Magic carpet ride

You may have heard that some insanely rich and politically connected guys want to burrow like a badger beneath an Iowa cornfield so they can lay some pipe that will ultimately carry carbon dioxide (CO2) to the hinterlands.

I wrote about this before with my essay "C is for Carbonalism," but, and this probably comes as no surprise, that first essay didn’t discourage those badgers one darn bit.

So, I brought in a big gun, Professor Emeritus Matt Liebman, recently retired from Iowa State University where he was Henry A. Wallace Chair for Sustainable Agriculture, to beef up my storytelling with some juicy T-bone cred.

Actually, he wrote about all of this; I just sexed it up a little bit.

Here's the meat

Three companies – Summit Carbon Solutions, Navigator CO2 Ventures and Archer Daniel Midlands partnered with Wolf Carbon Solutions – want to take you on a magic carpet ride so you will agree to help them build hundreds of miles of pipelines through the fields and timberlands of dozens of Iowa counties.

Pumped through the pipes will be carbon dioxide (CO2) captured at ethanol manufacturing plants and other industrial facilities. The CO2 would be permanently entombed underground or used for ‘enhanced oil recovery’ by injecting it into oil wells (we know, we know).

They say your help is warranted because this will reduce CO2 emissions, which comprise 79 percent of the total U.S. greenhouse gas footprint (USEPA-2022).

Some in government agree, because hefty payments from the feds would be given to CO2 pipeline owners as part of a funding package for climate mitigation.

This is in line with much of government policy these days, which seems to be at long last recognizing the need for ordinary Americans to reward our billionaire brethren for their altruism on stuff like climate change and water quality.

God only knows how bad the air and water would be without them.

Here's the bone

The whole thing is mostly BS. (Matt is a much classier guy than I am; I probably would’ve just spelled out BS, but rest assured, I will return to my usual coarseness next time.)

Land, as noted by conservationist and legal scholar Neil Hamilton, is the source of rural Iowa’s wealth and a major determinant of the state’s culture.

Farmers and other rural residents differ in how they manage land, but virtually all recognize the need to protect it now and for future generations. The importance of protecting rural land is reflected in the name of Iowa’s Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

Building pipelines disrupts the soil and vegetation in farm fields and timberlands.

Crop yields can suffer for years while the soil slowly heals from the wounds inflicted by excavation, compaction, and back filling. A recent study conducted by Iowa State University scientists found that crop yields were reduced for both corn (-15%) and soybean (-25%) in the field zone affected by oil pipeline construction (Tekeste et al. 2021).

Farmers are aware of this and reluctant to allow degradation of their land by pipeline construction, and thus the rich guys are running into to some issues trying to obtain the necessary easements from landowners.

To avoid the increased costs of having to put in a pipe that wanders the countryside like a drunken hobo, the rich guys are going to need the use of eminent domain.

This is a power invested in governments that forcefully takes private land for fair compensation in pursuit of benefits to the broader public. It is described explicitly in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and exists at both federal and state levels.

While eminent domain can be used to take private land for public projects like road construction and drinking water supply, it can also be used by governments to allow private companies to take and pay for private land if doing so is deemed to be in the public interest. In Iowa, the state Utilities Board can grant to private companies the ability to use private land for electric transmission and communications lines, and underground pipelines for the transport of natural gas, hazardous liquids and other substances (Iowa Utilities Board 2018).

Given the link between land health and farm productivity, and the paucity of undisturbed forests and grasslands in Iowa, logic would demand the public benefit be very large indeed to offset the damage incurred from building private CO2 pipelines through the fields and timber of hundreds of Iowa citizens. So, would capturing CO2 from industrial facilities in Iowa, mostly ethanol plants, produce a benefit commensurate with the damage and the proposed taxpayer commitment?

(opening up excel spreadsheet)

About 15 billion gallons of ethanol are produced annually in the U.S., 30 percent of that at 42 Iowa plants.

During the production of ethanol, CO2 is emitted from the fermenting corn (75%) and from fossil fuel combustion (25%) to generate heat for the necessary industrial processes. Fermentation CO2 is nearly pure and much easier to collect than that generated by the fossil fuel combustion, and research shows 2,853 metric tons of CO2 are released from fermented corn grain per million gallons of ethanol produced (Hornafius and Hornafius 2015).

Not all the fermentation CO2 would be economically feasible to capture and place in a pipeline, but perhaps the billionaires deserve our generosity on this too, so let’s assume it all is.

