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Save the Bales
“Government is lousy at choosing winners. Losers are excellent at choosing government”– (unknown)
Energy and environmental policy in 21st century advanced nations are increasingly theaters of the absurd. No matter how irrational today’s green cult contradictions seem, you can be sure they will be topped tomorrow.
The refusal of the
regressive progressive environmental movement to embrace nuclear energy for electricity generation is a perfect example. Wide-scale adoption of nuclear power is the best route to the deepest cuts in CO2 emissions from the electricity sector in advanced nations. If you believe environmentalist’s objections are based “purely” on environmental grounds, we would like to remind you what Paul Ehrlich said ~50 years ago: “giving society cheap, abundant energy at this point would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun”.
We recently learned an Oakland, California-based firm named Carboniferous is evaluating a form of “carbon sequestration” so absurd on its face that Michael Crichton tripping on magic mushrooms could not hallucinate it into existence. If you think it is bad enough that we are pillaging ~30 million acres of American prairie to grow corn for fuel – not human food – you will not believe what the firm proposes to do with the leftovers.
The are seriously aiming to sequester carbon from agricultural waste by dumping it in the deep ocean. A picture is worth a thousand words, never more so than in this case.
Carboniferous proposes to bale, ballast, transport to the deep ocean, and sink agricultural waste, where it will theoretically remain sequestered for millions of years. Their website explains the rationale for this groundbreaking new carbon sequestration process as follows (emphasis added throughout):
Crops absorb gigatons of CO2 each year, mostly to grow stalks and leaves. In most of the U.S., a third or more of these 'byproducts' can be sustainably removed from fields. This enormous mass of organic carbon can be transported via a vast existing infrastructure that is prepared to operate at climatically meaningful scales.
For almost two decades, agricultural waste (corn and other) has been among the materials considered a potential holy grail to shift from corn-based to cellulosic ethanol. Just like nuclear fusion, that breakthrough is always right around the corner, lacking only more government funding (of course).
To use agricultural waste for cellulosic ethanol production, refiners would pay producers (farmers) for the crop waste as any other resource input. Generous subsidies through the Renewable Fuel Standards written into the 2007 Energy Bill (topics we covered in February and March posts) theoretically allow refiners to recapture the input expense in the sale of ethanol at a handsome profit. Sounds simple, but at scale, it has yet to happen.
In the case of Carboniferous, there is no end-product, no use-value, and no market for their “product.” Worse yet, Carboniferous will need to compete with other markets for agricultural waste, such as livestock feed, bedding, and other existing uses.
Corn “stover” is the term used to describe the non-grain portion of corn biomass, including the stalk, leaves, and cobs. Carboniferous’ plan involves using baled corn stover from the American Midwest.
Complete removal of corn stover (and similar residual organic agricultural waste) has substantial negative environmental impacts on agricultural soils and production, including loss of soil carbon, nutrients, and erosion. These consequences have been known for literally thousands of years. A 2022 article in Nature Scientific Reports summarizes the impacts succinctly:
“Removing stover can decline soil quality, as well as agricultural productivity by reducing soil organic carbon (SOC) while enhancing the potential for soil degradation and erosion. In contrast, incorporating corn stover into soil can improve soil organic carbon content, nutrient cycling, maintain soil structure, decrease soil erosion, and lead to improved microbial diversity.”
Many factors drive how much soil erosion, loss of soil organic carbon and nutrient loss occur in conjunction with corn stover removal:
how much (%) corn stover is removed from fields,
whether the crop is continuous corn or in rotation with other crops like soybeans,
farming practices (e.g., no till vs. cultivation),
precipitation, temperature, others
Numerous studies indicate that stover removal of ~30% may not significantly degrade soil condition and could improve it in certain circumstances. But there is clearly some environmental cost (negative consequence) to removing corn stover above this level. Even allowing for removal at about 30%, nutrients lost by stover removal have to be replaced. This requires more fertilizer, which requires (you guessed it), more hydrocarbon production, use and processing.
