Selling Snake Oil: Big Ag’s False Solutions in Iowa

In this special project connecting our research with stories from the frontlines, we speak to Iowans living near harmful operations masquerading as climate fixes.

REPORT - March 2024

What You’ll Learn From This Report


A special project at Food & Water Watch focuses on Iowans living near industry climate scam projects.
Fossil fuel and corporate agribusinesses have poisoned our climate and communities across the country. In the last few years, Iowa has become ground zero for the agribusiness and fossil fuel industries’ newest greenwashing tactics. The goal? Profit off of business-as-usual. These new ploys — carbon capture pipelines, ethanol, and factory farm gas (biogas) — create more pollution while serving to further entrench dirty industries. None are true solutions to Iowa’s problems. In this special project connecting our research with stories from the frontlines, Food & Water Watch spoke to Iowans living near these harmful operations masquerading as climate fixes. These stories uncover the pollution poisoning communities, the industry tanking rural economies, and the mounting movement of fierce advocates brave enough to take a stand against powerful corporations.

A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: Carbon Capture and Sequestration Pipelines

Susan and Jerry Stoefen are battling corporate giants to protect their land and home from Wolf Carbon Solutions’ pipeline.
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In January 2022, Susan Stoefen was listening to the Scott County Board of Supervisors’ meeting when she first heard the rumblings of an “innovative solution” for reducing carbon emissions from Iowa’s polluting ethanol industry. The energy company Wolf Carbon Solutions was touting carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), which purports to capture carbon at ethanol facilities and transport the gas via pipeline for underground storage.1Splitter, Jenny. “The bitter fight to stop a 2,000-mile carbon pipeline.” Guardian. July 7, 2022. Wolf’s proposal would build and maintain carbon pipelines connecting Iowa ethanol facilities to underground storage in Illinois.2Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). [Fact sheet]. “Mt. Simon Hub.” Available at // Accessed December 2023. Susan thought nothing of it at the time.

Wolf’s proposal

It wasn’t until August that Susan and her husband, Jerry, realized exactly what Wolf had been talking about at the Board meeting. A local newspaper published the 260-mile-long pipeline’s proposed route,3ADM (2023). and to the Stoefens’ surprise, their property looked to be right in the line of fire. Despite Wolf’s claims that notices had been sent out, neither of them had heard anything about their property being the testing ground for Wolf Carbon Solutions’ carbon pipeline.

Susan and Jerry were not alone. Over 5,200 landowners reported having received no notices of the proposed pipeline, with Wolf claiming that these properties were not directly impacted by the project — although the company conceded that perhaps “some anomalies” occurred when sending notices.4Pratt, Richard. “Wolf to schedule new CO2 pipeline meetings after ‘anomalies’ found in notifications.” Corridor Business Journal. October 6, 2022. At the time, Wolf — in partnership with agribusiness Archer Daniels Midland — was one of three companies scheming to build carbon pipelines across Iowa.5Splitter (2022). Together with Summit Carbon Solutions and Navigator CO2 Ventures, they proposed over 1,600 miles of carbon pipelines across Iowa alone.6Wolf Carbon Solutions Inc. State of Iowa Department of Commerce. Utilities Board (IUB). Docket No. HLP-2022-0002. February 23, 2023 at 1; Summit Carbon Solutions LLC. State of Iowa Department of Commerce. Utilities Board (IUB). Docket. No. HLP-2021-0001. January 28, 2022 at 1; Navigator Ventures LLC. IUB. Docket No. HLP-2021-0003. October 19, 2021. As the Stoefens would soon learn, these pipelines were to become a major battleground in Iowa politics, leading to clashes between communities and these corporations.7Frankel, Jillian and Alex Tabet. “A local struggle over carbon pipelines in Iowa is becoming a 2024 presidential flashpoint.” NBC News. September 18, 2023; Douglas, Leah. “U.S. carbon pipeline proposals trigger backlash over potential land seizures.” Reuters. February 7, 2022.

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Wolf’s proposal centers around corn processing ethanol facilities, where one stage of carbon production is fermentation of sugars.8ADM (2023); Sanchez, Daniel L. et al. “Near-term deployment of carbon capture and sequestration from biorefineries in the United States.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Vol. 115, No. 19. May 8, 2018 at 4875 to 4876. Assuming the gas is captured, CCS then must fulfill the second part of its name: storage. Permanent geological sequestration entails injecting the collected carbon deep underground, where it remains, theoretically, forever.9Congressional Research Service. “The Section 45Q Tax Credit for Carbon Sequestration.” IF11455. Updated August 25, 2023 at 1. Even CCS proponents think sequestration requires something that much of the Midwest does not have: geologically suitable underground terrain. This, in turn, necessitates these lengthy carbon pipeline buildouts for permanent sequestration.10Sanchez (2018) at 4876.

At the time, however, neither Susan nor Jerry knew any of this, so they went to an informational meeting in Davenport, jointly hosted by Wolf and the Iowa Utilities Board. It was only after speaking with one of Wolf’s land agents that they received verbal confirmation that the proposed route crossed their property. Susan told us most people refused to speak to the land agents out of fear that it would lock them into selling their parcels, but she said, “We really wanted to know: Was this really going on our property?” The Stoefens are no strangers to pipelines and other industry infrastructure that crosses private land. Jerry worked on pipelines and in mechanical services his entire career, and the couple lives just three miles from an oil and gas pipeline. Additionally, an electric transmission line threatened their land previously, and the Stoefens rallied to shut down the proposal. But this carbon pipeline was proving very different, with Susan calling their ongoing struggle “extreme.”

What is carbon capture and storage?
New technology creates living nightmares
For starters, Wolf Carbon Solutions seems woefully unprepared to handle such a new technology. At the first informational meeting, Jerry asked, “How far apart are the safety shut-off valves going to be?” Wolf representatives had no answer prepared. Jerry later calculated how much carbon could leak from the pipeline in the event of an emergency and was shocked at what he called “an astronomically high number.” 

