Ethanol and Carbon Capture on the Great Plains

Residents of the Great Plains are pushing back and are for now at least slowing down (for now) a multi-state carbon capture and storage project that would help lock in ethanol production across the corn belt for the foreseeable and turn North Dakota into a climate sacrifice zone.

Summit Carbon Solutions’ $5.5 billion plan is to “capture” carbon dioxide from ethanol plants in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and South Dakota, turn it into liquid, and pipe it to North Dakota where it would be buried underground.

It is one of many carbon capture projects being promoted and supported financially by the Biden administration as just the latest greenwashing distraction. The project, should it be completed, would also lock in long term the ethanol boondoggle.

Similar CO2 pipeline plans are being considered across the country after the federal government increased tax credits to $50 for every metric ton of carbon a company “sequesters” even though many such projects involve injecting the captured CO2 into depleted oil fields to help boost oil production.

Those federal tax credits are necessary to prop up the carbon capture & storage technology and provide the fossil fuel industry with another excuse to keep drilling and burning. The question is, will the project ever materialize?

It was looking more like a long shot after North Dakota regulators unanimously rejected the company’s plan back in August. But in a shocking move, those very same individuals recently granted a request to reconsider their denial of a permit for the Summit project for a 2,000-mile pipeline network that would carry carbon from 30-some ethanol plants.

North Dakota is an attractive option to dump the liquid carbon because of its regulatory control over the wells, which it assumed in 2018. That authority formerly belonged to the Environmental Protection Agency. The belief is that oversight will be more lax, making it easier and more profitable to dump carbon there. It also makes it more dangerous. From Bold Nebraska:

In the event of a carbon pipeline rupture or leak, an explosive plume of CO2 gas can emerge, odorless and colorless, an asphyxiant that can suffocate all living beings, and prevent combustion vehicles like cars from starting to enable an escape to safety.

This happened in 2020 in Satartia, Mississippi. Details from Huff Post:

It was just after 7 p.m. when residents of Satartia, Mississippi, started smelling rotten eggs. Then a greenish cloud rolled across Route 433 and settled into the valley surrounding the little town. Within minutes, people were inside the cloud, gasping for air, nauseated and dazed.

Some two dozen individuals were overcome within a few minutes, collapsing in their homes; at a fishing camp on the nearby Yazoo River; in their vehicles. Cars just shut off, since they need oxygen to burn fuel. Drivers scrambled out of their paralyzed vehicles, but were so disoriented that they just wandered around in the dark.

The first call to Yazoo County Emergency Management Agency came at 7:13 p.m. on February 22, 2020.

“CALLER ADVISED A FOUL SMELL AND GREEN FOG ACROSS THE HIGHWAY,” read the message that dispatchers sent to cell phones and radios of all county emergency personnel two minutes later.

First responders mobilized almost immediately, even though they still weren’t sure exactly what the emergency was. Maybe it was a leak from one of several nearby natural gas pipelines, or chlorine from the water tank.

The first thought, however, was not the carbon dioxide pipeline that runs through the hills above town, less than half a mile away. Denbury Inc, then known as Denbury Resources, operates a network of CO2 pipelines in the Gulf Coast area that inject the gas into oil fields to force out more petroleum. While ambient CO2 is odorless, colorless and heavier than air, the industrial CO2 in Denbury’s pipeline has been compressed into a liquid, which is pumped through pipelines under high pressure. A rupture in this kind of pipeline sends CO2 gushing out in a dense, powdery white cloud that sinks to the ground and is cold enough to make steel so brittle it can be smashed with a sledgehammer.

The pipelines can also harm agriculture production:

A 2021 Iowa State University study found “extensive soil disturbance from construction activities had adverse effects on soil physical properties, which come from mixing of topsoil and subsoil, as well as soil compaction from heavy machinery.” “Overall, in the first two years, we found the construction caused severe subsoil compaction, impaired soil physical structure that can discourage root growth and reduce water infiltration in the right-of-way,” said the lead soil physicist on the project. “They also found changes in available soil water and nutrients. The team found crop yields in the right-of-way were reduced by an average of 25% for soybeans and 15% for corn during the first and second crop seasons, compared to undisturbed fields.

Nebraska – one of the states included in the plan – doesn’t even have laws governing the oversight of carbon dioxide pipelines. Residents concerned with the environmental impacts of the mega project, as well as with losing their land, have effectively tied the project up in the courts.

Landowners (who generally receive a measly one-time payment from pipeline companies to build a pipeline on their land), are arguing in court against eminent domain powers and that simply allowing the companies to survey land without permission is unconstitutional.

Earlier this year an Iowa district court judge ruled that allowing hazardous liquid pipeline companies access to private land for surveys is unconstitutional because it doesn’t provide compensation for intangible damages suffered by landowners.

While legislation failed in three of the states this year that would have prevented companies like Summit from using eminent domain for land easements, it is still up to regulators and courts in each of the states whether the project is worthy of such power. Some counties, getting out ahead of the states, have already adopted stricter rules about where the pipelines can be built.

Nebraskans, for their part, are united against the project thus far. From Iowa Capitol Dispatch:

Right now, some counties are considering local ordinances concerning the pipelines,according to Jane Kleeb, founder of Bold Nebraska, the citizen group that led the opposition to the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline. She said at least 430 landowners are rejecting offers to sell right-of-way to carbon dioxide pipeline developers in the Midwest.

