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  • Writer's pictureKansas News Service

These ethanol plants want to bury CO2 in Kansas to cut their carbon footprints

Corn is the most common source of U.S. ethanol. Ethanol plants in central Kansas could build the state's first CO2 sequestration wells to shrink their carbon footprints. (Nomin Ujiyediin/

Kansas News Service)


Kansas has three carbon dioxide pipelines. Next, it could get two carbon sequestration wells, linked to ethanol plants. Here’s what we know.

By Calen Moore and Celis Llopis-Jepson, Kansas News Service


Two companies seek to build the first sites in Kansas where carbon dioxide emissions get pumped deep underground to keep them out of the atmosphere, a practice that proponents argue will combat climate change but that many environmental groups oppose.


The fledgling carbon sequestration industry is picking up pace globally, and geologists say rock formations beneath Kansas offer a bonanza of suitable locations for it.


“Kansas has abundant geology that would be compatible with long-term permanent CO2 storage,” said Brendan Bream, a senior scientist at the Kansas Geological Survey.


The Kansas Geological Survey envisions conducting a county-by-county study to identify suitable areas.


The two proposals for the state’s first carbon sequestration wells are linked to ethanol plants in central Kansas. They’ll need to pass muster with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The proposals come amid a national trend of corn ethanol makers racing to access federal tax incentives that could make or break an industry at risk of being sidelined by newer biofuels with smaller carbon footprints.


The wells would also mark a new chapter in Kansas’ foray into the world of carbon capture. So far, the state has three CO2 pipelines in southwest and southeast Kansas, and one well that repurposes the emissions from a Garden City ethanol plant into a tool for forcing hard-to-get fossil fuels out of the ground.


Here’s what we know about Kansas’ proposed and existing carbon dioxide infrastructure and a burgeoning new sector.


Who wants to sequester carbon dioxide in Kansas?

The two pending applications in Kansas are relatively small compared to massive multistate pipeline proposals that have grabbed headlines elsewhere in the Midwest. One of those seeks to carry CO2 from 51 ethanol plants in five states to sequestration wells in North Dakota.


PureField Ingredients, an ethanol and wheat protein maker in Russell, Kansas, submitted its application last spring to pipe emissions from the edge of town to a well that it would drill six miles away.


Its filings with the EPA describe the company as one of Russell’s largest employers in this rural area, which lies between Salina and Hays.


The company didn’t respond to requests for an interview.


It ships most of its ethanol to the West Coast and wants to capture 150,000 metric tons of carbon annually.


California, Oregon and Washington state have adopted rules pushing biofuel makers to shrink their carbon footprints. Last week, New Mexico followed suit.


The second application to build a carbon sequestration well in Kansas comes from an ethanol plant in Pratt, which also declined an interview request.


The Kansas News Service doesn’t have a copy of the proposal that Pratt Energy filed with regulators, so it’s unclear how many miles of pipeline the project would require. The EPA is reviewing an open records request from the Kansas News Service for details.


Many U.S. ethanol plants would need to pipe their emissions long distances to reach geological formations that can store CO2. Summit Carbon’s proposed 51-plant project in other states involves 2,000 miles of pipeline and has become embroiled in regulatory battles and community opposition. And last fall, similar hurdles killed a separate multistate effort involving top ethanol producers Valero and POET.


If ethanol plants in Kansas can show the EPA that rock formations close to them offer appropriate storage locations, that could save them time and money securing land access and regulatory permissions for laying pipe.


When would the Pratt and Russell projects happen?

The EPA aims for the permitting process to take two years.


Pratt Energy began the process late last year, and its application is in the earliest stage. The company needs to show the EPA that its paperwork includes all the essential elements before the agency digs in deeper.


Purefield started the process nearly a year ago. Its plan has passed that initial phase, and is now undergoing a technical review that could last through the spring of next year.


If the EPA moves toward permits for the projects, the agency would publish permit drafts and give the public an opportunity to comment and to request a public hearing.


Why are ethanol companies racing to sequester carbon dioxide?

Ethanol plants across the country don’t just want to stay competitive in West Coast states that demand low-carbon fuels. They also want to earn valuable incentives.


The Biden administration increased tax credits for companies that trap carbon underground. It also created a tax credit for producing low-emission fuels that starts next year. Ethanol makers could aim for sequestration credits, or they could aim for the low-carbon fuels credit and sell their emissions to other companies looking for sequestration credits.


The biggest CO2 pipeline proposals stand to earn hundreds of millions of dollars a year in tax credits.


Packing away emissions could also help ethanol’s image amid conflicting research about its benefits. Recent findings suggest the fuel does the environment more harm than good — findings that the industry dismisses.