Jerry told us he isn’t scared of pipelines in general, but the fact that carbon dioxide is corrosive to pipelines when in contact with water11Jacobson, Gretchen A. “Pipeline corrosion issues related to carbon capture, transportation, and storage.” Nace International. Vol. 53, No. 5. May 2014 at 24 to 26. concerns him. Even small impurities can alter the carbon in transport, negatively impacting the pressure, temperature, or composition of the carbon stream and hindering the pipeline’s functions.12Razak, Ahmad Amirhilmi A. et al. “Physical and chemical effect of impurities in carbon capture, utilisation and storage.” Journal of Petroleum Exploration and Production Technology. Vol. 13. March 2023 at 1241. Exposure to carbon concentrations in the air above just 10 percent can be fatal,13Zhang, Zhihua and Donald Huisingh. “Carbon dioxide storage schemes: Technology, assessment and deployment.” Journal of Cleaner Production. Vol. 142, Part 2. January 2017 at 5; Hillebrand, Marcus et al. “Toxicological risk assessment in CO2 capture and storage technology.” International Journal of Greenhouse Gas Control. Vol. 55. December 2016 at 3. and lingering gas in the air severely hinders emergency response.14Simon, Julia. “The U.S. is expanding CO2 pipelines. One poisoned town wants you to know its story.” NPR. Updated September 25, 2023. Jerry worries about what would happen in the event of a rupture, noting that they live in a valley and that the proposed pipeline would be located on a hill to the north. Since carbon dioxide is heavier than air,15Zhang and Huisingh (2017) at 5; Hillebrand et al. (2016) at 3. gas from a rupture would flow downward and “fill the whole valley,” he said.

These risks became a living nightmare for the community of Satartia, Mississippi in 2020. A ruptured carbon pipeline spewed carbon dioxide for four hours, with the clouds of gas lingering in the air for even longer. As residents lay unconscious or choking for breath, emergency vehicles and cars were unable to start, due to the lingering carbon displacing the oxygen necessary to run a combustion engine.16Simon (2023). If such an event happened near their home, the Stoefens would be stranded.

Following the Davenport meeting, the Stoefens became dedicated advocates against the carbon pipelines. Susan printed up large “No CO2 Pipelines” signs and posted them outside their home and farm. Many of their neighbors stopped to ask what the signs meant, completely unaware of what was going to be put in the ground right next to their homes. Shaking her head, Susan said, “It was proof they had never gotten their letters, either.”

State and federal response to their concerns has been tepid, at best. For months, Food & Water Watch and our allies demanded that the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) hold a public meeting in Iowa about health and safety concerns.17DiFelice, Mia and Jorge Aguilar. “What industry won’t tell you about their carbon pipelines.” Food & Water Watch (FWW). June 23, 2023; FWW. “30 groups demand pause on carbon pipeline approvals.” November 29, 2022. But when that meeting finally happened, Jerry said he was extremely disappointed. “As soon as the technology portion of that open PHMSA meeting was over… half the board up there got up and left, when people were just complaining about [the pipeline].” PHMSA officials said they would address problems with contractors and maintenance as they arose. Jerry remarked wryly: “It reminds me of the Boeing 737 Max that hit the ground. ‘Hey, let’s work on it after it hits the ground and kills people.’”

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Jerry and Susan (second and third from the left) join Food & Water Watch and allies at a June 2023 public meeting hosted by PHSMA.
Stealing the land beneath their feet

The carbon pipelines have also sparked a heated debate about the ethics of eminent domain, where private land is seized for use by the public or, in this case, by private corporations.18Douglas (2022). As of February 2023, Wolf, unlike its counterparts, had not yet filed for eminent domain and was instead seeking voluntary easements from landowners.19Wolf Carbon Solutions Inc (2023) at 3; Strong, Jared. “Wolf Carbon pipeline plans might be delayed.” Iowa Capital Dispatch. March 14, 2023. In exchange, landowners would receive compensation for the land impacted, typically a set dollar amount per length of pipeline, as well as, depending on the agreement, potentially compensation for incurred damages and legal costs.20Hancock County. “FAQ — Carbon Pipelines Easements and Negotiation.” April 2022 at 6 to 7. Wolf could also seek permanent easements,21Wolf Carbon Solutions Inc. IUB. Exhibit G-1. Docket No. HLP-2022-0002. February 23, 2023 at 4. giving the company permanent rights to operate and use parcels, even if the properties change hands. Depending on the final agreement, this means Wolf could build additional pipelines or infrastructure.22Tidgren, Kristine. Iowa State University. Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation. “Carbon capture pipeline considerations for landowners.” November 15, 2022; IUB. [Fact sheet]. “Frequently Asked Questions About Eminent Domain.” Updated September 2021 at 2; Hancock County (2022) at 1 and 4.

Susan told us that under no circumstances do the Stoefens plan to lease their parcel of land to Wolf. However, if Wolf cannot get the easements it needs, it can always apply to use eminent domain.23Strong (March 2023); Wolf Carbon Solutions Inc. Exhibit G-1. (2023) at 4. “What happens is, if enough people do sell, then at that point, they would turn to eminent domain. If they can’t get around your property somehow, they would be forced to use eminent domain.”

The Iowa Utilities Board grants entities the right to use eminent domain, but the process would likely face steep opposition, with recent polling by Food & Water Action showing that 80 percent of Iowan voters oppose this approach for building carbon pipelines.24Change Research. Prepared for Iowa Food & Water Action. March 26-30, 2023 at 1. Available at //; IUB (2021) at 1 Landowners whose land is acquired through eminent domain would still receive compensation,25IUB (2021) at 2. although Summit’s land agents have reportedly warned that the price received would be far less than in a voluntary easement.26Strong, Jared. Iowa Capital Dispatch. “Iowa landowner claims carbon pipeline agent pressured him with threat of eminent domain.” Des Moines Register. August 29, 2023.

