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Some Iowans are skeptical of pipelines that companies say will fight climate change

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There's long been debate over how best to cut greenhouse gas emissions like carbon dioxide to fight climate change, especially as the country tries to reach a net-zero emissions goal by 2050. One of the latest examples is in the Midwest. Three companies say they can build major carbon capture pipelines that could remove the gas from ethanol plants and store it deep underground. While the ethanol industry is on board, others question the climate benefits. Harvest Public Media's Katie Peikes reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAS PUMP CLICKING)

KATIE PEIKES, BYLINE: It's a windy day, and I'm at a Kum & Go gas station in Ames, Iowa. Cars are lined up, and we're all filling up with gasoline. The gas I'm putting into my car has 10% ethanol. And in Iowa, ethanol is huge.

MONTE SHAW: We have the highest concentration of ethanol production.

PEIKES: Monte Shaw is the executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. He says Iowa is the largest corn producer in the U.S., and about half of that corn becomes ethanol. California and some other states have fuel standards that are pushing ethanol to lower its emissions. The Biden administration is even offering incentives for carbon dioxide removal. Shaw says Iowa's ethanol industry needs carbon pipelines to compete.

SHAW: If Iowa screws this up, we're in big trouble. We will absolutely lose a huge chunk of our industry and put the Iowa ag economy in a tailspin.

PEIKES: The proposed pipeline routes could span six states, from the Dakotas down to Illinois. One of the pipeline companies boasts more than 2,500 landowners have signed on to its project. Many farmers in Iowa say they support ethanol, but they oppose carbon pipelines - not over carbon emissions, but over property rights. Northeast Iowa farmer Jeff Reints hauls practically all of his corn to an ethanol plant you can see from his farm. Reints was skeptical when he first heard of the pipelines. Then he learned that the nearby ethanol plant had signed onto one of the projects, and a pipeline would run through part of his farm.

JEFF REINTS: This is some of the best farmland the good Lord has entrusted us with to be stewards of, and it's just a shame to think that, just for private gain - that they're going to put that scar across our land.

PEIKES: There are farmers across the Midwest who agree. The issue has brought farmers and environmentalists together in an atypical alliance. Jess Mazur of the Iowa chapter of the Sierra Club says carbon pipelines don't solve climate change.

JESS MAZUR: There are tried and true ways to solve our climate crisis that are better uses of our public tax dollars than this questionable technology that, you know, puts risky pipelines in our backyards, that destroys farmland.

PEIKES: The three pipeline companies say capturing carbon helps the U.S. meet its greenhouse gas emissions goals. Elizabeth Burns-Thompson is the spokesperson for Navigator CO2 and says the company will be able to capture and store 15 million metric tons of CO2 each year.

ELIZABETH BURNS-THOMPSON: For the processors that we are partnering with, it is the biggest tool in the toolbox for decarbonization.

PEIKES: University of Minnesota engineering professor Jason Hill says ethanol with carbon capture pipelines could reduce some of its CO2. But long term, these pipelines perpetuate using liquid fuel for transportation.

JASON HILL: When, in fact, we know that vehicle electrification using clean electricity sources or cleaner electricity sources can more quickly get us to our carbon reduction targets.

PEIKES: While disagreement over carbon pipelines continues, all three pipeline companies are working to get land rights for their projects around the Midwest. For NPR News, I'm Katie Peikes in Ames, Iowa.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAT SLATER SONG, "4 LEAF CLOVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Katie Peikes
Katie Peikes is a Sioux City-based reporter for Iowa Public Radio.

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