1 of 4 | A pipeline opposition rally is held at the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines in February. Photo courtesy of Jessica Mazour/Sierra Club
CLIVE, Iowa, Sept. 27 (UPI) -- The plan to build a 2,000-mile carbon dioxide pipeline through five Midwestern states -- touted as crucial to President Joe Biden's clean energy initiative -- has sparked heated debate in Iowa, where hundreds of landowners and expert witnesses are facing off over politics and property rights.
The Summit Carbon Solutions pipeline would cross Iowa and South Dakota, with branches in northeastern Nebraska and southwestern Minnesota, before terminating in North Dakota, where carbon dioxide would be pumped underground and stored. There are also 32 carbon capture facilities along the route.
Summit says the project will create 11,000 new jobs. Supporters say it will create an economic opportunity for Iowa farmers that could rival the rise of ethanol. And it's praised as a green solution to comply with Biden's long-term net-zero carbon emission goal.
But a weeks-long public hearing in Fort Dodge, Iowa, has turned hostile, with questions of fairness and transparency raised over Gov. Kim Reynolds' close relationship with Summit's founder and the Iowa Utilities Board, whose three members she appointed. The board may grant Summit the permit to construct, make modifications or deny its proposal.
Since the hearing began on Aug. 22, dozens have testified at the Cardiff Event Center, with the threat of eminent domain looming for landowners who have not signed voluntary easements to allow pipeline construction across their property.
Many have cited concerns about safety stemming from the rupture of a CO2 pipeline in Satartia, Miss., in 2020. The pipeline leaked more than 30,000 barrels of CO2.
"This is not a safe project," landowner Julie Kaufman testified last week. "We already know that they had that rupture in Satartia and evacuated over 200 people and 40-some were hospitalized. The thought of that happening to any of my grandchildren and any of my family -- this is our home and it just feels like a violation of our property rights."
Usually, pipeline companies find a friendly utilities board and state laws in Iowa.
By contrast, governing bodies in North and South Dakota, where members are elected, have denied Summit's application to build. The company expects to eventually win on appeal.
One of Reynold's largest campaign donors, Bruce Rastetter, is the founder and executive chairman of Summit Agricultural Group. He has donated more than $170,000 to Reynolds since she was appointed governor in 2017. He is a former president of the Iowa Board of Regents.
Summit has also hired some notable Iowa names, in what Republican state Sen. Jeff Taylor said is a move to "stack the deck" with both political parties. Former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, was hired as a senior policy adviser. Jess Vilsack, son of Biden's Secretary of Agriculture and former Gov. Tom Vilsack, serves as the company's general counsel.
The threats of eminent domain and apparent ties between prominent state figures and Summit inspired Taylor to propose new legislation earlier this year to protect landowners. The bills would remove the power of the utilities board to use eminent domain for hazardous liquid pipelines, require a 90% voluntary easement threshold for eminent domain and curb the harassment of landowners by pipeline companies.
Carmen Moser, landowner and auditor of Palo Alto County, testified of feeling pressured by Summit land agents to sign a voluntary easement.
"It has been very stressful. It's definitely been pushy," Moser said.
None of the bills Taylor drafted were granted a subcommittee hearing, which is the first step in the approval process.
"This is a system where it's about who you know and there's big money involved," Taylor said in an interview with UPI. "It bothered me because I could see the inherent unfairness going on and the political pressure being applied."
Taylor also proposed a bill requiring the disclosure of pipeline investors if eminent domain is used to build.
"There are people financing this that we have no idea who it is. It could be people who work for the state, former politicians," Taylor said.
The rules around pipeline companies seeking to procure land are also more relaxed in Iowa. Unlike neighboring states, a surveyor may enter a property and it will not be deemed trespassing. There are also no restrictions on how or how often the company can contact the property owner in an attempt to engage in negotiations.
This has caused some landowners to feel bullied.