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Yard signs like this call for neighbors to reject easements for pipeline companies and companies’ use of eminent domain. Photo courtsey of Susan and Jerry Stoefen.
False climate promises

All of this is being done under the guise of fighting climate change by capturing carbon from ethanol plants and storing it underground.27ADM (2023). The Stoefens remain highly skeptical. “The whole idea of it, these carbon pipelines, is not a good solution to the problem of carbon. It’s just going to allow businesses to create carbon.” Without cutting off carbon at the source, Susan said, this is not a climate solution.

As Susan alluded to, in practice, CCS has not lived up to the industry’s claims. Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) already knows this. In 2017, ADM began capturing carbon from its Illinois ethanol plant. Proponents often point to this as proof of concept, but the plant’s dubious track record says otherwise; the facility consistently captures just half of its yearly targets.28ADM. [Press release]. “ADM Begins Operations for Second Carbon Capture and Storage Project.” April 7, 2017; Hettinger, Jonathan. “Despite hundreds of millions in tax dollars, ADM’s carbon capture program still hasn’t met promised goals.” Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. November 19, 2020; FWW analysis of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Greenhouse Gas Facility Data. ADM Co. 2020-2022. Available at // Accessed November 2023. Since biofuel will still emit carbon when combusted,29Dias de Oliveira, Marcelo E. et al. “Ethanol as fuel: Energy, carbon dioxide balances, and ecological footprint.” BioScience. Vol. 55, No. 7. July 2005 at 596. this accounts for a mere 3 percent of ADM’s emissions,30FWW analysis of WSP Global Inc. Prepared for ADM. “Carbon reduction feasibility study.” R001. March 2020 at 5. barely scraping the surface.

Transport and storage are other flawed factors, with carbon being prone to leakage during transport, injection, and long-term storage.31Vinca, Adriano et al. “Bearing the cost of stored carbon leakage.” Frontiers in Energy Research. Vol. 6, Art. 40. May 2018 at 3. Even if the gas makes it to its end destination, this does not ensure that the carbon would stay underground. Undetected leakages range from 5 to 30 percent, meaning that this “captured” carbon dioxide will find its way into the atmosphere anyway.32Payne, Heather. “Chasing squirrels in the energy transition.” Environmental Law. Vol. 52. 2022 at 11 and 12. As Susan put it, carbon capture pipelines simply create new problems while failing to fix any of the old ones.

Fierce advocacy on the part of Iowans like Susan and Jerry is working. In November 2023, Wolf Carbon Solutions temporarily pulled its Illinois pipeline application after state engineers recommended that the Illinois Commerce Commission reject it.33Howell, Jason. “Wolf Carbon Solutions requests to withdraw current application to build CO2 pipeline running through Central Illinois.” 25 News Now. November 20, 2023. And just a month earlier, Navigator canceled its proposed Heartland Greenway carbon pipeline, which would have traversed 1,300 miles across the Midwest. The company cited the “unpredictable nature” of regulatory proceedings in Iowa as a cause and called the process “challenging.”34Navigator CO2. [Press release]. “Heartland Greenway project update.” October 20, 2023 Available at // Accessed December 2023; Chipman, Kim. “Navigator CO2 cancels US Corn Belt carbon pipeline plan.” Bloomberg. October 20, 2023. We call it a victory of community organizing and proof that advocacy is the most powerful tool in the climate fight.

Ethanol’s Legacy of Damage

Paul Norland is a first-hand witness to ethanol’s continuing dangers to his health, his family, and his community.
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Nestled up by the Minnesota border lies the small town of Northwood, Iowa, population 2,000. The broader Worth County was home to more than 500 farms as of 2017, with over 98 percent of cropland dedicated to corn or soybean production.35U.S. Census Bureau. QuickFacts. Northwood City. Accessed October 2023; U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). County Profile: Worth County. 2017 Census of Agriculture. Decades ago, a young farmer named Paul Norland helped cultivate his family’s small corn and soybean farm. When we spoke with him, he recalled those days fondly — a time of collaboration among farmers of small family operations scattered across Iowa’s rolling hills. That, he says, is no longer the reality. Part of the reason for these changes? Ethanol, says Paul.

A changing political landscape
Paul has seen firsthand how an increasingly corporatized farm industry transformed his family, his community, and his local environment. “We are definitely not in the same Iowa I grew up in.” His family’s operation was small, just 40 or 50 acres. But by the 1980s, that small farming model became unsustainable. “The bottom just dropped out of everything in Iowa. You couldn’t make money.”

Paul’s family was not alone. Across Iowa and the U.S., the 1980s heralded the largest rural crisis since the Great Depression. By the end of the decade, one in four of Iowa’s farms were out of business.36State Historical Society of Iowa. Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs. “Farm crisis of the 1980s and Iowa’s Economy.” Accessed December 2023. This was the result of several factors, including a shift in U.S. farm policy from managing supply to free-market economics. This shift was no accident but the result of lobbying by corporate agribusinesses, creating a farm system that prioritizes corporate profit over farmer income.37See FWW. “Fair Farming: A New Deal Approach to Food Supply Management.” June 2021.

Deregulation of farm markets left farmers vulnerable to market fluctuations caused by unpredictable demand and weather.38Burns, Greg. “Some of the nation’s farmers have found a dependable crop that always gives a high yield: The federal subsidy.” Chicago Tribune. April 21, 2002. Alongside these trends came corn ethanol, heralded as a way to boost farm income.39Hallberg, David E. Renewable Fuels Association. Testimony before Subcommittee on Oversight. Committee on Ways and Means. House of Representatives. July 9, 1984 at 120. In reality, it further entrenched agribusiness’ stranglehold on the food system.

