Venturing Into The Voluntary Market

The following is an article originally published May 14, 2024, by Ethanol Producer Magazine.

Venturing Into The Voluntary Market

By Luke Geiver, Ethanol Producer Magazine

The U.S. ethanol industry has officially entered the voluntary carbon market (VCM). In March, Red Trail Energy, a western North Dakota producer, became the first ethanol plant to be issued CO2 removal credits (CORCS) within a global marketplace that connects CO2 suppliers and buyers looking to neutralize their carbon footprint. Apart from RTE’s much-celebrated, multi-year effort to complete an onsite carbon capture and sequestration project at its North Dakota biorefinery, the plant’s management team worked with EcoEngineers to successfully navigate the process of generating CORCs., a Finnish-based carbon crediting platform—backed by Nasdaq and other investors—issued the CORCs, making them available for companies like Microsoft, Shopify and other massive brands to purchase as part of their CO2 reduction initiatives. Renewable Products Marketing Group, the Minnesota-based ethanol marketing company, will market the credits.

Jodi Johnson, RTE CEO, called the accomplishment a groundbreaking milestone, noting that the company’s position in the ethanol industry is now stronger. Antti Vihavainen, CEO of called the milestone monumental, highlighting the scale of the project as an example of how large projects can and will supply the VCM with significant volume. Jim Ramm, vice president of biofuels at EcoEngineers, said the achievement by RTE and all those involved has created an opportunity for ethanol producers that can be leveraged now and well into the future.

Get to Know the VCM 
The voluntary carbon market was created to promote the removal of industrial carbon dioxide at a global scale. The market provides corporations and other entities that do not directly produce carbon dioxide in large volumes the ability to participate indirectly in the physical reduction of CO2. Through one of several marketplaces operating today, a buyer can purchase carbon removal credits, in various forms, for a fluctuating fee. By purchasing credits, the buyer is able to meet its own carbon reduction initiatives while incentivizing the removal of CO2. In return, the supplier is monetarily rewarded for partaking in CO2 removal practices. The way RTE and its partners are venturing into the VCM appears to be refreshingly clear cut, but both Vihavainen and David LaGreca, managing director for EcoEngineers, say that’s not always the case for the carbon capture and storage (CCS) sector.

The wind and solar industries have been participating in, and benefiting from, the VCM for years, LaGreca says. The VCM is roughly 30 years old and picks up where global governmental policies leave off. The purpose of the market is to reward carbon removal and make CCS projects more feasible.

“Renewable fuels haven’t really played in this sandbox before, as others have,” LaGreca says.

Playing in the VCM requires the establishment of capture metrics, proof points, traceability and several other terms that all relate to verification. According to LaGreca, a project aiming to participate in the VCM as a supplier must submit project documentation in a particular format with exacting methodology. For RTE, LaGreca and his team were brought in to explore the feasibility of the ethanol plant participating in the VCM in the first place, and then to produce the documentation required from RTE to receive CORCs.

According to, the verification process is one major reason why Nasdaq has taken a leading investor position in its company. has developed a rigorous, effective and proven process for analyzing and verifying the carbon capture and/or sequestration abilities of suppliers to the VCM. While most carbon offset schemes focus broadly on emissions reduction,’s approach is all about carbon removal. The company requires scientifically verified removal methods that capture and store CO2 durably for a minimum of 100 years—with industrial scaling potential. The scaling criterion is one of several reasons Vihavainen and his team are excited to work with RTE.

“Puro has developed multiple methodologies for this,” Vihavainen says. His company has worked with scientific advisory boards and other third-party advisors to create its verification system. The company has no investments or stake in any CO2 supplier or marketplace, he emphasizes. It exists to generate CORCs that the marketplace can trust. Vihavainen says Puro’s approach is aligned with global benchmarks, namely the International Carbon Reduction and Offset Alliance, a trade group of providers of voluntary carbon offsets.

Also, Puro only certifies durably stored carbon with net-negative emissions. Avoided or reduced emissions aren’t included in any carbon accounting. The company recognizes five different carbon removal methods: biochar, terrestrial storage of biomass, carbonated materials, enhanced rock weathering and geologically stored carbon. To date, Puro has certified CORCs for 175 different projects across 33 separate countries for a total of 818,527 tons of CO2. RTE is by far Puro’s largest CO2 CORC supplier. It’s also the only U.S. project in its portfolio. The majority of all CORC suppliers through Puro are in the biochar sector.

The verification process required of suppliers includes four steps. First, the supplier makes a claim on the net negativity of their products or process with accompanying evidence via a lifecycle assessment or environmental product declaration (which basically says the product has removed more CO2 than it has emitted). Second, independent assessors in the Puro system visit the production facility, validate data accuracy and issue an audit statement. Puro covers the cost of verification. Third, the verified volume of extra carbon absorbed in the products or process is then issued CORCs for every metric ton of CO2 removed and stored. Then, suppliers are free to sell their CORCs to any venue, marketplace or broker; they can also sell them directly to companies that want carbon credits to neutralize their emissions by indirect removal.

“We publish a price index with Nasdaq,” Vihavainen says. “We promote the existence of high-quality carbon removal.”

