New Iowa carbon task force looks like greenwashing

“If someone tasked you with making an exhaustive list of who could profit from carbon sequestration, this is what you would come up with,” tweeted Chris Jones, a research engineer at the University of Iowa who has written extensively about agriculture and water quality.

He was referring to the Carbon Sequestration Task Force, which Governor Kim Reynolds established through a June 22 executive order. In a written statement touting the initiative, Reynolds said Iowa “is in a strong position to capitalize on the growing nationwide demand for a more carbon free economy.” She will chair the task force, and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig will co-chair.

The task force looks like a textbook greenwashing effort: deploying concern about about “sustainability” and “low carbon solutions” as cover for policies that will direct public money to large corporations in the energy and agriculture sectors.

One tell: Reynolds did not involve any of Iowa’s leading environmental organizations, which have long worked to reduce carbon emissions.

“DISAPPOINTING BUT UNSURPRISING”

In addition to Reynolds and Naig, the task force includes four state agency heads, leaders of two large energy companies, and more than a dozen representatives of agribusiness or agricultural interests. (The full list is at the end of this post.)

Josh Mandelbaum, senior attorney for the Environmental Law & Policy Center, confirmed no one from that organization was contacted about participating. He added,

It’s disappointing but unsurprising that the environmental community was entirely left off of the Governor’s Carbon Sequestration task force. Regardless, the Carbon Sequestration Task Force should not distract from the fact that there are uneconomic coal plants currently running in Iowa that could be retired and save Iowa consumers millions of dollars while reducing carbon pollution.

If we are serious about reducing carbon pollution, we should focus efforts on taking immediate and known steps to retire uneconomic coal plants like MidAmerican’s Neal 3 and Neal 4 plants in order to reduce carbon pollution and save money for Iowans.

SUSTAINABLE FARMING, SOIL HEALTH NOT PART OF CONVERSATION

Leaders of the Sierra Club’s Iowa Chapter and its Beyond Coal campaign representative in the state were also unaware the task force was being created. Chapter director Pam Mackey-Taylor told Bleeding Heartland,

It is disappointing that members of the environmental community and sustainable farming advocates are not represented on Gov. Reynolds’ carbon sequestration task force. Iowa has a chance to lead on this issue if we take bold innovative steps in restoring soil health. Further it will ensure that Iowa can continue to be a world leader in producing agricultural crops.

Jess Mazour, conservation program coordinator for the Sierra Club Iowa Chapter, added,

The fact that Governor Reynolds excluded Iowa’s leading environmental groups from the task force shows us that this is just another industry front group to advance false solutions like carbon capture and storage and carbon trading markets. We already know how Iowa can lead the country in carbon sequestration – we have to stop industrial agriculture practices like intensive row-cropping and factory farms. Anything else is just lipstick on a pig.

RISK OF PROLONGING “ENVIRONMENTAL INEQUITIES”

Iowa Environmental Council executive director Brian Campbell told Bleeding Heartland his group would be closely watching the task force’s work, since “Achieving real and permanent reductions in carbon pollution is fundamental to protecting Iowans from the ever-escalating weather extremes and disasters impacting our state due to climate change.”

We are disappointed the environmental community in Iowa is not yet represented on the Task Force. IEC will consider the best ways to engage with this effort and the working groups focused on energy and agriculture. We represent a broad cross-section of Iowans concerned with the environment and want to ensure new policies and programs supporting carbon sequestration are grounded in science and developed through transparent processes so all stakeholders have a voice.

Farmers and rural landowners must be part of the conversation shaping carbon markets – not just big ag. And these markets must be carefully designed so they do not further environmental inequities, allowing the dirtiest power plants and industries to continue polluting, often in already disadvantaged communities. We will continue to give voice to these concerns as the task force takes shape.

A LEG UP FOR BRUCE RASTETTER’S PIPELINE PROJECT

Adam Mason, state policy organizing director for Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, said being excluded from the task force was “especially concerning given the proposed Rastetter and Black Rock CO2 pipelines being proposed as ‘carbon sequestration’ solutions… which we would dub as false climate solutions.” 