Corn’s corporate consolidation

Corn ethanol began its rise to prominence in the 1970s as a gasoline oxygenate, which boosts octane for gas-powered cars.40Ramsey, Steven et al. USDA. Economic Research Service (ERS). “Global Demand for Fuel Ethanol Through 2030.” Special Outlook Report No. BIO-05. February 2023 at 1; U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy. “Ethanol basics.” DOE/GO-102018-5077. September 2018 at 1. The decade’s oil embargo by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) sparked a fervor for U.S. energy independence, and Big Ag’s lobbyists like the newly formed Renewable Fuels Association jumped at the opportunity to promote pro-ethanol policy.41Johnson, Caley et al. National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “History of Ethanol Fuel Adoption in the United States: Policy, Economics, and Logistics.” Technical Report NREL/TP-5400-76260. November 2021 at 1 to 2. The 2005 Energy Policy Act went on to eliminate demand for ethanol’s leading oxygenate competitor and established the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).42Ramsey et al. (2023) at 1. The RFS mandates minimum amounts of “renewable fuel” like corn ethanol in transportation fuel, although the annual target has not been met since 2014.43Congressional Research Service (CRS). “The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS): An Overview.” No. R43325. Updated July 31, 2023 at summary and 1.

Production of corn ethanol skyrocketed in the early 2000s, thanks in part to pro-ethanol policies.44Newes, Emily et al. “Ethanol production in the United States: The roles of policy, price, and demand.” Energy Policy. Vol. 161. February 2022 at abstract and fig. 1. Today, 40 percent of U.S. corn is grown for ethanol production.45Ramsey et al. (2023) at abstract. And Iowa leads the nation in the production of ethanol, with 40 ethanol plants pumping out a record 4.5 billion gallons in 2022.46U.S. Energy Information Administration. “Iowa State Energy Profile” Updated August 17, 2023; Strong, Jared. “Iowa’s ethanol production sets new record, group says.” Des Moines Register. January 10, 2023; Iowa Corn Promotion Board/Iowa Corn Growers Association. “Corn Facts.” Available at // and on file with FWW. Accessed September 2022. Yet this ethanol boom has not stabilized corn markets or raised farmer income. In 7 out of the last 10 years, the average corn farmer could not make up the cost of production.47USDA. ERS. “Commodity Costs and Returns: Corn.” Available at // Accessed December 2023.

Paul told us that, despite increased corn production, he sees far fewer farms around him today. Those who have survived are “outliers.” In the 1970s and ‘80s, crop farmers faced intense pressures to “get big or get out.”48McGranahan, Devan A. et al. “A historical primer on the US farm bill: Supply management and conservation policy.” Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. Vol. 68, No. 3. May/June 2013 at 69A to 71A. Iowa lost over 40 percent of its corn farms from 1982 to 2022, while producing 70 percent more corn.49FWW analysis of USDA. National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). Quick Stats. Available at // Accessed March 2024. “[Farming has] just turned into this ‘bigger, bigger, bigger; better, better, better,’” says Paul. “There’s this anxiety about you gotta have bigger tractors, you gotta have bigger planters, you have to have the best hybrids.” It is an unsustainable system for small farms, the lifeblood of rural communities.

Paul reflects on the cascading effects of small farms shuttering on the local economy: fewer machinery shops, fewer fertilizer or chemical shops, and fewer seed dealers. As these businesses vanish, so do the towns’ tax bases. “That kills the school systems as well,” says Paul. “It basically has taken our small towns and turned them into ghost towns.” Farmers now buy inputs like seeds and fertilizers from just a handful of Big Ag players50Mooney, Pat. ETC Group. “Blocking the Chain: Industrial Food Chain Concentration, Big Data Platforms and Food Sovereignty Solutions.” October 2018 at 4 to 8; Kelloway, Claire and Sarah Miller. “Food and Power: Addressing Monopolization in America’s Food System.” Open Markets Institute. March 2019 at 6 to 7. that funnel money to their corporate headquarters. “It’s really become a monopoly. [Machine shops] are down to John Deere and International.” What Paul noticed in his own small town is echoed across rural America.

Big Ag’s chemical warfare

Conventional corn production uses heavy amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. As of 2014, corn accounted for nearly half of all pesticide application by weight on major crops, and it has been the top pesticide-using crop since 1972.51Hellerstein, Daniel et al. USDA. ERS. “Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators, 2019.” Economic Information Bulletin No. 208. May 2019 at 35; Fernandez-Cornejo, Jorge et al. USDA. ERS. “Pesticide Use in U.S. Agriculture: 21 Selected Crops, 1960-2008.” Economic Information Bulletin No. 124. May 2014 at 2. This began to take a toll on Paul personally. “I got to the point where the chemicals, I just didn’t care for them anymore. My wife would say that I would spray a chemical called Treflan, and there would be a personality change after. It’s not necessarily a good way to go.” He watched as his family, too, suffered, with his great uncles and many other relatives who continued farming developing Parkinson’s disease. Paul knows people who went blind from exposure to anhydrous ammonia, a highly volatile fertilizer. “I’m glad I got out when I did.”

Research from Louisiana State University has confirmed that exposure to agricultural pesticides is a major cause of developing Parkinson’s.52Hugh-Jones, Martin E. et al. “Parkinson’s disease in Louisiana, 1999-2012: Based on hospital primary discharge diagnoses, incidence, and risk in relation to local agricultural crops, pesticides, and aquifer recharge.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Vol. 17. February 29, 2020 at abstract and 14 to 15. Continual exposure to pesticides has also been linked to cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, ALS, autoimmune diseases, DNA damage, and birth defects.53Kaur, Karashdeep and Rupinder Kaur. “Occupational pesticide exposure, impaired DNA repair, and diseases.” Indian Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine. Vol. 22, Iss. 2. May-August 2018 at abstract and 7. Anhydrous ammonia, a popular nitrogen fertilizer, is especially dangerous, with acute exposure potentially leading to airway obstruction, deep burns, and permanent blindness.54Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Protection. “Ammonia (NH3).” Available at // Accessed October 2023 at 5 to 6; EPA. “Anhydrous Ammonia.” EPA 817-F-22-013. December 2022. When stored in large quantities, anhydrous ammonia tanks can explode, killing or injuring those nearby.55Vadysinghe, Amal et al. “Ammonia exposure: A review of six cases.” American Journal of Forensic Medical Pathology. Vol. 42, No. 4. December 2021 at abstract.

