Ag secretary candidates split on carbon pipelines, future of ethanol

By: - September 30, 2022 5:01 pm

John Norwood (left) is challenging incumbent Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig (right) in this year’s election. (Photos provided by the Naig and Norwood campaigns)

The two candidates for Iowa secretary of agriculture split Friday on whether government should require unwilling landowners to allow carbon pipelines to cross their land.

Democrat John Norwood said eminent domain should not be used to build pipelines that transport captured carbon dioxide away from ethanol plants in Iowa because they do not serve a public purpose.

His opponent, incumbent secretary Mike Naig, a Republican, said eminent domain is permissible if the companies that have proposed three such pipelines get “significant voluntary agreements” with landowners for their routes. He declined to specify what counts as “significant.” There is no threshold mandated by state law.

Their comments were part of a Friday discussion on Iowa Press, which invited the two candidates to share their views on pipelines, ethanol, solar and wind power, and the state’s efforts to reduce farm pollution.

Ethanol plants that capture their carbon emissions can reap significant federal tax incentives that aim to cut greenhouse gases. They also can potentially sell their product at a higher price in markets that pay a premium for fuels that are produced with lower emissions.

“There’s a compelling upside for the ethanol industry if these projects do go forward,” Naig said.

Ethanol is an important market for Iowa farmers because more than half of their corn crops are used to produce it. Recent legislative and administrative actions have sought to expand the use of ethanol in passenger vehicles, primarily by making a higher blend — 15% ethanol mixed with gasoline compared with the standard 10% — more widely available.

Given the better fuel mileage of newer cars and the expected transition to electric vehicles, Norwood called the current automotive uses for ethanol “a declining market.” He said state and federal governments should shift ethanol’s focus to powering vehicles that are more difficult to power with electricity, such as airplanes, trains, boats and long-haul trucks.

Norwood also said some ethanol plants could be retooled to produce biogas as a salve for skyrocketing natural gas prices.

Naig said ethanol for passenger vehicles will continue to be a viable market if the industry can capture its emissions because it is a domestic product that benefits farmers.

Solar panel locations

Asked about whether the state should dictate where solar panels can be placed in Iowa, both candidates said it’s preferable for the panels to be installed on soils that don’t produce high crop yields, but each said the issue should be decided by county supervisors and landowners rather than state lawmakers. A bill proposed during this year’s legislative session would have precluded the installation of solar panels on high-yield land, but it was not adopted.

Farm runoff

Both candidates said more needs to be done to stop soil and fertilizer runoff from the state’s farms. Naig said the state Nutrient Reduction Strategy’s efforts to install wetlands, buffers and bioreactors is accelerating as more government funding is made available to help pay for the projects.

Norwood — citing an estimated 30% increase in nitrate in the state’s waterways in the past nine years — said Naig’s actions have been too slow to fix the problem. He said projects that have been successful in stemming runoff should be blueprinted and deployed to many more farms concurrently.

“The current approach is not an approach, it’s not a strategy, it doesn’t have the appropriate resources,” Norwood said.

The episode of Iowa Press featuring the candidates airs at 7:30 p.m. Friday and noon on Sunday on Iowa PBS.

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register. His investigative work exposing police misconduct has notched several state and national awards. He is a longtime trustee of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which fights for open records and open government. He is a lifelong Iowan and has lived mostly in rural western parts of the state.

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