"Iowa is the oddball on surveyor rules," Jane Kleeb, founder of Bold Alliance, an alliance that advocates for landowners against abuses of eminent domain, told UPI. "It's rare that a state has a law on the books like Iowa that forces a landowner to take a surveyor on their property."
Utility board hearings
The hearings are being held in Fort Dodge as the harvest begins, one of the busiest times of the year for farmers. Yet dozens are taking the time to testify.
Adding to their challenge, they have been given few details about when they are to appear, said Jess Mazour, a conservation program coordinator with the Sierra Club.
The IUB has reserved the Cardiff Event Center through Friday, but the hearing is unlikely to be finished by that time. Don Tormey, communications director for the utilities board, told UPI that the evidentiary hearing will continue until completed with additional scheduling still to be determined.
Tormey said landowners were contacted by mail and asked if they wished to testify, as well as given options to provide witness comments, in-person testimony or virtual testimony. Intervening parties -- parties that can call witnesses and give cross-examination -- are given a "best estimate" on when they will testify in a weekly digest.
"IUB worked with Exhibit H landowners to accommodate their schedules," Tormey said in an email to UPI. "The exact timing of how quickly each witness is cross-examined is dependent on the parties and not the IUB."
Kathy Stockdale owns more than 500 acres of land in Hardin County, Iowa, where her family farms corn and beans. She has attended many of the hearing dates and was scheduled to testify last Thursday.
"I don't think it's been fair because they don't respect us," she said.
Stockdale noted that the presence of a private security company at the hearings has also made some people feel intimidated. Security agents have been checking the belongings of attendees upon arrival and have been posted throughout the Cardiff Event Center.
Overwatch Security, the private firm based in Texas that is providing security for the hearings, has also been hired by Summit.
"It makes us feel like we're terrorists almost," Stockdale said. "I've gone to IUB meetings in Des Moines and they might have one or two highway patrol officers but they don't frisk you. It makes it look like they're siding with Summit."
Support for pipeline
While hundreds of landowners have remained steadfast in their opposition of the pipeline, more than 70% in Iowa, South Dakota and North Dakota have signed voluntary easements.
Kelly Nieuwenhuis is among them. He has signed an easement for about a three-mile stretch of pipeline that will cross his land near Primghar, Iowa. He was president of the board for the Siouxland Energy Cooperative when it signed an agreement with Summit in 2021, but is no longer on the board.
"It's critical to the biofuels industry for future growth," Nieuwenhuis told UPI in an interview. "The world is focused on decarbonizing our atmosphere. We have a huge opportunity if we get these pipelines done for the sustainable aviation fuel market. Without the pipelines, I've been told it won't happen and we won't get into that market."
The sustainable aviation fuel market could be a gamechanger for Iowa's economy, said Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association.
"We transformed the rural economy with the 14 billion gallon market for e10," Shaw told UPI of ethanol. "Now we're talking about unlocking access to a 36 billion-gallon market and that's just in the U.S. If we go to sustainable aviation fuels internationally, that's a 90 to 100 billion gallon-a-year market."
Nieuwenhuis has signed voluntary easements before, but he believes his soil will recover after the construction of this pipeline more quickly than with past projects. The Dakota Access Pipeline was constructed across his land five years ago. That pipeline is 3 feet in diameter and required a 9-foot wide, 8-foot deep trench for construction.
The proposed Summit pipeline will range from four to 24 inches in diameter, according to Summit. Nieuwenhuis has also signed an easement for Navigator Ventures' Heartland Greenway pipeline project.
Landowners who sign voluntary easements are given a onetime payment from Summit. Some companies offer ongoing payments for a set amount of time, typically just for crop damages. Payments for easements are a separate item. Nieuwenhuis said he is pleased with the agreement he signed even though believes others will end up getting more money.
"If I was guaranteed a $200 profit on the permanent easement area it would take over $200 years to equal the onetime payment I received," Nieuwenhuis said. "I've been farming for over 40 years and there are not a lot of years where I was making $200 per acre."
He was also pleased with how the negotiations with Summit played out.
"They're very open to negotiating from what we've found," Nieuwenhuis said.