Iowa’s corn production increased over 70 percent in 40 years,56FWW analysis of USDA. NASS. contributing to an increase in land converted to corn acreage and thus an increase in chemical application.57Malcolm, Scott A. et al. USDA. ERS. “Ethanol and a Changing Agricultural Landscape.” Economic Research Report No. 86. November 2009 at 7 to 9. Paul noted that a lot of land near him had once been put in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program intended to protect environmentally sensitive land from production.58USDA. Farm Service Agency (FSA). “Conservation Reserve Program.” Available at // Accessed October 2023. “I loved it when CRP was around, really. Because it just made it more like Iowa.” CRP enrollment in Iowa peaked in the 1990s, reaching 2.2 million acres in 1994, compared to 1.7 million acres in 2022.59USDA. FSA. CRP Enrollment and Rental Payments by County, 1986-2022. Available at // Accessed November 2023.

Not only do pesticides pose threats to people, but they also damage the land and soil. Paul observed: “I know a field that has never had anhydrous ammonia on it, and it looked like the original soil. Once they put that anhydrous on it, it just wiped it out.” A handful of soil alone houses up to 100 million organisms, vital for controlling pests, managing water and air infiltration, cycling nutrients, and other ecosystem services. A review of studies on the impact of pesticides found overwhelmingly negative effects on soil organism mortality, reproduction, and behavior, among other parameters.60Gunstone, Tari et al. “Pesticides and soil invertebrates: A hazard assessment.” Frontiers in Environmental Science. Vol. 9. May 2021 at 1, 2, and 8.

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Pesticides’ impact on soil organisms impacts the health of the soil itself.
Environmental exaggerations

Given all these harms, does ethanol at least fulfill the industry’s promise of clean, renewable energy? Not at all. Recent research suggests that ethanol’s lifecycle emissions are likely 24 percent higher than gasoline’s.61Lark, Tyler J. “Environmental outcomes of the US Renewable Fuel Standard.” Environmental Sciences. Vol. 119, No. 9. February 2022 at 1 and 3. The whole process — from chemical-heavy corn production to biofuel processing — is climate polluting.62Smith, Timothy M. et al. University of Minnesota. Final report to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. “Environmental and Economic Assessment of Ethanol Production Systems in Minnesota.” March 19, 2008 at 5, 7, 32, and 33. Even using corn residue (like the leaves, husks, stalks, and tassels) to produce ethanol is problematic, as removing residue from farmland decreases soil carbon levels and increases carbon dioxide emissions.63Liska, Adam J. et al. “Biofuels from crop residue can reduce soil carbon and increase CO2 emissions.” Nature Climate Change. Vol. 4. May 2014 at 398; Pennington, Dennis. Michigan State University Extension. “Corn stover: What is its worth?” March 20, 2013; Eise, Jessica. Purdue University. “Study shows potential for growth in biofuels from corn stover.” November 13, 2015. Combustion of ethanol fuel also releases carbon dioxide.64Wang, Michael et al. “Well-to-wheels energy use and greenhouse gas emissions of ethanol from corn, sugarcane and cellulosic biomass for US use.” Environmental Research Letters. Vol. 7, No. 4. December 13, 2012 at Figure 5 at 9.

Now, companies like Summit Carbon Solutions hope their carbon pipelines can help to rehabilitate ethanol’s climate image.65Splitter (2022). Summit claims ethanol is “good for the environment and good for our economy.”66Ibid. Paul disagrees on both fronts. In reference to the carbon capture companies, Paul told us: “I think gaslighting is an appropriate term. The companies that want [these pipelines] will try and make you believe your facts aren’t right, that you aren’t right, that you are making something out of nothing. They will try to minimize your opinion of something as much as they can. And that’s a powerful tool.”

Urgent policy changes needed

Ethanol is just another byproduct of the deregulation of U.S. farm markets that encourages the overproduction of commodity crops like corn,67Rosa, Isabel and Renée Johnson. CRS. “Federal Crop Insurance: Specialty Crops.” R45459. Updated January 14, 2019 at 9; Smith, Trevor J. “Corn, cows, and climate change: How federal agricultural subsidies enable factory farming and exacerbate U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.” Washington Journal of Environmental Law & Policy. Vol. 9, Iss. 1. March 2019 at 43 to 44; Shields, Dennis A. CRS. “Federal Crop Insurance: Background.” R40532. August 13, 2015 at summary; Schnepf, Randy. CRS. [Fact sheet]. “2018 Farm Bill Primer: Marketing Assistance Loan Program.” IF11162. April 3, 2019 at 1 and 2; Schnepf, Randy. CRS. “Farm Commodity Provisions in the 2018 Farm Bill (P.L. 115-334).” R45730. May 21, 2019 at summary and 4. a blight on the future of American farming. We need to return to supply management principles to buffer farmers from volatile prices and raise farm income. Voluntary programs like acreage reduction can encourage farmers to ease back production in exchange for price supports.68See FWW. “Fair Farming: A New Deal Approach to Food Supply Management.” June 2021. However, as Paul notes, “younger farmers don’t know anything about [supply management]. They just have one goal, and that’s to make as much corn per acre as they can, and to make as much money per acre as they can. That is the mantra. If you are not doing that, you are not being a farmer.” This perpetuates the cycles of overproduction and plummeting corn prices, locking all farmers into a failing system.

Adhering to the current status quo is decimating Iowa’s land, people, and communities. Climate change will only create more harm,69EPA. [Fact sheet]. “What climate changes means for Iowa.” EPA 430-F-16-017. August 2016. and ethanol’s false promises have gone on for too long. The way forward is to challenge Big Ag’s dominance over our food and farming system and to pass farm policy that puts farmers, farm workers, and eaters first.

