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A Rescue Plan For Carbon-Emitting Ethanol Plants

Laura Walsh |
September 15, 2011 | 8:41 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Amid dismal reports for the biofuel industry where corn plants seem to be either dryinfested, or overpricedThe New York Times reported last week that a new carbon sequestration project could represent a crucial step towards reducing the nation’s carbon footprint.

The plan would help the nation secure energy independence and promote economic stability — the same goals intended for the ethanol plants this kind of project was created to rescue.

(Photo by cote on Flickr, via Creative Commons)
(Photo by cote on Flickr, via Creative Commons)

The Department of Energy is pumping almost $100 million into a $207.5 million project that will capture pollutant byproducts from an ethanol plant owned by Archer Daniel Midland and inject the carbon into the impermeable layers of the surrounding Illinois basin.

Construction for the project began last Tuesday, and eventually aims to store 1 million tons of carbon a year underground.

Many skeptics believe that this kind of money might be better spent on reducing harmful emissions in the first place.

Lisa Collins, an Environmental Studies Professor at the University of Southern California, notes that technology has notoriously made the process of carbon capture and sequestration impractical.

"You build a power plant and you connect to a carbon capture and sequestration plant and pretty much all the energy that you make is needed to put the carbon dioxide back into the ground, and actually more than that to clean it and inject it into the ground," she said.

Collins acknowledges that these might be complaints of yesterday's approach to environmental disaster, but is hesitant to trust that a solution is at large.  

Members of The Midwest Geological Sequestration Consortium (MGSC), led by the Illinois Sate Geological Survey, have been studying the basin for years in order to determine the potential of local saline reservoirs deep underground for indefinite amounts of time.

When other related efforts to capture carbon have been plugged due to financial cost, the Illinois Basin is assuredly a case study in geological carbon sequestration.  Members of MGSC told Energy Boom that researchers are still hoping to answer "whether geologic carbon sequestration can further improve the environmental footprint of alternative fuels such as ethanol by capturing and storing carbon emissions associated with their production."

The related effort has received unprecedented funding when the biofuel frenzy failed to reduce the political, economic, and environmental pressures resulting fro the United States’s confirmed position as the number one guzzler of oil and second highest contributor of carbon into the atmosphere.

Among other legislative moves against biofuels, the Senate recognized funding for ethanol to be no longer politically popular in July with an overwhelming majority vote to eliminate billions of dollars in subsidies as part of what a Reuters article called a “symbolic gesture.”

Pledges to improve job opportunities will not be abandoned any time soon however. This may reveal why ADM, one of Forbes' “World’s Most Admired Companies 2011” is suddenly using a green thumb to handle its bills. ADM told The New York Times that the project will create 260 new jobs in the area, and will offer training and degrees in carbon sequestration at a nearby community college.

The project received its grant from the DOE under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which was created to promote new jobs and spur economic activity and “invest in long-term growth.”

Whether or not the ADM plant will be able to actually pioneer commercial-scale sequestration of carbon, allow for a net decrease in carbon emissions for ethanol plants and become economically feasible should be determined in the next three years of the project, though to some, these far-reaching goals are eerily reminiscent of the corn craze.

“In theory, if it worked, it would be fantastic and we wouldn’t have to change the way we operate or the fuel we use,” says Collins, “but in practice it might take a little more to do this.”

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