Mason was alluding to a carbon capture and storage project announced by Bruce Rastetter’s Summit Agricultural Group in February. The company’s news release described Summit Carbon Solutions as “a new business platform that will address the global challenge of decarbonization by developing the world’s largest carbon capture and storage project.” Rastetter called the plan “a giant leap forward for the biofuels industry. Summit Ag Investors President Justin Kirchhoff–whom Reynolds named to the new task force–called Summit Carbon Solutions “a truly transformational project.”

In March, Summit Carbon Solutions hired former Governor Terry Branstad as a “senior policy advisor.”

Texas-based company Navigator CO2 Ventures is also planning to build a carbon sequestration pipeline across Iowa, taking “carbon dioxide emissions from ethanol plants and other agricultural manufacturers.” No one from the company competing with Summit Carbon Solutions is on the new task force. I’m seeking to clarify whether anyone from that project was invited to participate.

Iowa CCI’s Mason summed up the governor’s initiative this way.

The climate impacts of monoculture farming (to feed ethanol), more pipelines, and further propping up ethanol (by paying them to cap and transport emissions under the guise of carbon sequestration) are all areas of concern for us. We would agree with your analysis – this is greenwashing plain and simple to prop up industrial ag and ethanol – and to continue funneling public money to Iowa’s political kingmakers like Bruce Rastetter (who all happen to be Reynolds supporters).

“NEW SOURCES OF REVENUE FOR OUR AGRICULTURE AND ENERGY SECTORS”

Asked why the environmental community was excluded, the governor’s spokesperson Pat Garrett replied via email on June 23, “Any Group/person can apply to be on a working group.”

Garrett did not respond to follow-up questions. Did the governor’s office ever publicize the opportunity to apply for this task force? Did staff working for Reynolds or other state agencies reach out to the various individuals and entities that are represented, or did those people apply with no invitation?

If you were trying to reduce Iowa’s carbon footprint, you’d want to bring environmental voices to the table. But the governor appears to favor other priorities.

The June 22 news release noted that the task force follows “a recommendation of the Governor’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board.” Reynolds created that body last June with these stated goals: “to modernize and really restructure our economy, our education and health care systems, our workforce and our quality of life.” 

Colin Gordon of the Iowa Policy Project pointed out last summer that the 13-member board consisted of “nine CEOs or business owners, one corporate counsel, one Chamber of Commerce vice-president, one corporate board member, and one factory manager.”

Reynolds hailed the task force this week as “another opportunity to lead and be innovative, invest in Iowa agriculture, and facilitate new sources of revenue for our agriculture and energy sectors.” Co-chair Naig commented in the same news release,

We’ve already proved that we can deliver science-based nutrient-reduction practices and low carbon solutions, like renewable fuels and cover crops, so we have a foundation to build on. I’m excited to work alongside some of Iowa’s leaders to identify strategies producers can use to build upon our current conservation efforts, create revenue streams, improve financial sustainability and grow our state’s economy.”

No doubt Iowa’s Carbon Sequestration Task Force will “create revenue streams” for a favored few. As for reducing the state’s carbon footprint, I wouldn’t bet on any more success than the all-voluntary nutrient reduction strategy has had in cleaning up Iowa’s polluted waterways.

UPDATE: Mark Rasmussen, the outgoing director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, discussed the task force during a recent webinar organized by the Iowa Farmers Union. Perry Beeman reported on his comments for Iowa Capital Dispatch:

“I think right up front we have to ask, is this a serious attempt to help solve the climate problem, or is this just another subsidy scheme?” asked Rasmussen, the Leopold director since 2012.

A lot will depend on what techniques are used to capture the carbon that otherwise would be lost to the atmosphere and contribute to the globe’s heating, Rasmussen said.

“After seeing the governor’s announcement of the task force (Wednesday), I have a little bit of skepticism. Are we simply going to make payments based on farm practices and not necessarily on measurements of soil carbon?” Rasmussen asked.

“And then the other big question is, what if somebody comes along 10 years later and plows that ground up and, poof, a lot of that carbon goes back into the atmosphere? Is there going to be penalties for that?”