Greenwashing Dirty Digesters: Factory Farm Gas

Bob Watson and Larry Stone are challenging industry myths about factory farm gas as they fight a new feedlot project in Iowa.
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From east to west, a dangerous trend is sweeping across Iowa: anaerobic digesters and the accompanying “biogas.” Sold as a way to revitalize local economies and provide clean air and water,70Johnson, Kristen. “Smithfield project that converts hog waste to energy angers, worries rural NC residents.” Fayetteville Observer. January 21, 2021; Chevron. [Press release]. “Chevron, CalBio expand partnership on dairy biomethane fuel projects.” October 6, 2022. the reality is that this burgeoning technology is nothing less than typical Big Ag greenwashing.71See FWW. “The Big Oil and Big Ag Ponzi Scheme: Factory Farm Gas.” January 2024. Digester technology endangers the very people it poses to help, and many are watching this happen in real time. We spoke with Iowans witnessing this trend in their own communities.


What is factory farm gas?
The perverse incentives of digesters

In the northeastern corner of Iowa, a battle over clean air and water is unfolding. Home to a trout stream called Bloody Run Creek — one of just 34 state-designated “Outstanding Iowa Waters” — Clayton County is also the site of numerous legal battles surrounding a cattle feedlot’s manure disposal plans that threaten to wreak havoc on the stream and nearby residents.72Strong, Jared. Iowa Capital Dispatch. “Long battle continues over manure management plan in Iowa trout stream’s headwaters.” Des Moines Register. October 17, 2023; IA Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Outstanding Iowa Waters. Updated December 5, 2023. Available at // Bob Watson and Larry Stone, two members of the Committee to Save Bloody Run coalition, are organizing to require that the feedlot — at the very least — follow Iowa’s meager animal feeding operation laws.

Both lifelong Iowans, Bob and Larry have been involved in environmental advocacy and research for years. They spoke to us about their continuing battle with Walz Energy, which in 2017 proposed to build a cattle feedlot near Monona, Iowa that would have included an anaerobic digester. While the industry greenwashes digesters as a way to reduce cattle’s environmental footprint, advocates warn that the digesters instead incentivize the buildout of more factory farms.73See FWW (2024).

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The Supreme Beef (formerly Walz Energy) facility sits near Monona, Iowa and Bloody Run Creek.

Neither Bob nor Larry buys into the industry’s narrative that factory farm gas is a climate solution. In a speech given at a recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency digester conference, Bob called digesters “a band-aid attempt to give the inherently polluting industrial agriculture model relevance, and a ‘climate washing’ attempt to mislead the public into thinking hog confinements and agricultural digesters can help clean up the environment.” He is right. The system itself depends on continued production of livestock manure to remain financially viable.74Lazenby, Ruthie. “Rethinking manure biogas: Policy considerations to promote equity and protect the climate and environment.” Vermont Law & Graduate School. Center for Agriculture and Food Systems. August 2022 at 24. By locking in existing herd sizes and even incentivizing factory farm expansion, increasing factory farm gas investment risks parallel increases in greenhouse gas emissions.75Ibid.; Kelloway, Claire. “Big Ag and Big Oil eye biogas profits, Shell buys Nature Energy.” Food & Power Net. December 7, 2022.

Susan and Jerry Stoefen (the couple fighting carbon pipelines near their home in Scott County) have also witnessed this “perverse incentive,” whereby digesters encourage the buildout of more digesters or factory farms. They live down the road from the Sievers Family Farm, which houses over 2,400 head of beef cattle in confinement.76CHP Technical Assistance Partnerships. “Project Profile: Sievers Family Farm.” Updated August 2021 at 1. The massive amount of waste the farm produces supposedly justifies the use of a digester. However, Susan said the facility now takes in waste from food processing facilities,77Ibid. incentivizing the buildout of a second digester. Jerry describes the facility as more of an “industrial waste management site” than a farm.

Anaerobic digesters are an extremely risky investment — in Iowa, digesters have a 42 percent failure rate.78AgSTAR. EPA. “Livestock Anaerobic Digester Database.” Available at // and on file with FWW. Accessed November 2023. They are also prohibitively expensive, costing up to $5 million each, and in the case of dairies, they require at least 3,000 cows to operate profitably.79Wozniacka, Gosia. “Are dairy digesters the renewable energy answer or a ‘false solution’ to climate change?” Civil Eats. April 24, 2020; Lauer, Markus et al. “Making money from waste: The economic viability of producing biogas and biomethane in the Idaho dairy industry.” Applied Energy. Vol. 222. April 8, 2018 at abstract. The Walz digester plan collapsed before it was even built, thanks partly to one involved party’s financial mismanagement.80Walz v. Feeder Creek Energy. 2019 Iowa Dist. LEXIS 5, at 2-4 (IA District 1. 2019); Sierra Club Iowa Chapter vs. Iowa DNR. 2023 Iowa Dist. at 2-5 (IA District 5. 2023); Jordan, Erin. The Gazette. “Iowa judge overturns Supreme Beef manure plan approval.” Investigate Midwest. May 3, 2023. However, the cattle feedlot forged ahead,81Ibid. under the new name of Supreme Beef and permitted to house up to 11,600 head of cattle.82Sierra Club Iowa Chapter vs. Iowa DNR (2023) at *5 to *6. Equally troubling to Bob and Larry is the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ prior approval of a “nutrient management plan” to apply manure to fields in the watershed of Bloody Run.83Ibid. at *5 to *6 and *28; Strong (October 2023).

As Bob and Larry told us, the Committee to Save Bloody Run continues to fight it because the feedlot threatens to contaminate local waterways with nitrogen and phosphorus from manure spreading. They also argue that any leakage from the 39-million-gallon manure storage basin, built in porous, karst topography, may flow directly into Bloody Run Creek.84Strong (October 2023); Sierra Club Iowa Chapter vs. Iowa DNR (2023) at *4 and *19. The committee has also challenged the legality of a water withdrawal permit the Iowa Department of Natural Resources issued to the industry.