As such, if the U.S. ethanol industry manufactured 15 billion gallons of ethanol, there would be about 43 million metric tons (1 metric ton=2,205 pounds) of CO2 that could be captured and prevented from entering the atmosphere. For Iowa, that would translate to about 12.8 million metric tons of CO2. Those numbers may seem large, yet they are but a posterior emission in a hurricane when compared to the greenhouse gas emissions from vehicle tailpipes, the entire U.S. transportation sector and the whole U.S. economy.

If you combusted a gallon of pure ethanol (about 7 pounds) in an engine, 12.7 pounds of CO2 would be released (Rosenfeld et al. 2018).

Because ethanol has only two-thirds the energy content of gasoline and because of the configuration of most existing car engines, the two liquids are mixed, with E10 (i.e., 10% ethanol) being the most common version available at a filling station. About 19 pounds of CO2 are produced when a gallon of E10 is combusted (Rosenfeld et al. 2018).

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (2021), in 2020 U.S. motorists consumed 123.5 billion gallons of E10, emitting 1.06 billion metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere in the process.

Thus, U.S. tailpipe emissions from using E10 in 2020 were almost 25 times greater than the best-case-scenario 43 million metric tons of CO2 that could be captured at all the nation’s ethanol plants.

Increasing to 15 percent the amount of ethanol blended with gasoline (i.e., E15) would shift that figure only slightly. Also note that during 2020, road traffic was reduced by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

All U.S. cars, trucks, and airplanes discharged 1.57 billion metric tons of CO2 in 2020; total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (CO2, nitrous oxide, methane, and others) were equivalent to about 6.0 billion metric tons of CO2 (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2022).

Again, CO2 emissions were higher in pre-pandemic years. But the pattern is clear: CO2 emissions from the U.S. transportation sector would be 37 times greaterthan what might be captured at ethanol plants, while CO2 emissions from the whole U.S. economy would be 110 times greater.

Admittedly, the 43 million metric tons (CO2 that could be theoretically captured from fermenting corn for ethanol nationwide) is not zero metric tons. This fact does not make carbon capture from ethanol plants a good idea.

There are all sorts of opportunity costs with schemes such as this; that is, money that otherwise could be spent to affect a much greater public good to combat climate change is instead lost so that rich folks can become richer folks. These guys look at money like I look at morel mushrooms; no matter how much you have, it just ain’t ever enough.

So here we will bulletize our conclusions so you can remember them the next time your local elected representative tries to give you a magic carpet ride to brandish their environmental consciousness by telling you they support CARBON CAPTURE (!):

  • Complete capture of CO2 during ethanol production would have very minor effects on U.S. GHG emissions.
  • The amount of CO2 captured during ethanol production would be a tiny fraction of what would be emitted out of vehicle tailpipes.
  • Eminent domain used to build CO2 pipelines in Iowa would force farmers and landowners to allow degradation of their fields and forests for very little public benefit.
  • Allowing profits to accrue to private pipeliners using eminent domain would be a corruption of the ideal of private sacrifice for public good and should be prevented.

Also, we have one final suggestion on climate change for anybody that wants to listen: let’s try to stop polluting in the first place, instead of asking the taxpayer to pay for bricks and mortar and pipe and iron and on and on and on so billionaires can monetize the cleanup of the pollution they profited from when it was generated.
IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering, University of Iowa


Hornafius, K.Y. and J.S. Hornafius. 2015. Carbon negative oil: A pathway for CO2 emission reduction goals. International Journal of Greenhouse Gas Control 37: 492–503, doi:10.1016/j.ijggc.2015.04.007.

Iowa Utilities Board. 2018. Frequently asked questions about eminent domain. IUB, Des Moines, IA.

Rosenfeld, J., J. Lewandrowski, T. Hendrickson, K. Jaglo, K. Moffroid, and D. Pape. 2018. A Life-Cycle Analysis of the Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Corn-Based Ethanol. A report prepared by ICF under USDA Contract No. AG-3142-D-17-0161.

Tekeste, M.Z., E. Ebrahimi, M.H. Hanna, E.R. Neideigh, and R. Horton. 2021. Effect of subsoil tillage during pipeline construction activities on near-term soil physical properties and crop yields in the right-of-way. Soil Use and Management 37: 545-555, doi:10.1111/sum.12623.

U.S. Energy Information Administration. 2021. How much ethanol is in gasoline, and how does it affect fuel economy? U.S. EIA, Washington. D.C.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2022. 1990–2020 National-Level U.S. Greenhouse Gas Inventory. U.S. EPA, Washington, D.C.

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