The Contradictions of Carbon Capture

Fox Business News recently interviewed a South Dakota farmer named Jared Bossly. A company called Summit Carbon Solutions is laying the groundwork to run pipelines through five Midwestern farming states for the purpose of capturing, compressing, and transmitting CO2 from ethanol processing facilities to a final resting place deep below the ground, somewhere in North Dakota. Fox News reports that more than 80 eminent domain lawsuits have been filed in South Dakota for this purpose. Mr. Bossly’s wife (he was not home at the time) recorded footage of the occupants in an unmarked pickup truck with Louisiana license plates which parked, unannounced, on their property. The occupants entered the workshop on the premises near the farmhouse, rooted around a while, then proceeded to a more remote area of the property and began surveying.

Summit Carbon tried to get a restraining order on Bossly and get him cited for contempt of court for allegedly threatening to kill the surveyors -- a claim that Bossly vehemently denies, saying he only spoke to the surveyors for a few seconds on the phone. The contempt charges were dropped, but the surveying was approved by a judge.

In May, 2022, the Biden Administration announced a $3.5 billion program to capture carbon pollution from the air, and the money has been flowing copiously. A quick search on LinkedIn for companies engaged in Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage (CCUS) projects will reveal dozens of companies, most of which are U.S.-based. They are well-staffed and generously funded with millions of up-front taxpayer dollars.

Summit Carbon Solutions does have its share of proponents -- among them ethanol producers, heads of Chambers of Commerce, and politicians of all stripes from state and local governments. It’s one thing to dangle large sums of other people’s money to induce cooperation, but landowners are apparently being bludgeoned into submission with eminent domain.

The byline of the Dakota Free Press is “South Dakota’s True Liberal Media.” Readers of American Thinker will appreciate the opening paragraph of this article, gracefully titled “Awkward: Right-Wing Media Realizing Kristi Noem Sides with Global Climate Change Profiteers, Not South Dakota Property Owners”:

South Dakota landowners threatened with eminent domain by carbon dioxide pipeliner Summit Carbon Solutions are finding a sympathetic if somewhat awkward ear in the radical right-wing press. The generally loathsome Epoch Times sent a reporter to South Dakota to take quotes and pictures on the farm of good Spink County Democrat Ed Fischbach, who is leading the fight against the Iowa company’s plan to seize land without permission for its project.

The article conflates opposition to these pipelines with opposition to the Keystone Pipeline. However, eminent domain is meant to serve the common good: depriving the country of 800,000 barrels of oil/day from Keystone is different from depriving the country of CO2 from ethanol plants at the cost of billions of dollars. But talk about strange bedfellows -- a vanguard of South Dakota liberal media siding with the “generally loathsome” Epoch Times!

The CCUS projects in the Midwestern faming states are all predicated on the continued, if not expanded, production of ethanol, because ethanol facilities present localized concentrations of CO2 that can be harnessed and disposed of more efficiently than merely sucking carbon dioxide out of the ambient atmosphere.

A Reuters article from March, 2022 reports that

The government estimates that ethanol is between 20% and 40% less carbon intensive than gasoline. But a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that ethanol is likely at least 24% more carbon intensive than gasoline, largely due to the emissions generated from growing huge quantities of corn [emphasis added].

The production of ethanol results in a net loss of energy: “Adding up the energy costs of corn production and its conversion to ethanol, 131,000 BTUs are needed to make 1 gallon of ethanol…[which] has an energy value of only 77,000 BTU.”

And let us not give short shrift to Power Density. In his 2010 book Power Hungry. The Myths of "Green" Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future, energy expert Robert Bryce compares the amount of the energy produced by various sources in terms of horsepower per acre, or wattage per square meter. An average U.S. Natural Gas Well, for example, produces 287.5 hp/acre. An Oil Stripper Well (producing 10 bbls/day) produces 148.5 hp/acre. Corn Ethanol comes in at a pathetic 0.25 hp/acre (pg. 86).

An Occam’s Razor approach to solving this problem would be to shut down all the country’s ethanol production and to not generate all that carbon dioxide in the first place. Granted, the ethanol industry enjoys wide bipartisan support. But that doesn’t make it rational, or good for the country. Farmers receive substantial revenues by diverting an average of 40% of total corn yields to the production of ethanol. Why not just give that money to the farmers in exchange for them allowing 40% of their corn acreage to lie fallow? We might ask, facetiously, if we really needed all that extra corn to eat or export, why would our government prefer we burn it in our gas tanks? Think of the CO2 that would not be generated by growing and harvesting all that corn, the water that would not be drained from our aquifers for irrigation, the salination of our topsoil that would be abated by not applying unnecessary nitrogen fertilizers, and most obviously, the absence of the need to capture and bury carbon from ethanol plants.

An advantage of ethanol is that it reduces greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy reports that a 2021 Argonne Labs study “found that U.S. corn ethanol has 44%–52% lower GHG emissions than gasoline.” Let’s say ethanol reduces GHG by 50%. So, a tankful of gasoline with 10% ethanol yields a net GHG reduction of only 5% (50% of 10%).

Another advantage of ethanol is jobs in rural areas. The National Corn Growers Association reported that “[I]n 2019, the U.S. ethanol industry helped support nearly 349,000 direct and indirect jobs.”

Even if those advantages were sufficient to maintain or expand the ethanol industry, it sounds almost farcical to ask: “what is the cost-benefit analysis of spending billions of dollars to capture and sequester the CO2 from those corn fermentation processes, and to what extent would all that CCUS actually benefit the planet?” When a John Kerry or a Greta Thunberg utters Climate Change Disaster words to the effect of “the sky is falling, we’re all going to die!” they would have us believe that it’s trivial to worry about boring quantitative cost-benefit ratios and returns on investment when the entire planet is facing an imminent, existential threat.

The hyperbolic language of the climate change crowd has been wearing thin ever since Al Gore’s dire predictions from 2006 have inconveniently not materialized. It’s up to us to make the left realize they’ve overplayed their hand: they cannot ride roughshod over property rights whenever it suits them, just as they cannot force us to drink Bud Light if we don’t wish to do so.

Image: KevinMShea

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