In an excellent article in the current winter edition of Farming Magazine, writer Alan Guebert explains his thoughts on the ongoing federal carbon dioxide greenhouse gas abatement program. In his typical in-your-face style, Guebert titled his story “Don’t bury just CO2 pipelines; bury the very idea.”

Crop Comments: Carbon dioxide pipeline addresses problem’s symptoms, not causesHe explains his reasoning, citing just-published case studies which “compare the cost and net carbon dioxide (CO2) output of the planned 2,000-mile Summit CO2 pipeline to the wind- and solar-based electricity that could fuel battery-electric vehicles (BEVs).” Guebert backs up his statement with math, tapping into expertise of Mark Z. Jacobson, civil and environmental engineer at California’s Stanford University.

Jacobson asked “What gives the better environmental and financial return? Billions spent on a CO2 pipeline, encouraging more ethanol use? Or investing the same amount on solar and wind generators to power BEVs?” (Granted, it’s a loaded question.)

Here’s how the carbon capture process works: It begins at an industrial site, such as an ethanol or power plant producing lots of CO2 emissions. The company Summit Carbon Solutions is seeking to build a five-state pipeline system that would transport captured carbon dioxide from ethanol plants (13 of which are in Iowa) to North Dakota for underground sequestration. The company would install and operate equipment at each facility to capture, process and compress the gas into a supercritical fluid to inject into the pipeline system.

As the plant burns fossil fuels, a liquid solvent absorbs the exhaust and separates its gases. A storage chamber collects separated carbon dioxide (which would otherwise enter the atmosphere and trap heat as a greenhouse gas); harmless nitrogen and oxygen are released.

Next, the system liquifies the CO2, which flows underground through steel pipelines to designated storage sites. Once it arrives, another pipe injects it deep underground in North Dakota, where it is isolated from the atmosphere, no longer actively contributing to climate change.

This process is not risk-free. CO2 remains a liquid in the high-pressure, high-temperature environment inside a pipeline. If the pipeline ruptures, that liquid escapes as colorless, odorless gas, difficult to detect without special instruments. This CO2 displaces oxygen, potentially causing suffocation, drowsiness and sometimes death; in fact, the gas is sometimes pumped into specialized chambers to euthanize livestock on farms.

In 2020, heavy rains triggered landslides that damaged a carbon capture pipeline in Mississippi. The pipe burst, released CO2, suffocating 45 people so severely that they needed to be hospitalized.

Here’s some of Guebert’s anti-ethanol mathematics, in which he compares competing models of the popular Ford F-150 4WD pick-up truck. In his example, the eight-cylinder flex-fuel vehicle (FFV) version costs $48,290 vs. its electric twin that costs $69,995. (FFV mixes include up to 85% ethanol (or E85) blended with gasoline.)

This Stanford study concludes that investing in wind turbines to provide electricity to BEVs is more beneficial in terms of consumer cost savings, CO2 emissions, land use and air pollution than a plan to capture CO2 from ethanol refineries, pipe it to an underground storage facility and then use the ethanol to produce E85 mixes for FFVs.

According to Guebert, ecological costs between the two technologies – wind and solar vs. ethanol – illustrate even bigger differences. This is because wind and solar electric generation are zero-carbon emitters, beating almost any blend of fossil or bio-based fuel. Jacobson said, “The higher ethanol blends don’t change the hard math underlying the colossal investment and environmental costs of CO2-generating ethanol plants, and ethanol use in general. This all despite the fact of ‘Big Ag’s’ insistence that ethanol is a ‘green’ fuel, at worst carbon-neutral, and, at best, carbon-negative. No outside-of-agriculture scientists agree with Big Ag.”

Clearly, Jacobson is one of those dissenters. In addition to the questionable ecological and economic merit of ethanol (a fuel which is almost entirely corn-based), there’s a human toll which is becoming increasingly apparent.

An online Scientific American article, published Oct. 1, 2023, addressed the “people” aspect of this controversy. The story, “Pipelines Touted as Carbon Capture Solution Spark Uncertainy and Opposition,” was written by Anna Mattson. Her story opened with “One hot summer day two years ago, Kathy Stockdale checked her mailbox and found a slip of paper that would change her life. The humble notice revealed that two carbon capture companies wanted to seize part of her family’s farmland in Hardin County, Iowa, for a pair of pipelines slated to pass through it. But Stockdale wasn’t going to give up her property without a fight.”

Representatives from a carbon capture company showed up three months later. Without asking permission, the reps began planting stakes where the pipeline would go, Stockdale said. “I have never felt more disrespect in my life,” she said.

She decided to fight back against the use of eminent domain. Although not militant ecologically, she partnered with the local Sierra Club chapter for support. Environmentalists might not seem like a natural ally in a battle against so-called green technology, but they have concerns about the growing U.S. web of carbon capture pipelines, which currently include more than 5,300 miles of underground conduit.

Even more than ecology, one of Sierra Club’s pressing concerns is safety. A study released in May 2023 found that carbon capture pipelines are more likely to experience small punctures rather than large ruptures such as the one in Mississippi. Smaller holes release the gas at a slower rate, making them harder to locate. Delayed response to smaller punctures could make them deadly. CO2 vaporizing and escaping causes the pipeline temperature to drop immediately, a potentially violent process.

The escaped gas doesn’t ignite or dissipate. It moves quickly along the ground and can collect in low-lying areas, including small valleys and basements near the pipeline route. If a person in one of these pockets breathes air with a 10% concentration of CO2, they can fall unconscious within minutes.