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Excess nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen can build up in waterways and harm the environment. Photo CC-BY-SA 2.0 © USDA NRCS South Dakota / Flickr.
Bob’s experiences with the false promise of digesters runs deep. He previously worked in the wastewater treatment industry, interacting directly with digesters in that field. Bob told us that talk of agricultural digesters floated around the industry for years, but it remained largely that: talk. “There are ag digester skeletons all over the Midwest; ones that were being built, ones that didn’t get built, ones that got built and shut down.” Now, more may be added to the pile.
Iowa’s regulatory failures

As industry plows forward with the failing technology, Iowa is not equipped to properly regulate agricultural digesters. Bob spoke scathingly of Iowa’s regulatory failures. He has firsthand experience serving on an Iowa Department of Natural Resources Rules Committee intended to draft digester regulations years prior to the passage of House File 522, a bill to allow factory farm digesters.85IA H.F. 522 (2021). The State asked him to serve on the committee after he reported a digester company that violated state rules.

Bob told us that the committee’s draft regulations failed to account for the dangerous truth about digesters. “The draft regulations of the waste conversion technology said that there would be no hazardous waste in ag digesters. Well, the problem is that hog waste fits Iowa’s definition of hazardous waste to a T.” However, when he made this case to the chair of the committee, he was told that federal and state regulations exclude agricultural waste from their hazardous waste definitions. This has prevented agricultural digesters from being regulated as the hazards that they are.

Instead, Iowa lawmakers forged ahead and passed House File 522 in 2021.86Ibid. The same day Governor Kim Reynolds signed the bill, a worker died inside a digester at Sievers Family Farm. Bob Baenziger, a self-employed contractor working at the farm, dove to the bottom of the digester to repair a cable. He never resurfaced, asphyxiating on the toxic sludge inside. Since the farm has fewer than 10 employees, no federal agency was required to investigate.87Jordan, Erin. “No OSHA probe of man who died in dive into farm digester.” Cedar Rapids Gazette. Updated June 17, 2021; Lydersen, Kari. “Biogas expansion may compound worker risks.” Energy News Network. November 16, 2022.

While the state blesses biogas digesters, officials in Scott County recently passed a zoning ordinance banning solar farms on prime agricultural land.88Scott County Code § 6-21 (2022); Whiskeyman, Danny. “Scott County Board of Supervisors approves new solar ordinance.” KWQC. September 20, 2022. This is where the Sievers operation is located, and the hypocrisy is not lost on Susan: “I’m questioning, ‘Well, [the digesters are] becoming like a utility, and you’re allowing this. When does it stop being a farm operator?’”

Risks of digester bonanza remain unaddressed

The American Biogas Council names Iowa fifth among U.S. states for biogas expansion,89American Biogas Council. “Iowa: Biogas State Profiles.” Available at // Accessed October 2023 and on file with FWW. a fact Jerry called “kind of scary, really.” The worker death at nearby Sievers farm has Susan and Jerry worried about the safety of workers building out this technology. “It’s going to be like the Wild West,” said Jerry. Biogas expansion is one more risk facing livestock workers, who have a higher rate of illness and injury than the agricultural industry as a whole.90FWW analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Industries at a Glance. “Animal Production: NAICS 112.” Accessed November 2023. Available at //, and “Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing and Hunting: NAICS 11.” Accessed November 2023. Available at // Jerry adds, “There’s so many farmers dying in grain bins, and they’ve had grain bins forever.” The dangers feel even more dire with risky digester technology.

Rural communities already face air pollutants from factory farms. At Bob Watson’s granddaughters’ school, the teachers kept a log of how strong the smell from the nearby hog confinements was. Some days, he tells us, the school filled with the smell, the odor so bad that the students were unable to go outside for recess. That school has now shut down and is no longer in use. Bob understands the dangers behind these factory farm odors, which are more than just smelly — they contain pollutants like hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, and volatile organic compounds,91Pfost, Donald L. et al. MU Extension – University of Missouri-Columbia. “Odors from livestock operations: Causes and possible cures.” MU Guide. Reviewed November 2018 at 1. substances that people, particularly children, should not be breathing in.

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Polluting factory farms all over Iowa sit beside homes, schools, rivers, and more. Photo © Kathryn Gamble / Used with permission
Factory farm gas proponents hype up digesters as a way to reduce factory farm pollution. However, the Stoefens experience no differences in noticeable odors from the Sievers confinement operation and digester. “The smell around it is terrible. Especially when they’re pumping [the manure].” They believe that Sievers has an overabundance of liquid manure, especially in the spring. They watch in quiet horror as semi-truck after semi-truck passes by, filled with liquid manure.

Studies show that factory farm gas production releases its own host of hazardous pollutants. A portion of the sulfur in raw manure converts to hydrogen sulfide in a digester, which is sometimes flared on-site.92Vermont DEC; Sorg, Lisa. “Converting hog waste into energy: Not as neat and simple as it might sound.” NC Policy Watch. April 2, 2021; Lansing, Stephanie and Amro Hassanein. “Poultry litter anaerobic digestion.” University of Maryland Extension. Accessed January 2024 at 3. Hydrogen sulfide is highly poisonous, corrosive, and flammable, posing risks to those living nearby. Additionally, when factory farm gas is burned in an internal combustion engine, it releases sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid air pollutants, which carry their own risks.93Vermont DEC; New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH). [Fact sheet]. “Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet: Sulfur Dioxide.” Updated May 2010 at 1 to 2; NJDOH. [Fact sheet]. “Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet: Sulfuric Acid.” Updated March 2016 at 1 to 2. Repeated exposure to sulfur dioxide can cause bronchitis or other health issues including decreased fertility.94NJDOH (2010) at 1 to 2. Other trace pollutants, including lead, copper, and carcinogens like arsenic, are present in biogas at higher levels than in fossil fuels.95Gittelson et al. (2022) at 356.