The CORC Carbon Removal Price Index tracks the price of all CORC transactions (with a separate index for biochar). As of February, the CORC index price hovered around $170 per ton. Over the past 18 months, the index price has fluctuated from roughly $130 per ton to almost $200 per ton.

When a CORC is retired (i.e., bought) the owner of the CORC can claim the benefit. CORCS will last up to three years, Vihavainen says. There are several marketplaces for buyers and suppliers to connect, including Supercritical, Patch, Carbonfuture, Cloverly, Watershed, Klimate, Lune and even Salesforce. CORCs are digital, certified and tradable.

Ethanol’s Future In the VCM gets compensated for its CORC certification work in two ways: An account holder can pay an annual membership fee, or a service fee is applied to the supplier when a CORC is traded for the first time. The fee is based on the volume of the annual output of CORCs and the price level of the CORCs.

Apart from its revenue generation goals, Puro’s mission and overarching goal is to expand the number of carbon removal projects across several industries. The company also aims to expand the access of CO2 buyers to suppliers with large CO2 removal volumes, like RTE.

When launched in 2017, Vihavainen says, there were a half-dozen biochar companies in the world, and now there are more than 500. That growth is, in part, due to and its ability to create an additional buyer for one of the industry’s main processes: carbon removal. Prior to RTE, the suppliers that has typically certified have had annual output totals far less than 100,000 CORCs. In fact, RTE is the first supplier to be certified by Puro that is at or above that level.

“Adding RTE is very significant,” he says.

None of it would have happened without Ramm of EcoEngineers. Ramm introduced RTE to LaGreca and his team. At first, LaGreca wasn’t sure if the RTE project would work in the VCM. Now, he says, it’s starting to look like a blueprint for other ethanol producers to follow. RTE underwent an independent verification and successfully met all requirements of feedstock sustainability, carbon sequestration permanence and financial additionality. Through only the first 14 months of its CCS project, RTE was issued more than 150,000 CORCs.

EcoEngineers has published a case study on its work with RTE that demonstrates the opportunity to both RTE and the ethanol sector as a whole. Participating in VCMs, the study says, “creates alternate revenue streams that reduce project risks and create optionality for bioenergy with carbon capture and storage projects.” The study added that “current incentive programs in the U.S. such as the 45Q federal tax credit for carbon capture and storage and state low-carbon fuel standards … are attractive to ethanol producers, but long permitting times and regulatory risks that impact credit pricing pose barriers.”

By participating in the VCM, producers have more choices, LaGreca says. “They now have the choice to go from one to the other depending on price.”

Shashi Menon, CEO of EcoEngineers, says that the company’s goal was to set RTE up for success in regulated markets (i.e., LCFS programs) while also helping the ethanol producer jump into the voluntary market. “This gives RTE a significant competitive advantage within the ethanol sector and serves as a new industry standard for others to follow,” Menon says. 

Ramm echoes that belief.

“The VCM recognizes that these CO2 removal projects, like that at RTE, are very important to meeting their clients’ goals,” he says. “Ethanol [producers are] in a really good position to participate in the VCM because they provide the best form of CO2 for sequestration.”

Should an ethanol plant control the environmental attributes of its captured carbon, it will have optionality. Some producers looking to capture CO2 via pipeline may not retain their environmental attributes based on their respective contracts with a pipeline provider. According to EcoEngineers, by registering CCS pathways in several jurisdictions and alternative VCMs, ethanol producers will be able to choose to attach the CCS credits to the fuel product and sell ethanol for a premium, or separate the CCS credits from the fuel and sell CO2-removal credits into the “demand-heavy VCM.”

Despite the testing and documentation requirements necessary to register CORCs through, Ramm and LaGreca estimate they could onboard a capturing producer through feasibility studies, education about the VCM and other essential steps in roughly 90 days. Other producers currently capturing CO2, or planning to, may be wondering whether entering the VCM is right for them. For Ramm, the answer is a resounding yes, he says.

LaGreca believes the VCM will be a strong growth driver in the short term for carbon capture projects.

“I think that a lot of the ethanol producers or capture equipment companies can leverage this and help make a more rapid decarbonization of the industry happen,” he says.

Those that move into the VCM early may also be rewarded. While the incentive portion of the VCM is a major driver now, it isn’t meant to last forever. The goal, according to LaGreca and Vihavainen, is that someday every industrial carbon producer will incorporate capture methods into its systems, regardless of incentives.

For CO2 capture projects that aren’t funded or economically feasible at the moment, Puro has an accelerator program to match up projects with investors. It also has a large list of sales channel partners, suppliers and buyers already connected and ready to do business with a large list of credit takers. Interested auditors and verification companies can also link up to Puro. As Vihavainen says, every part of the VCM is growing, including the number of participants.

EcoEngineers has already proven its trailblazing capabilities within the ethanol sector, its management team says. Now, they’re ready for their next project, equipped with the knowledge gained from their role in helping the first-ever ethanol plant enter the voluntary carbon market. Their work has been verified and is repeatable.

Stay Informed


Carbon credit prices fluctuate like any other financial market. Sign up here to receive The Daily Credit updates directly to your inbox.