First month of Summit carbon capture pipeline comments exceed those on Dakota Access. Here's what's next.

Donnelle Eller
Des Moines Register

The first carbon capture pipeline proposal to make its way to Iowa regulators is drawing more early opposition in the state than the Dakota Access crude oil pipeline, which grabbed national attention in 2016 and 2017, when Hollywood stars joined Native Americans in monthslong protests.

So far, Summit Carbon Solutions' proposal to build a $4.5 billion carbon capture pipeline in Iowa has drawn 750 comments, according to Don Tormey, the Iowa Utilities Board spokesman.  The comments — mostly in opposition — are double the number the Dakota Access project had received roughly a month after filing its permit request with state regulators in 2015, a Des Moines Register review shows. 

And opposition is growing. Organizers say hundreds of Iowa landowners are banding together to fight Summit's project and two other carbon capture pipeline proposals. They're refusing to sell easements for the pipelines and pledging to battle the companies in court, if necessary.

Karmin McShane paints a sign in opposition to a carbon capture and sequestration pipeline in Linn County.

Dubbed the Iowa Easement Team, the group says it has hired Domina Law, a Nebraska firm that helped stop the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have transported Canadian crude oil from Alberta to refineries in Texas. It declined to say exactly how many Iowa landowners are part of the effort.

"I've been kind of amazed at the amount of resistance we've seen to these projects" so early in the process, said Wally Taylor, an attorney for the Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club, which challenged Dakota Access and opposes the more recent carbon capture projects.

In the submitted comments, farmers, landowners and county and state officials are challenging Summit's likely use of eminent domain to force unwilling landowners to sell access for the 680-mile pipeline, which would cross 29 Iowa counties. Fifteen county boards of supervisors have filed statements of opposition to the use of eminent domain.

"These are Republican Trump voters, and they're just mad about these pipelines," Taylor said.

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Farmers in particular say they're concerned construction of the buried pipeline could  damage their soil and field drainage systems. There are also concerns about the safety of residents along the pipeline's route.

The 1,172-mile Dakota Access pipeline, completed in 2017, now carries about 570,000 barrels of oil daily from North Dakota's Bakken formation to a distribution hub in Patoka, Illinois, cutting through 18 Iowa counties along the way.

Protests against the Dakota Access project drew celebrities like Mark Ruffalo and Shailene Woodley to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota, the epicenter of the opposition. The tribe said the pipeline would unearth sacred sites and threaten its water supply by traveling under the banks of neighboring Lake Oahe. The project ultimately garnered 9,100 comments in Iowa, both supporting and opposing the project, Tormey said.

Margaret Two Shields, 63, of the Standing Rock Sioux at the Oceti Sakowin protest camp near the proposed route of the Dakota Access pipeline in 2016. The pipeline, since built despite the opposition, passes through Iowa.

Iowans unsuccessfully appealed Dakota Access' use of eminent domain to the Iowa Supreme Court, a case that undoubtedly will play a role in Summit's request before the Iowa Utilities Board.

Summit proposes capturing carbon dioxide emissions from ethanol and fertilizer plants, liquefying it under pressure and transporting it via the pipeline to be sequestered deep underground in North Dakota. Texas-based Navigator CO2 Ventures and Illinois-based Archer Daniels Midland propose similar projects, terminating in Illinois, but have yet to apply for permits from the Iowa utilities board.

The companies say the projects are needed to help ethanol production and other energy-intensive agricultural industries remain viable as the nation seeks to cut net greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030.

With 15,000 Iowa landowners potentially in the path of Summit's pipeline, the state utilities board said this month that the Ames company must identify where eminent domain powers are needed before it will set a hearing. Opponents also are pushing Gov. Kim Reynolds to meet with them, hoping to keep alive a bill in the Legislature that would prevent private companies from using eminent domain.

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“The big question is whether Governor Reynolds will protect us landowners or will she protect the private pipeline companies?" Craig Woodward, a Cerro Gordo County landowner, said in a statement. "That’s why we want to meet with her.”

Opponents say the company's delay in releasing the list of properties where it would use eminent domain is evidence the project has little support. But Summit says it's reaching voluntary agreements with hundreds of Iowa landowners in the pipeline's path.

More:ADM proposes an Iowa carbon-capture pipeline, bringing state's total to three

Next steps in considering Summit's proposal

Here's what's next in Summit's bid, according to the Iowa Utilities Board, the Iowa attorney general's consumer advocate, Summit and others.