Appendix: June 22 news release from the governor’s office

Gov. Reynolds signs Executive Order creating Carbon Sequestration Task Force 

DES MOINES – Today, in fulfillment of a recommendation of the Governor’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, Governor Reynolds signed Executive Order 9 launching a task force to explore carbon sequestration and the opportunities it presents for further economic development in the state of Iowa. The Carbon Sequestration Task Force will be chaired by Governor Kim Reynolds. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig will serve as vice chair. The Executive Order can be found online here.  

“Because of our existing supply chain and emphasis on renewable fuel infrastructure, Iowa is in a strong position to capitalize on the growing nationwide demand for a more carbon free economy,” said Gov. Reynolds. “Iowa is a recognized leader in renewable fuel and food production, and this is another opportunity to lead and be innovative, invest in Iowa agriculture, and facilitate new sources of revenue for our agriculture and energy sectors. I am proud to bring together an impressive team of stakeholders that will help formulate smart, commonsense policy recommendations on this issue ahead of the 2022 legislative session.” 

“Iowa is a leader in both food production and conservation so we must also lead agriculture’s sustainability efforts,” said Secretary Naig. “The agriculture community is continuously seeking new technologies and solutions that allow us to balance food production, environmental stewardship and longevity. We’ve already proved that we can deliver science-based nutrient-reduction practices and low carbon solutions, like renewable fuels and cover crops, so we have a foundation to build on. I’m excited to work alongside some of Iowa’s leaders to identify strategies producers can use to build upon our current conservation efforts, create revenue streams, improve financial sustainability and grow our state’s economy.” 

Joining Gov. Reynolds and Secretary Naig on the task force are key stakeholders representing industries and interests integral to the carbon sequestration supply chain in the state of Iowa: 

Debi Durham, Executive Director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority and Iowa Finance Authority  

Kayla Lyon, Director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources 

Scott Marler, Director of the Iowa Department of Transportation  

Geri Huser, Chair of the Iowa Utilities Board   

John Crespi, Director of the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development, Iowa State University 

Adam Kiel, Managing Director, Soil and Water Outcomes Fund  

William Fehrman, President and CEO, Berkshire Hathaway Energy   

John Larsen, Chair, President and CEO, Alliant Energy 

Jill Sanchez, Manager of Sustainability and Investor Relations, John Deere   

Sam Funk, Director of Agriculture Analytics and Research, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation 

Bryan Sievers, Manager of AgriReNew, Sievers Family Farms  

Kellie Blair, Farmer 

Justin Kirchhoff, President, Summit Ag Investors  

Sam Eathington, Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, Corteva Agriscience 

Alison Taylor, Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer, ADM 

Jill Zullo, Vice President of Bioindustrials, Cargill 

Cynthia ‘CJ’ Warner, President and CEO, Renewable Energy Group  

Nick Bowdish, President and CEO, Elite Octane 

Craig Struve, CEO, SoilView  

Steve Bruere, President, Peoples Company  

The Iowa Economic Development Authority will also issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) to hire a consultant team to support the work of the Task Force. In addition, individuals interested in serving on an Agriculture or Energy Work Group to support the Task Force can find more information here: https://www.iowaeda.com/carbon-sequestration/.  

Top photo of ethanol plant in agricultural landscape by Matt Oaks, available via Shutterstock.

  • The official bloviating about this task force has told us nothing...

    …which is why I am grateful for the good coverage, including this BH piece, that has pointed out what is probably really going on.

    Apart from the other angles, I’ll be watching for more detailed pipeline maps. Would the pipelines follow existing roads or railway routes? Or would they just strike out cross-country? If so, what would happen when they reached the boundaries of unwilling landowners and/or sensitive public land?

    Are Bruce Rastetter and the others planning to claim that because the pipelines would help sequester carbon, they are environmentally virtuous, and that they should therefore be given permits and built wherever the companies want them to go? And that anyone who objects is a greenhouse-gas lover?

    The only very preliminary route map I’ve seen showed a pipeline sliding around the southwest corner of Minnesota as if the builders maybe don’t really want to tangle with Minnesota regulations, but that Iowa is fair game. Hmm.

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