Bonnie Ewoldt received letters from Summit Carbon Solutions in September confirming that her 170-acre soybean-and-corn farm in Crawford County in Iowa was in the path for a pipeline that would transport carbon dioxide from ethanol plants in the Midwest to an underground storage facility in North Dakota.
They had never heard of it.
Ewoldt, who is 76, recalls that "we just thought it was absurd."
Ewoldt, a retired teacher from high school and former columnist in a local newspaper, began to research the project online.
Summit had presented the $4.5 billion pipeline months before , calling it "the largest carbon capture-and-storage project in the world." claiming that it would ensure Iowa's ethanol industry's viability by reducing its carbon footprint, as the country tries to reduce the impact of climate change. Summit had to first bury the lines under thousands of parcels privately owned property, mostly farmland.
Ewoldt was concerned about the farm's value and being damaged. Ewoldt saw the project as an infringement of the strong emotional bond farmers have with their land. She was an anti-pipeline activist and wrote letters to Iowa newspapers.
She is one of hundreds of protesters who joined forces with environmentalists to say that the pipeline project plan was unsafe. They point out a 2020 gas leak at a Mississippi carbon dioxide pipeline which has already caused widespread illness. Summit claims that the pipeline will be safe while it is being constructed and once it begins carrying carbon dioxide. This will be a purer version than the Mississippi pipeline.
They also claim that the pipeline, which is one of many carbon capture projects launched in recent years and backed by billions in federal subsidies, will not do much to combat climate change.
Two other companies announced plans to build similar pipes in Iowa. This makes Iowa a central point in the ongoing battle over carbon capture. An old technology that was primarily used to extract more oil from the ground, but is now being promoted to be an environmental cure.
The Iowa clash sparked protests as well as heated public hearings. This pattern has been repeated in other states, thanks to a surge in carbon storage and capture. Only 12 of these projects are currently operating in the United States. However, thanks to a flood of federal subsidies, 85 are in development. 51 of them were announced in 2021, according the Clean Air Task Force. This non-profit advocates for expanding carbon capture.
Carbon capture is not yet financially viable and has been questioned for its environmental benefits. However, some see it as one of last hope to reduce planet-warming emissions, before the world reaches a tipping point and experiences unprecedented heat waves and droughts, fires and floods, and the extinction of many species.
President Joe Biden made carbon capture and storage a key part of his climate plan. In November, Biden's infrastructure bill included more that $8 billion for carbon cap projects. He also proposed tax breaks for developers that are yet to be approved in Congress. This is in addition to the more than $8 billion of direct funding, and tax credit that federal government has given carbon capture projects since 2010.
A wide range of polluting industries, including ethanol, natural gas and coal, see carbon capture as a way for them to meet their emission-reduction commitments, compete in carbon credit programs, and keep their current operations productive. Technology's advocates claim that increasing federal subsidies could result in a decrease of up to 250m metric tons of carbon dioxide emission by 2035. This is still only a fraction of the 5 billion metric tonnes that the United States emitted in 2020.
Lee Beck, Clean Air Task Force's international director of carbon capture, stated that the Iowa projects "embody a next generation carbon management projects", in which private investors and companies see a viable future.
Beck stated that climate regulation will be implemented and that net zero emissions is the goal.
Environmentalists are split by the rise of carbon capture. Some argue that it is worth doing anything to prevent climate catastrophe. Some argue that carbon capture can make matters worse by prolonging the lives of polluting industries.
Jim Walsh, policy director of Food & Water Watch, a non-profit that promotes renewable energy and a halt to the production of fossil fuels, said that "this is a scam that will squander us our chance to respond to this crises, and it must be stopped."
The transformation of carbon capture as a tool for oil extraction into a solution to global warming is a reflection of the complex politics of climate change. It has opened up a stream of government dollars that benefits polluting sectors and driven an all-of the-above strategy.
Gregory Nemet, a University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher who studies the impact of public policy on climate-friendly technology, said that "we do have to try everything." "If we are to address the climate problem and make it safer, we must get to net zero emissions by 2020. That's not too far.
Iowa could be the next big test for technology.
Summit Carbon Solutions' proposal for a state-owned pipeline is the largest and has faced the most resistance. The project, if approved by the state authorities, would be capable of transporting 12 million tons per year of carbon dioxide, which is far more than any other pipeline.
Plants that make ethanol, which is a fuel made of fermented corn, would produce carbon dioxide. As a result, this process produces enormous amounts of carbon dioxide. Summit's plan would capture and convert the gas into liquid before it is released.
The liquified gases would then be sent through more than 2,000 miles worth of pipelines, which would run northward, collecting more carbon dioxide from more that 30 ethanol plants in five different states, before reaching a storage facility in Bismarck in North Dakota. The carbon dioxide would then be driven underground for thousands of feet into porous rock formations, which would be later capped.
Nearly all carbon capture projects in America use carbon dioxide to extract more oil underground. This is done by injecting carbon dioxide into sludgy formations. It lowers oil's viscosity, making it easier to pump to surface. This decades-old method not only helps projects make money but also contributes towards the burning of fossil fuels.
Summit claims it won't do this with its North Dakota project and will instead store carbon dioxide underground. Summit has not kept its promise to environmentalists.
Summit claims its plan will help ethanol plants that are in uncertain times due to the rise of electric vehicles to stay in business. Summit plans to make them purveyors a more valuable commodity, fuel with a lower carbon footprint. This is what California and other states have coveted.
Justin Kirchhoff, president and CEO of Summit Ag Investors (a division of Summit Agricultural Group, Iowa), stated that the project would increase plants' "long term profitability and viability."
Kirchhoff stated that the company will also be able to rely on federal tax credits. He stated that the Summit pipeline would not be financially viable without the credits.
Before construction can start, the Iowa Utilities Board must approve the project. This decision is unlikely to be made in the next few months.
Summit will also need access to land owned mostly by farmers to construct the pipeline. Summit claims that the company has paid $20,000,000 to landowners and obtained permission for more 100 miles of land in Iowa. Some landowners are refusing to accept cash offers from the company for easements on their land, either because they are concerned about their crop yields or because they feel the company is trying to get into their backyard. Summit could also ask the utilities board for the power to eminent domain to force agreements if they fail to win them over.
This has upset landowners more and led to a state Legislature attempt to ban the use eminent domain for pipelines. Summit and two other pipeline developers opposed the bill. The landowners and their lawmaker allies continue to try.
Opponents point out that Summit employs many of Iowa's most powerful political figures. These include Terry Branstad (a former Republican governor ), Bruce Rastetter , a major Republican donor, and Jess Vilsack , who is Summit Carbon Solutions general counsel , and the son U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Jessica Mazour, who organizes the opposition for the Sierra Club's Iowa Chapter, said that "This is about power versus weakness."
Courtney Ryan, spokeswoman for Summit Carbon Solutions, stated in an email that Summit was proud to have a bipartisan team working on this project. This is a reflection of the importance of the Midwest's agriculture and ethanol industries.
Ewoldt wishes them to fail.
The family farm they purchased 50 years ago when they were still in their 20s, is no longer managed by her and her husband. They moved to Dickinson County in Iowa and sold their home there. Now they rent the farm out to a young man who is interested in farming. Ewoldt hopes corn will continue to be a profitable crop. Ewoldt wants to do her part in helping the environment. She said that it is not worth giving easements to corporations that will use her land for a pipeline.
Ewoldt stated that it was a valuable thing to farm people. The land is only part of you. We cherish our agricultural background. It's what we are. It's who we are."
She will reject the offers of the pipeline manufacturer. Many others will, too. The pipeline might still be built.