Now the Iowa Utilities Board goes to work reviewing Summit's petition and exhibits for deficiencies, a process that could take a few months, said Taylor, the Sierra Club attorney. The next public action would be the utilities board issuing an order that outlines the deadlines for prepared testimony on the plan. Summit said it expects the utilities board will establish the procedural schedule soon.

The utilities board also will set the date for a public hearing. Jennifer Easler, Iowa's consumer advocate, said prepared testimony will come from Summit, her office and others the utilities board grants permission to intervene in the hearing. Property owners and groups that both support and oppose the pipeline project can ask to intervene in the case, as well, Easler said.

Taylor said the Sierra Club will seek to become an intervenor. And Easler expects landowners, both separately and in groups, will seek to participate. State law says the hearing must be held in the county seat at the midpoint of the pipeline, but "it's not clear where that would be," Easler said.

Iowans should get plenty of notice about the hearing: Under state law, the utilities board must publish notice about the hearing for two consecutive weeks in a general circulation newspaper in each county the pipeline would run through. The hearing must be held within 10 to 30 days of when the last notice runs.

The evidentiary hearing for the 350-mile Dakota Access pipeline was held in Boone, said Bill Hanigan, a Des Moines attorney who represented landowners who opposed the project. He expects to represent landowners in the Summit case as well.

Summit will have to convince the utilities board that the pipeline will promote "public convenience and necessity." And if the utilities board grants Summit a permit, it will then have to decide if Summit should be granted eminent domain powers, based on whether the pipeline serves a public use.

In weighing "public convenience and necessity," the board will consider the project's benefits against its costs, Hanigan and others said.

In Dakota Access, the utilities board decided the project's economic impact in Iowa, the market's need for crude oil, and improved transportation safety outweighed the burdens the project placed on landowners, agricultural interests and the environment. The state Supreme Court upheld the board's decision, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.

Hanigan said Summit and the other companies that follow likely will be granted eminent domain powers if they win permits. Eminent domain powers would enable Summit to condemn land needed for the pipeline and force unwilling landowners to sell easements at fair market value.

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Decision likely to turn on environmental vs. safety concerns, attorney says

Many issues likely will be debated at the hearing, but Hanigan believes the utilities board's decision will come down to weighing the environmental argument for sequestering carbon against safety concerns around transporting pressurized liquid carbon dioxide.

Summit has said the carbon sequestration project is needed to help lower ethanol's carbon footprint to net zero by 2030 so it can continue to be sold in California, Oregon and other states that are seeking to drastically limit carbon emissions from cars and other transportation sources.

Iowa is the nation's largest ethanol producer — about half the state's corn crop is used to make the renewable fuel. Summit says it has the capacity to capture up to 12 million metric tons of carbon annually, an amount equal to removing 2.6 million vehicles from the road each year.

From left, Steve and Troy McShane, Shawn Voigt and Karmin McShane put up a sign reading "No eminent domain for corporate gain!" in opposition to a carbon capture and sequestration pipeline in Linn County.

But concentrated carbon dioxide is an asphyxiant; meatpackers often use it in the slaughtering process. Project opponents point to a nighttime carbon dioxide pipeline leak a year ago in Mississippi that sickened dozens of nearby residents.

A recent Huffington Post article said the town of Satartia was engulfed in a greenish cloud and within minutes, people were "gasping for air, nauseated and dazed." Car engines, starved of oxygen, shut off, and drivers scrambled out of their paralyzed vehicles, so disoriented that they ended up wandering around in the dark, the article said. 

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Summit has said it plans to take extra precautions to ensure the pipeline is safe, such as X-raying every weld, even though the federal government requires that only 10% be tested. It also said in a filing it will "exceed the number of valves" the federal government requires on the pipeline that can be closed to limit carbon dioxide releases.

The utilities board will lay out the timeline for Summit's petition request, but Taylor, the Sierra Club's Iowa attorney, said the Dakota Access project might provide some insight. In 2015, Energy Transfer, the Dakota Access developer, filed its petition for a permit in January and the utilities board issued its procedural schedule in June. It held the hearing in late November and early December.

The utilities board provided roughly two weeks for testimony on the project. In addition to Energy Transfer and the consumer advocate and their experts, 43 parties — representing business, farm and environmental groups, landowners and others — participated in the hearing. The board listened to public comments from 200 people the first day. The utilities board issued its final order in March 2016.

Summit says it anticipates receiving a decision in the first quarter of 2023.

Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at deller@registermedia.com or 515-284-8457.