As Bob told us, health effects from exposure to factory farm pollutants are more than just theoretical. Studies have repeatedly demonstrated the real-life impacts that proximity to factory farms has on communities, including school children. In one study he cited, researchers found that the rate of asthma among students located one half-mile from a factory farm was nearly 20 percent, or three times Iowa’s overall rate.96Sigurdarson, Sigurdur T. and Joel N. Kline. “School proximity to concentrated animal feeding operations and prevalence of asthma in students.” Chest. Vol. 129, Iss. 6. June 2006 at 1487 and 1489. Bob said, “This big effort to build ag digesters, it’s going to enable these health problems…to continue.”

Similarly, factory farm gas does nothing to address water pollution. Anaerobic digestion is not a magic wand that makes manure disappear; it merely extracts gases while leaving solid and liquid waste that still needs to be disposed.97EPA. “How does anaerobic digestion work?”. Manure spreading and leaks from digester lagoons can contaminate drinking water.98Gittelson et al. (2022) at 353. Risks to local water are heightened by local geography. For example, northeastern Iowa’s landscape is karst topography, characterized by easily dissolvable limestone and dolomite. As water or runoff moves downward, these rocks dissolve and create fractures or sinkholes, allowing contaminants to reach groundwater easier.99IA DNR. Iowa Private Well Program. [Fact sheet]. “Private Wells in Karst Areas.” Available at // Accessed December 2023.  As Larry noted, “Northeast Iowa and karst is just a place you don’t want to be doing things that may actually end up in the water.”

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Throwing fossil fuels a lifeline

Not only does factory farm gas not mitigate pollution, but it further entrenches fossil fuel infrastructure and damages. In order to function, biogas for off-farm use requires several pieces of traditional fossil fuel infrastructure, the most ubiquitous of which are pipelines. Pipelines are used to transport the gas to and from upgrading facilities. Heavy shipping trucks are another transportation alternative.100Gittelson et al. (2022) at 355 and 357. Bob told us of the detriments to his local community he sees unfolding: “Our road infrastructure is being totally trashed when they start using trucks. Any pipeline that has been put in doing this kind of stuff breaks at some point. There are spills. It simply doesn’t matter. Any pipeline has spills.”

Factory farms have taken a toll on Iowa,101See FWW. The Economic Cost of Food Monopolies: The Hog Bosses. May 2022. and digesters will not be Iowa’s savior. Bob mentioned that Iowa is second in the nation for cancer incidence and the only state with a significant increase in incidence over the past several years.102West, Michele M. et al. State Health Registry of Iowa. Iowa Cancer Registry.. “2023 Cancer in Iowa.” February 2023 at 16. “If we are the only state where the cancer rate is going up, there’s obviously a reason.” Digesters will only enable factory farms to continue polluting and poisoning communities, putting lives at risk to turn a profit. In the face of these dangers, Iowa must stand strong against the industry’s latest campaign of greenwashing.

People Power Wins

People power is stronger than corporate power.
Hope in Iowa is not lost. All the Iowans we spoke with are engaged in these issues, fighting for a better Iowa for today and for their children’s future. Jerry and Susan told us that a green future includes tenets like no-till farming, increasing funding for the Conservation Reserve Program, and small farms practicing sustainable, low-impact methods. Paul echoed these sentiments, calling for increased federal funding for cover crops and land practices that will capture and hold carbon without the boondoggle of CCS.  Most of all, though, these advocates want people to learn more about the challenges Iowa is facing and to stand up to Big Ag. Larry spoke about the need to understand what a non-sustainable situation Iowa is in, with state officials continuing to make poor policy decisions and failing to safely regulate digesters at the expense of Iowans. Susan echoed this, with a plea for everyone to care — even if you do not live in Iowa. What happens in Iowa will be an example of the battles to come across the United States as Big Ag continues to promote these dangerous policies.
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The scams promoted by Big Ag and its partners in the fossil fuel lobby are endangering communities in Iowa and across the United States. But there’s hope: as corporations rush to get rich off the next new false solution scheme, people are standing up to say enough is enough. People across Iowa are fighting for a moratorium on new and expanding factory farms and against industry scams like carbon pipelines, ethanol, and factory farm gas. Breaking the agribusiness and fossil fuel stranglehold is necessary to force a shift to truly clean, renewable systems and to protect the health and safety of our communities. Iowans from across the state are coming together to fight for a better future.
Food & Water Watch recommends:


  • Congress must pass the Farm System Reform Act, which will allocate funding to transition to smaller, pasture-based farming systems. Congress must also pass the Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act, to put an end to agribusiness mega-mergers.
  • Congress must eliminate public subsidies that support carbon capture and storage development, including the 45Q tax credit and billions in new subsidies for CCS authorized in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must begin regulating factory farm greenhouse gas emissions under the federal Clean Air Act and must reject false solutions like factory farm gas digesters that will entrench factory farms and worsen environmental injustice.
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture must reject factory farm gas when funding climate-smart agricultural practices, instead promoting real climate solutions that will benefit family farms, not factory farms.


  • The Iowa legislature must pass a moratorium on new and expanding factory farms and must pass the Clean Water for Iowa Act which would require the existing CAFOs contributing most to Iowa’s pollution problems to obtain Clean Water Act discharge permits.
  • The Iowa legislature and governor must say no to dangerous false solutions and industry scams like carbon capture pipelines and factory farm gas. State agencies like the Iowa Utilities Board and Department of Natural Resources must follow suit.

Learn more about factory farm biogas in our recent report, “The Big Oil and Big Ag Ponzi Scheme: Factory Farm Biogas,” and about carbon capture and storage in our resource hub, “The Carbon Capture Scam.”

Iowans, tell your representatives: we need real climate solutions, not more industry schemes!