrilled with it, including Ken Winston of Nebraska Interfaith Power and Light, a group fighting climate change.

“If they can, in fact, remove that much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, we think that’s great. But there is some concern about a lot of different aspects of it. And probably the first one is just the idea that more money is going to be going into promoting fossil fuels, because ethanol is almost always blended with fossil fuels, and will be used to power fossil fuel vehicles,” Winston said.

Winston said it would be better to expand wind and solar electricity generation rather than extend the use of fossil fuels. Green Plains’ Becker calls that naïve.

“There’s 275 million cars or so on the road in the United States that are internal combustion engines. And if you can’t even make it across Nebraska without having to charge your vehicle, but you can make it across Nebraska in your internal combustion engine, I’m highly confident the internal combustion engine will be around for a while. You’re not going to turn this fleet overnight. And so, in the meantime, why not decarbonize your fuel?” he asked.

Advocates and critics also disagree about how serious pipeline leaks would be, ranging from merely releasing gas that’s already going into the atmosphere, to creating harmful or even lethal concentrations.

Beyond whatever the environmental effects may be, capturing carbon from ethanol plants would financially benefit companies like Green Plains because it would qualify the company’s ethanol as low carbon intensity fuel in markets requiring that, like California.

“California was the model. But then several other states have also started their own low carbon fuel standard as well. We’re waiting for Washington, Oregon, New Mexico New York, possibly Illinois (and) to determine whether there’s going to be a national low-carbon fuel standard as well, which we’re no sure of yet. Canada is a low-carbon market as well, or moving to a low carbon market. Europe’s a low-carbon market as well. So we haven’t even started to chip away at any of that yet because we’re really not capturing the carbon yet,” he said.

Summit’s proposal’s not the only one affecting Nebraska. Another company, Navigator CO2 Ventures, is proposing shipping carbon dioxide from Albion, Nebraska to Illinois. And a bill passed by the Nebraska Legislature this year lays the groundwork for carbon storage on-site at ethanol plants.

But already, opposition’s organizing. Mark Hefflinger of Bold Alliance, which successfully fought the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, spoke on a Zoom call last week with a new group called Pipeline Fighters Hub.

“The first Pipeline Fighters Hub briefing today is going to be on the topic of carbon capture and a proposed massive network of CO2 pipelines that would be needed to advance this new and as yet largely unproven technology, which the fossil fuel industry has started to position as a Holy Grail or Hail Mary of sorts to allow it to keep extracting and burning and producing more emissions for as long as possible while ignoring our climate crisis,” Hefflinger said.

Summit Carbon’s Harris said the technology has been around for years, if not on such a large scale. And Green Plains’ Becker said there will be plenty of opportunity for people to weigh in on the project.

“This isn’t a Republican project, it isn’t a Democratic project, it’s a decarbonizing 10 to 12 million tons of carbon out of the atmosphere project. And I don’t really know how you can put politics in the middle of that,” he said, before adding, sarcastically, “Don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll be able to do that in Nebraska.”

Nevertheless, Becker said he hopes the project will be up and running by 2024.