Summit is of course not taking no for an answer and is aggressively pursuing landowners in court and attempting to keep details of its project secret. From Iowa Capitol Dispatch:

In North Dakota, Summit has sued landowners to get access to their properties for land surveys. A judge in that state recently upheld the law that allows the surveys as constitutional.

In South Dakota, there are more than 100 pending state and federal court proceedings related to the pipeline proposals. Summit has sued landowners to gain access to their property for surveys and counties for moratoriums and other actions that would block construction of its pipeline.Recently, Summit initiated more than 80 eminent domain proceedings in South Dakota court….

In Iowa, Summit and Navigator have sued landowners and counties and also the Iowa Utilities Board to prevent it from releasing certain information they have provided to the board as part of the permit process.

Concern is growing in Bismarck, North Dakota, which is close to where the carbon would be injected underground. Residents are worried about their safety and aren’t getting much information from Summit about what would happen if there’s a leak. There are also questions over whether insurance policies would cover anything in case of a leak since insurance companies do not cover liability associated with pollutants and most treat CO2 as a pollutant.

While the legal minutiae will likely decide whether the mega project goes through, the big picture is still one of a dubious technology (carbon capture and storage) helping to double down the ethanol boondoggle. From Yale Environment 360:

Growing corn in the U.S. heartland still has a major environmental impact — one that will only increase if we add even more ethanol to our gasoline. Higher-ethanol blends still produce significant levels of air pollution, reduce fuel efficiency, jack up corn and other food prices, and have been treated with skepticism by some car manufacturers for the damage they do to engines. Growing corn to run our cars was a bad idea 10 years ago. Increasing our reliance on corn ethanol in the coming decades is doubling down on a poor bet.

Along with the aforementioned tax credits for carbon capture, the Biden administration earlier this year announced $251 million for carbon capture and storage projects in seven states. It’s just the latest greenwashing effort to avoid the reality that the only solution is to move away from the growth-at-all-costs capitalism.

Food and Water Watch succinctly lays out why carbon capture is such a catastrophic waste of time and money:

1. Carbon Capture Is an Expensive Failure

2. Carbon Capture Is Energy Intensive

3. Carbon Capture Actually Increases Emissions

4. Storage Presents Significant Risks

5. Carbon Capture Trades Off With Other Critical Solutions

Importantly, Food and Water Watch points out that “successful” capture projects only exist at facilities where the carbon is injected into existing wells to extract more oil. This practice is known as “enhanced oil recovery.”

That’s likely a big reason why a billionaire oil driller is investing in the Summit capture and storage plan on the high plains. oil tycoon Harold Hamm’s Continental Resources has poured $250 million into the project. Hamm’s company helped grant the U.S. oil industry another life through the use of horizontal drilling to free oil trapped in shale rock.

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  1. Henry Moon Pie

    Thanks for this, Conor. You’re exactly right to focus on the use of this “captured” CO2 in tertiary oil recovery. That’s the real goal. It’s just that the oil companies would like a double dip tax break rather than just the one they get from employing tertiary recovery itself.

    One quibble with the article you quoted:

    Denbury Resources, operates a network of CO2 pipelines in the Gulf Coast area that inject the gas into oil fields to force out more petroleum

    That’s not an accurate description of the process. The CO2 is injected to increase the miscibility of the oil, essentially making the oil more slippery so that it slides out from the rock formation:

    Gas injection or miscible flooding is presently the most-commonly used approach in enhanced oil recovery. Miscible flooding is a general term for injection processes that introduce miscible gases into the reservoir. A miscible displacement process maintains reservoir pressure and improves oil displacement because the interfacial tension between oil and gas is reduced.

    Also, that judge in Iowa is risking a appellate reversal unless the law has changed a lot. Representing Shell 40+ years ago, I defended against a challenge to Shell’s right to survey. The case law then was unanimous is finding that it was premature to raise constitutional objections to a condemnation against a petition to survey. A survey is basically no harm, no foul unless some fool leaves a rancher’s gate open.

  2. Scottd

    Replace “ethanol” for “carbon capture” in those 5 points and you have identified the real problem. Topsoil that took 10,000 years to make destroyed in a generation.

  3. Michael Fiorillo

    While granting that # 2 feed corn is closer to an industrial feedstock than a proper food, the very idea of transforming food into fuel for automobiles (combined with all the attendant fossil fuel inputs used to produce and ship it) is a shandah (shameful act) of waste and heedlessness.

  4. tegnost

    The project, should it be completed, would also lock in long term the ethanol boondoggle

    Because markets…

    1. steppenwolf fetchit

      The only way to cancel ethanol for gasohol would be to cancel the Federal Mandate forcing oil companies to mix ethanol into gasoline. Whichever government agency which ordered that mandate would have to be forced to cancel it.

      If that cancellation were not enough to cancel corn ethanol, then further measures would have to be taken to cancel corn ethanol . . . . like cancelling the subsidies for corn ethanol and canceling the Butz-legacy subsidies for growing corn. ( The more corn grown, the more subsidy received I believe is how it works).

  5. Googoogajoob

    They must like what they are seeing with the Boundry Dam Carbon Capture facility near Estevan, SK.

    I’ve been hoping that there will eventually some kind of analysis on the outcomes this facility has produced since it went online in 2014 but details seem slim to none right now.

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