Thursday, February 9, 2023

The corn ethanol-carbon capture pipeline schemes continue to be up front and center in the news. Although there are multiple pipelines, garnering the most attention is the one proposed by Summit Carbon Solutions that will capture carbon dioxide (CO2) gas from Iowa corn ethanol refineries and then pump it into North Dakota bedrock where it can scavenge oil from tired wells and inspire EPA to designate ethanol as kryptonite against climate change which will subsequently help ROWGs (Rich Old White Guys) get even richer.

The Summit proposal is being led by the Murderers' Row of cashing in on climate change: Terry Branstad (Lou Gehrig, because he's seemingly always in the lineup), Bruce Rastetter (Babe Ruth calling his shot) and Jess Vilsack (newcomer but future Hall of Famer Earle Combs). The 1927-28 Yankees led by the Babe and his own Murderers' Row steamrolled the American League on their way to becoming the first team to sweep (4 games to none) in two consecutive World Series. About their '27 victims, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Babe said this: "We won the World Series before it even got started ."

I think I know how the Pirates felt. Read on to find out why.

babe calling shot
Artist depiction of Babe Ruth predicting where the next pitch will land ('Calling his shot') in the 1932 World Series against the Cubs, another 4-0 wipeout. Image credit:

Since the Summit pipeline will make the jaunt from Iowa to North Dakota, they will need cooperation from not only Iowa landowners but also from our friends to the north in the Gopher state (of all the majestic animals they could’ve identified with, why oh why the gopher). Jennifer Borhus reported in the Minneapolis Star Tribune (1) that Summit COO Jimmy Powell said in a meeting at Lamberton, MN that “Minnesota is the only state Summit is crossing where it doesn’t have eminent domain power.” Well, well, well. Now this is pretty ripe. It’s become clearer by the day that Summit is going to need an endorsement from the three-member, governor-appointed Iowa Utility Board (IUB) to secure eminent domain power to get the pipeline installed in Iowa. As of today, Summit doesn’t have all the necessary easements from Iowa landowners and will need IUB to rule on the point. But, all three IUBers have been appointed by either former governor Branstad or current governor Kim Reynolds (the latter also a beneficiary of the Babe's generosity [2]), and the governor will have the opportunity to replace a departing member in April. I realize there are foregone conclusions and then there are FOREGONE CONCLUSIONS. But it seems like bad form to tell gophers you’ve counted your chickens before they’ve hatched. You can't blame them for being confident, however, because an unfavorable ruling from the IUB seems about as likely as a hog walking past a bucket of acorns.

But Summit isn't taking any chances; they're still going on the offensive. Vice President of Government Affairs Jake Ketzner (formerly Chief of Staff for Governor Reynolds) declared on Summit’s website that, and I quote, Some organizations like the Sierra Club and Food & Water Watch oppose carbon capture projects because they want to see the end of the ethanol industry along with its ability to purchase nearly 60% of the corn grown in our state (3).” Of course these two organizations (or any of the other environmental organization that I know of) have said no such thing, and have focused more on pipeline safety, reduced crop yields because of earth moving, and private property rights in opposing the pipeline.

Summit VP for Governmental Affairs, Jake Katzner (r).

And it's not just Summit that's raising this doomsday scenario if the pipes go unlaid. Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, said yet again on Tuesday that the pipeline was "life or death" for the ethanol industry, tossing out a 5-year life expectancy for fuel ethanol without it (4).

From where I sit, we should be thanking Jake and Monte for pointing out that corn ethanol would be a gutter fuel were it not for past and future government intervention. The greenhouse gas benefits being promoted are dubious at best (4, 5) and entrenchment or expansion of the industry will further pollute our drinking water here and further degrade the ocean 1500 miles away. Thousands of private wells have been contaminated throughout rural Iowa with nitrate from corn production, and 25% of Iowans drinking water from municipal systems require nitrate removal treatment. And bear in mind that the 10 mg/L limit for the contaminant in drinking water is appearing less and less protective of human health.

As I understand it, eminent domain should be granted when there is an overwhelming public benefit. But these guys are showing their hand to us by emphasizing the private benefit. Trying to show corn ethanol is a public benefit, with it's associated water quality degradation and all the other environmental consequences that come with its production, is not an easy task when you need independent and credible scientists to vouch for you. This in effect is the question that will be posed to IUB: are private economic benefits for ROWGs also public benefits, and does that justify the grant of eminent domain, regardless the peripheral but severe environmental impacts to the public in the form of water, air and habitat degradation? America being what it is these days, it probably won't be a difficult call for IUB.