We remind readers that growing 30 million acres of corn for ethanol instead of leaving that vast acreage in native prairie causes substantial environmental harm before any stover is ever removed. Corn monoculture dramatically reduces biodiversity. It consumes enormous quantities of fertilizer and other agricultural chemicals refined from oil and natural gas. It consumes large volumes of fresh water and contributes to nutrient loading of waterways, including the annual hypoxia area (“dead zone”) in the Gulf of Mexico. (Yes, the same Gulf of Mexico where Carboniferous would dump bales of corn stover).
Even if deep ocean carbon sequestration were to work, it’s not obvious that dumping agricultural crop residue into the open ocean is a healthy environmental practice unto itself. Crops take up nutrients in the form of agricultural fertilizer and much of those nutrients remain in the stalks and leaves. Each ton of dry harvested corn residue contains average nutrient concentrations of about:
17 pounds of nitrogen
4 pounds of phosphorous (phosphorus pentoxide)
34 pounds potassium (potassium oxide), and
3 pounds sulfur
Is dumping thousands of bales (each weighing .5 – 1.75 tons) into the Gulf of Mexico containing these nutrient loads a good idea? Or is it another example of climate hysteria gone awry?
It is not obvious to us that Carboniferous will ever get permits necessary to implement their idea. Currently, most intentional dumping of waste off the coast of the U.S. is illegal under the Ocean Dumping Ban Act of 1988.
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Virtually 100% of the energy that would be necessary to rake, bale, stage and transport this material to the Gulf of Mexico relies on diesel fuel. We won’t argue the carbon sequestration calculations in the literature cited, which show the process being a net carbon “sink” despite diesel fuel consumption. But we do question the wisdom of burning diesel fuel to get to sequestration and then dumping crop waste loaded with nutrients into the world’s oceans.
North American farmers are some of the kindest people we know, and environmental stewardship is a source of great pride for most. But they are certainly not altruistic enough to absorb the cost of fuel, time, effort and equipment use out of the environmental goodness of their hearts. Especially not where actual markets for their products exist. If you told some we know their bales would be dumped into the Gulf of Mexico to sequester carbon for “climate change,” you’d be summarily laughed off their farms (or worse).
A 2009 study in Environmental Science & Technology cited by advocates of sequestering crop residue in the ocean uses the catchy, happy-science acronym CROPS – Crop Residue Oceanic Permanent Sequestration. (It’s not likely Jim Jones would have sold much as much cool aid with an honest name). It calculated the “all-in” quantity of diesel burned per ton to rake, bail, stage, and transport corn stover to the deep Gulf of Mexico at 6.82 gallons.
We checked prices for corn stover bales. Over the last 4 years, market prices ranged from around $30/ton to over $60/ton. During periods of drought or too much rain/cloud cover (increasing risk for mycotoxins from moldy feed), small lots of high-quality baled corn stover can fetch over $200/ton at market. Currently, the U.S prairies are experiencing drought conditions, which generally tends to drive up prices for supplementary livestock feed like corn stover.
Farmers burn about 1 gallon per ton of harvesting and baling corn stover. Truckers transporting stover bales to ports burn diesel. Ships transporting stover to the deep ocean burn an even dirtier form of diesel (bunker fuel). The entire premise relies on…(you guessed it)….burning more diesel.
Gaia herself has no way of remunerating Carboniferous for its valiant efforts. Since no commercial product of value will be created, and everyone along the operational chain burning diesel will require payment, we can hazard a guess about the main sources of funding for this enterprise.
We found a good clue while doing background research for this post. A 2022 article in MIT Technology Review describes a company called Charm Industrial. “Charm” uses a mobile pyrolysis system mounted in a semi-trailer to heat the stover in the absence of oxygen to create a biochar and “bio-oil.” The biochar is reused in the fields as an agricultural supplement.
We will let MIT Technology Review describe what Charm does with the “bio-oil” it produces (emphasis added throughout):
But the company pumps the oil down EPA-regulated deep wells used for industrial waste, or into salt caverns left behind by oil and gas companies. Charm says it solidifies there, locking away carbon for thousands to millions of years that would otherwise go back into the air as farmers burn crop remains or leave them to rot.
In the very next paragraph, MIT Technology Review gives up the goodies to help explain where Carboniferous is likely to find one source of “funding.” Their clients, the extent of their compensation, and their client’ stated purpose point us in the direction of (spoiler alert) technology giants.
