Guest column: Carbon sequestration pipeline's supposed benefits crumble on examination; our best future is nuclear

The Sept. 12 Ames Tribune included a story ("$4.5B carbon capture pipeline to run through Story, Boone counties") about an outfit named Summit Carbon Solutions, which is proposing to build a 710-mile-long pipeline to transport the carbon dioxide generated by about 30 corn-biofuel facilities making ethanol from corn raised in Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota to North Dakota for “sequestration” about a mile down into the earth.

Building that pipeline is projected to cost $4.5 billion and temporarily employ 14,000 to 17,000 people. Once it’s been built, running and maintaining it is to provide full-time employment for 350 to 460 people.

Summit Carbon Solutions says that it will be disposing of (“sequestering”) 12 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, which, according to the Environmental Protection Agency is equivalent to that emitted by 2.6 million typical U.S. cars (meaning 22 miles per gallon and driven 11,500 miles per year).

Superficially, that proposal sounds great in that it would provide lots of jobs and yet another “green” sounding rationalization for continuing to convert almost one-half of the U.S. corn crop to motor fuel. In other words, it’s consistent with both today’s business models (that’s why Warren Buffett and Iowa’s farmers like it) and green-leaning dogma. However, it also doesn’t represent a good solution to the issues posed by atmospheric carbon pollution (the consequences of global warming) or the fact that fossil fuels, especially the petroleum that we fuel our cars with, are rapidly shrinking finite resources that will become prohibitively expensive within another single human lifetime.

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One of the problems with schemes like this is that the numbers used to justify them aren’t put into proper perspective. For instance, in a biofuel plant, only one-third of the carbon in each corn kernel’s carbohydrate ends up as the CO2 that that pipeline, and its destination’s injection wells, are intended dispose of. The other two-thirds of its carbon is converted to a fuel which will be burned in an engine and thereby dumped directly into the atmosphere as CO2.

The rationale behind all biofuel schemes is that that they are considered “greenhouse gas neutral” — in other words, that 100% of the CO2 dumped into the atmosphere when corn ethanol is burned will be removed because of photosynthesis making new corn plants. While that assertion would indeed be true at equilibrium assuming a 100% efficient biofuel manufacturing system, it’s not true over the relevant time scale — the next 50 years or so. The reason for this is that the half-life (or average residence time) of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere is on the order of 100 years, which means that any CO2 released into the atmosphere now will continue to haunt both us and our children for the rest of our lives.

To solve the world’s energy-related problems, we can’t just keep ginning up rationalizations for continuing to fuel most of our civilization’s machinery with any sort of carbon-based fuel, period.

Summit’s most compelling-sounding number — that its pipeline will sequester carbon dioxide equivalent to that released by 2.6 million gasoline-fueled cars — sounds impressive but doesn’t point out that so-employed cars will nevertheless be dumping two-thirds as much CO2 as they would if fueled with petroleum instead of ethanol made in the proposed fashion. It also doesn’t point out that one average-sized nuclear power plant could “fuel” 2.6 million battery electric vehicles (for example, Bolts or Teslas) driven the same distance without dumping any CO2, N2O, methane or any other greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. That nuclear power plant would probably also cost about $4.5 billion to build and provide full-time employment for 350 to 460 people.

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Unfortunately, in the United States today there’s no effective business model for any such paradigm, and most green-leaning scientists, politicians and their supporters equate nuclear power with black magic and don’t seem much interested in learning why it’s not. That’s why the country has adopted policies that render it more profitable for an “energy” company to shut down an already-paid-for nuclear power plant, like Iowa’s Duane Arnold facility, than to run it.

The excuse for such actions is that wind and/or solar power is now “cheaper” and can replace its power. Neither wind nor solar power is reliable, and grid-scale batteries are prohibitively expensive, which means that if our decision makers deem system reliability to be important, those new windmills and solar panels will also have to be accompanied with new natural gas-burning, CO2-emitting, “peaker” power plants capable of powering us whenever Mother Nature decides to be cranky.

However, all is not lost everywhere. The Illinois Senate recently voted 37-17 to pass a sweeping clean energy package with $694 million in tax credits — the same subsidy that inspired Warren Buffett/Berkshire Hathaway’s investments in Iowa’s wind farms — for Exelon's Byron, Dresden and Braidwood nuclear power plants, the first of which had been slated to close this month. Exelon said it is now ready to refuel Byron and Dresden. Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the bill into law Sept. 15.

Do you suppose that Iowa’s lawmakers will also be able to see that light?

Darryl D. Siemer of Des Moines is retired after working as a consulting scientist at the Idaho National Laboratory.