The head of a biofuel trade group in Iowa has called carbon sequestration a “life or death” situation for corn ethanol makers, and market analysts say these companies must adapt or lose ground to newer, less carbon-intensive biofuels.


But hundreds of environmental groups have come out against carbon dioxide pipelines and sequestration. They say it diverts federal money that could be spent on long-existing climate solutions with stronger track records, such as wind energy and farming practices that pack carbon into soil.


Reuters has reported that it’s too early to know if carbon sequestration technology will prove effective and financially viable at large scales.


What are the three CO2 pipelines that already exist in Kansas?

Three pipelines carry CO2 in Kansas, federal regulators say. All three have less than 15 miles of pipe in the state.


One is a 14-mile pipeline in Finney County that transports CO2 from an ethanol plant in Garden City to the only well in the state of Kansas that uses captured CO2 emissions to extract oil.


The CO2 frees trapped oil and sweeps it toward the top of a well.


The other two CO2 pipelines transport greenhouse gases beyond state lines.


One 65-mile pipeline starts at a fertilizer plant in Coffeyville and heads to Burbank, Oklahoma, where it gets repurposed to extract fossil fuels, according to a 2015 federal report.

The other is part of 178 miles of pipe that carry, in part, CO2 from an ethanol plant in Liberal to the Texas panhandle — also for fossil fuel extraction.


Both pipelines are operated by Texas company CapturePoint, federal data show. The company hasn’t accepted multiple requests for interviews last month and this month.


Last month, the Kansas News Service reported that CapturePoint is considering piping CO2 from a potential renewable jet fuel plant that Canadian company Azure Sustainable Fuels wants to build in southeast Kansas.


Azure’s proposed factory location lies close to CapturePoint’s pipeline that feeds the fossil fuel industry in Burbank.


This practice of capturing CO2 but then using it to retrieve more fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gases is opposed by many environmental groups.


Will Kansas have a say on where CO2 sequestration wells get sited?

No. The EPA regulates CO2 sequestration wells for most states, including Kansas.


The federal agency has a duty to protect drinking water from industrial activities that involve injecting substances underground.


States can ask to take over regulation of these activities from the EPA.


But just three states have assumed oversight of sequestration wells: Louisiana, North Dakota and Wyoming. Arizona, Texas and West Virginia are seeking a role, too.


Kansas has already assumed oversight from the EPA of other kinds of injection wells – such as wells where oil producers dispose of waste brine.


Will it take over oversight of carbon sequestration wells, too? Officials at the Kansas Corporation Commission and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment don’t yet see cause to do so.


“The level of demand does not warrant the heavy burden of federal requirements” to assume oversight, a health department spokeswoman said.


She said officials may revisit the matter if federal rules eventually make carbon sequestration more common.


Does Kansas have appropriate rock formations for storing carbon?

Bream, at the Kansas Geological Survey, said Kansas could be a potential hub for carbon sequestration.


The pores and voids beneath parts of Kansas would work well for that use. Areas with lots of oil and gas wells are especially likely to have the right kind of geology, he said.


Given the tax incentives, Bream thinks more oil and gas producers could become interested in sequestering carbon or repurposing it to extract more fossil fuels from the ground.


The relatively small population in parts of Kansas could also mean that plans to build wells and pipelines in those areas wouldn’t run into as many hurdles.


Why do some communities and landowners oppose CO2 pipelines?

Companies face many of the heated debates that surround other kinds of pipelines.


Those include concerns about pipeline safety and fights over whether companies should be allowed to lay pipe against a landowner’s will.


In 2020, a CO2 pipeline erupted in Mississippi, poisoning the air and causing people to pass out or have seizures, landing 45 of them in hospitals.


Some farmers also worry that pipeline construction damages soil so significantly that it cuts into crop yields. Iowa State University research into a crude oil pipeline found as much. Other landowners have expressed anger over the effects to natural habitat.


But pipelines also pay local property taxes, which could benefit local governments in rural areas. Last year one Kansas county newspaper reported that oil and gas pipelines made up seven of the rural area’s 10 biggest taxpayers. After one of those pipes — the Keystone — exploded and polluted cropland, prairie and a creek, some residents said the economic benefits of pipelines to rural areas are worth such risks.


Some Iowa and South Dakota landowners have protested and sued companies trying to run CO2 pipelines across their property. And some Iowa counties passed rules restricting how close the pipelines can come to cities, homes and schools.


A court ruling barred enforcement of some of those rules because the federal government and an Iowa state agency already regulate pipelines.


This article was used by permission from the Kansas News Service. The Kansas News Service is a non-profit online news organization serving Kansas. For more information on the organization, go to its website at www.ksnewservice.org.

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