Charlie Johnson showcases his alfalfa cover crop that maintained living roots in the soil through the winter and early spring. (Joshua Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)
Some farmers who oppose carbon-capture pipelines say there’s a better way to put carbon in the ground: Pay farmers to do it.
Two companies are proposing to spend billions on pipelines through South Dakota, to capture carbon dioxide produced at ethanol plants and transport it to underground sequestration sites in North Dakota and Illinois. The projects are eligible for federal tax credits, and could allow ethanol producers to sell their products in places with restrictive emissions standards.
Advocates argue the pipelines would sustain and grow the corn and ethanol industries, and contribute to national climate goals by capturing greenhouse gas emissions.
Some farmers along the proposed pipeline routes fear the potential for toxic carbon dioxide plumes from leaks. They also resent the use of the courts to obtain farmers’ land for the pipelines, through a process called eminent domain. Those positions have pitted farmers along the pipeline routes against some other farmers, who support the pipelines because of their potential to help the ethanol industry.
Charlie Johnson has an organic farm just south of Madison along the route of a proposed pipeline. He said soil health practices are more effective and sustainable solutions for carbon sequestration, because plants remove carbon dioxide out of the air that ends up in the soil, without the need for carbon-capture technology or a pipeline. When farmers engage in soil health practices, they can also reduce chemical usage, limit soil degradation and erosion, and protect wildlife habitat.
“The farming practices where we have more grass, more rotation, more diversity, they can unite us as producers and have us work toward a common goal to improve our soils, and use our soil and plants as a true carbon sink,” Johnson said. “Right now, we have farmers protesting against farmers, farmers protesting against ethanol, and farmers protesting against out-of-state interests that want to line their own pockets.”
State Rep. Karla Lems, R-Canton, said farmers are in danger of losing out to pipeline companies who saw an opportunity to capitalize on the federal government’s interest in sequestering carbon. She described federal tax credits for the pipelines as a boondoggle.
“They don’t want that money to go to the landowners,” Lems said of the pipeline companies.
Current congressional hearings and negotiations on the next farm bill present an opportunity to consider how carbon sequestration should be incentivized in agriculture.
The state’s major ethanol producer, Poet, and the two pipeline companies have expressed support for both natural and pipeline-based sequestration methods.
Elizabeth Burns Thompson, vice president of government and public affairs for Navigator CO2 Ventures, the backer of the Heartland Greenway pipeline, said by doing “all of the above,” ethanol will become more valuable, given the lower carbon intensity score as a result.
“It’s just not enough to produce green fuels,” she said. “We need to be producing green fuels in an increasingly greener fashion.”
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