Companies like Microsoft, Shopify, and Stripe pay Charm $600 for every ton of carbon it puts underground, either to offset their own emissions or to help build up an industry that will need to play a critical part in tempering climate change, by pulling huge amounts of greenhouse gas out of the air and storing it away.
We suspect that firms like Carboniferous and Charm and their funding sources and clients are effectively betting on a future mandatory carbon credit and trading market in the U.S. And in the meantime, signaling their green virtue while they pyrolyze (and dump in the ocean) what would otherwise be capital earning a return.
Charm and Carboniferous and firms like them only work in a world full of green grift created by enviro-economic fictions like the “Social Cost of Carbon” (SCC) and “Levelized Cost of Electricity” (LCOE). Only where the SCC is said to be $100, $200, or $600/ton would schemes like these be taken seriously. The SCC combined with the potential (threat) of a carbon tax or mandatory “carbon credit” market hanging over western economies breeds these climate saviors (like mold on corn stover).
The use of diesel in the process of baling corn stover for Charm is the same on the front-end as it would be for Carboniferous’ process. Semi-trailers do not drive themselves. Pyrolysis requires energy. What is Charm’s source of energy for its pyrolyzer? Diesel (because, well, of course).
We close our story with the words of MIT Technology Review in their article about Charm Industrial (emphasis added:)
The business model would make no sense in any other time (and perhaps it doesn’t in this one). But a growing number of companies are willing to pay the high cost of carbon removal and storage as a way of balancing out their own emissions, to help support the emerging market, or as a form of climate philanthropy. So far, around 40 organizations have purchased tons of removal from the company.
Dumping corn stalks and leaves in the Gulf of Mexico, or pumping “bio-oil” made from it down industrial waste deep wells or salt caverns to sequester carbon? These types of schemes are features, not bugs, of the green grift machine and the climate hysteria fevers plaguing western civilization.
National energy and environmental policies in advanced western nations encouraging these types of boondoggles are de rigueur at present, but they are by definition “unsustainable.” The premise that all of this is saving the planet and humanity may stand up for a few more years in the rich countries, but it will ultimately fail because of the weight of its consequences on billions of people worldwide.
In our last post, we noted the Hard Green ethos of conserving large expanses of land as the best means of protecting habitat, ecosystems, water resources, and wildlife. Rather than burning fossil fuels to plant corn for fuel and then burning more fossil fuels to process, transport and dump corn stover in the world’s oceans to sequester carbon, our plan is much simpler and more elegant.
Simply return 30 million acres of American prairie currently in corn monoculture for ethanol production to native prairie. No soil loss from any tillage, no consumption of diesel fuel, no gargantuan volumes of agricultural fertilizers and pesticides. No increased soil erosion, no soil carbon loss, no loss of natural soil biome, no nutrient loading to waterways, no contribution to Gulf of Mexico’s annual “dead zone.”
Conservation lands function as a natural carbon sink. Retiring agricultural land for conservation and restoring wetlands increases net carbon storage in addition to providing wildlife habitat and other ecosystem services. The history of the Conservation Reserve Program - decimated by the 2007 Renewable Fuel Standard that created the corn ethanol fiasco - proves exactly that. We believe boosting payments under a new “CRP 2.0” is a far better, cheaper, faster, and vastly more scalable way to improve the environment and sequester carbon that what Carboniferous or Charm intend.
Land and wetland conservation programs like CRP, in partnerships with conservation organizations like Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and others are proven, scalable solutions for sequestering carbon through land use changes. Enriching private companies’ pet projects funded by wealthy corporate donors and/or through taxpayer subsidization like Carboniferous and Charm have little to no chance to scale similarly.
If Microsoft, Shopify, Stripe and other progressive tech giants are willing to pay $600/ton to sequester carbon, they could just as easily do so on a much larger scale through innovative forms of partnerships with conservation organizations. Matching grant payments to farmers receiving CRP funds and to conservation organizations raising private donations to return these lands to conservation is one simple example.
We do not subscribe to conspiracy theories about Bill Gates’ reasons for buying agricultural land. But as an enthusiastic and philanthropic environmentalist, we’re confident he can find far better ways to sequester carbon through land use.
“Like” this post if you think Bill Gates should put all his agricultural land in perpetual conservation easements.
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