What appears mysterious is the NGO world's apparent failure to understand what's at stake here and their unwillingness to take Jake and Monte up on their invitation to argue the merits of fuel ethanol. Clearly the environmental groups are more comfortable approaching this from the soil health angle, a strategy which will work to improve water quality at a glacial pace, if at all, but will come with a mountain of public money to try, once again, to entice farmers to get a tummy tuck when what's needed is major laparoscopy. This is an example of why the ag interests always win in Iowa. JUST WIN BABY is painted above their locker room door. And like Babe and Lou and the rest of Murderers' Row, win they do. As Babe said, they know the game is over before they ever step on the field. The enviros look up to see LIVE TO FIGHT ANOTHER DAY as they head out of the locker room onto the field. And  usually they manage to do that. If you haven't noticed, the Aggies want everyone to work within the system on environmental issues (PARTNERSHIPS!!), because, with help from both political parties, THEY BUILT THE SYSTEM. And believe me, the Aggies know their competition's habits and weaknesses very, very well.

I'll finish up with a story that, believe it or not, involves the court decision allowing NCAA college athletes to earn money from their Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL). Let me say first that I think these young men and women should have the same right to capitalize on their name and fame as the rest of us (I’m currently selling NFTs of myself landing a large Mississippi River walleye if you’re interested; check my Pinterest page for details). To that end, University of Iowa football star Jermari Harris recently announced that “I have been offered an NIL deal with the SWARM to partner with Summit Agricultural Group (Summit Carbon Solutions is a spinoff) to assist with their marketing and charitable outreach (7).” It gets harder and harder every day for me to process the world’s goings on, but where do I start with this. Don’t get me wrong, if Jermari can use this to upgrade his fishing tackle or treat his girlfriend to that weeklong fly-in fishing trip to Canada that she’s always wanted, more power to him. After all, if his coach can schlepp for the Iowa Corn Growers Association (8), why the heck not.  But the fact that these ROWGs, who stand to make $85/ton in carbon credits on 18 million metric tons of CO2 per year (that’s $1.5 Billion per year) (1), need to enlist a University of Iowa player to spike the ball after their touchdowns seems weak. Or strong. Hell, I don’t know. It just seems something. Demoralizing maybe.

How is a person to make sense of it all? Guys that couldn’t give two shits about climate change are going to work the system to make $1.5 billion a year off the public’s climate change angst and pump more oil out of the ground in the process. And an industry that has turned 75% our state into an environmental hellscape uses public institutions like ISU and UI and DNR to polish their reputation as stewards of the environment.

I once heard former North Dakota senator Byron Dorgan say that government shouldn’t be in the business of picking winners and losers; it should be in the business of picking winners. At the time this rhetoric appealed to me; in Dorgan's context, winners were those that contributed to the common good, and if they made a little money in the process, well, that was their just dessert. But it seems we don’t pick winners these days, we pick whiners. There is no regard for the common good, only what you can grab from it to make bank. And in our state, what might be considered a common good, a clean environment, is an enemy to a wealthy few if ‘clean’ gets in the way of their wealth extraction. This land is their land. And this government, it's their government.

1) Bjorhus, J. February 2, 2023. ‘Carbon Express’ pipeline runs into skepticism in Minnesota farm country. Investigate Midwest. 

2) Kauffman, C. Reynolds campaign collects an additional $1.2 million in contributions. Iowa Capital Dispatch, May 19, 2022.


4) Strong, J. Ethanol executive: Carbon capture might be ‘life or death’ for producers. Iowa Capital Dispatch, February 7, 2023.

5) Hill, J., 2022. The sobering truth about corn ethanol. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences119(11), p.e2200997119.

6) Lark, T.J., Hendricks, N.P., Smith, A., Pates, N., Spawn-Lee, S.A., Bougie, M., Booth, E.G., Kucharik, C.J. and Gibbs, H.K., 2022. Environmental outcomes of the US renewable fuel standard. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences119(9), p.e2101084119.


8) Jones, C. Shameless cropaganda is polluted with dishonesty. Cedar Rapids Gazette, September 25, 2022.