Opinion: Carbon capture is essential to the future of ethanol

Source: By Lee Blank, Des Moines Register • Posted: Monday, March 13, 2023

Those who oppose ethanol are creating and advancing false narratives to help achieve their long-term goal of creating a world without ethanol.

A little over a year ago, the Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll found that 85% of Iowans, or what the pollster characterized as a “giant majority,” believe that ethanol is critical or fairly important to the state’s economy. As someone who has been deeply involved in agriculture here in Iowa and across the Midwest, I share that opinion and take quite a bit of pride that a strong, bipartisan coalition has supported the ethanol industry in order to drive growth in our broader economy.

Today, ethanol producers support 50,000 Iowa jobs, contribute $6.1 billion to the state’s GDP every year, and purchase nearly 60% of the corn grown in the state. As the largest purchaser of corn, the strength of the ethanol industry is directly and inextricably tied to the strength of land values and commodity prices that are absolutely essential to the livelihood of every single Iowa farmer.

There are many people, myself included, who see these wide ranging benefits and want to find ways to create an even brighter future for the ethanol industry. However, there are others who have clearly stated that ethanol should be eliminated altogether. For example, Sierra Club has argued that “ethanol serves to extend our reliance on fossil fuels, thus contributing to climate change” and characterizes the ethanol industry as “polluting” and “contributing to our climate crisis.” Food & Water Watch argues that the ethanol industry has done “tremendous harm to biodiversity due to intensive monocultural (corn only) production.”

The pro- and anti-ethanol viewpoints are now at the center of the debate around the carbon capture projects that have been proposed here in Iowa and across the Midwest. And unfortunately, those who oppose ethanol are creating and advancing false narratives to help achieve their long-term goal of creating a world without ethanol.

Here’s a simple fact. Carbon capture projects are essential to the future of ethanol. Virtually every ethanol plant across the Midwest has joined a carbon capture project and, as the executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association recently said, sequestering carbon is “a matter of life and death” for ethanol manufacturers. Reducing the carbon intensity of ethanol will allow producers to sell their product at a premium in the growing low carbon fuel marketplace. That extra revenue will allow ethanol manufacturers to reinvest in their operations, create new jobs, and continue to purchase the majority of corn grown in Iowa. Without carbon capture projects, Iowa’s ethanol industry will lose $10 billion annually and the loss of production will cut one billion bushels of demand for Iowa corn (source).

Opponents of ethanol have continually made the provably false claim that Iowa landowners are opposed to carbon capture projects. However, Summit Carbon Solutions has secured nearly 70% of its proposed route in Iowa through voluntary easement agreements with Iowa landowners. Despite this overwhelming majority support, Sierra Club and a relatively small group of landowners have attempted to use property rights to provide cover for their anti-ethanol efforts. The Sierra Club opposes these projects because they know carbon sequestration will lengthen the life span for Iowa ethanol for decades, if not indefinitely.  And yet they use property rights activists to give credibility to their opposition while hiding their ultimate goal, even if that goal will negatively impact the price farmers receive for their corn and the value of the land on which they depend.

At the same time, they are also trying to scare landowners around the land restoration process involved in pipeline projects. Today, there are 47,000 miles of pipelines in operation in Iowa and 3.3 million miles of pipelines in operation in the United States. This extensive infrastructure network is designed to keep our economy moving by safely transporting materials while also allowing landowners to use the land as they always had previously. In fact, the Iowa Utilities Board actually expanded the regulations around land restoration coming out of the most recent major pipeline project. Additionally, Summit has submitted a comprehensive plan for land restoration that provides details on topsoil separation and replacement, erosion prevention, repair of drain tile, soil restoration, and more. Here again, 1,100 Iowa landowners and 2,550 total Midwest landowners have reviewed the company’s approach to land restoration and felt comfortable signing an easement agreement.

For my part, I am pleased to stand with these landowners and help ensure that the ethanol industry remains competitive in the years to come. My hope is that Iowa policymakers take that same position and allow the regulatory process to continue moving forward, without changing the rules in the middle of the game.

Lee Blank is CEO of Summit Carbon Solutions.