NEWS

What will sway PUC's decision to permit SD's first CO2 pipeline? Here's what we know.

Nicole Ki
Sioux Falls Argus Leader
Acting commissioner Josh Header filling in for commissioner Kristie Fiegan who has recused herself from Summit CO2 pipeline discussions, sits next to fellow commissioners Chris Nelson and Gary Hanson at a Sioux Falls public meeting while listening to residents concerns on Wednesday, March 23, 2022.

South Dakota Public Utilities Commission has had more eyes on its three-member board in the last few months than seemingly anytime in the last decade.

Landowners, farmers, property owners and ethanol stakeholders have been keeping track of PUC, as PUC officials navigate "unchartered waters" with whether to permit, South Dakota's first carbon sequestration pipeline from Summit Carbon Solutions.

According to the Des Moines Register, Summit's pipeline is one of at least two major CO2 pipelines proposed for the Midwest, aside from Navigator CO2 Ventures.

And while about 370 landowners and farmers scrambled to register with PUC to intervene in Summit's proposed pipeline plans, PUC has been in the throws of data-gathering and bringing all appropriate, impacted parties to the table to kick off proceedings with Summit.

Currently, PUC has granted 340 parties intervenor status and is waiting on another 30 to hand in a complete application by April 28.

More:South Dakota projected to get $440M in labor income from Summit CO2 pipeline, study shows

PUC's role from now until February 2023 is singular: determining whether Summit's permit application meets all the criteria laid outlined in state statue, PUC chairperson Chris Nelson said.

What does South Dakota law mandate of PUC in Summit, intervenor proceedings?

That decision is based on four factors. Summit filed their permit application to PUC in February, and must provide "the burden of proof to establish by preponderance of the evidence," according to state law. That includes:

  1. The proposed facility will comply with all applicable laws and rules;
  2. The facility will not pose a threat of serious injury to the environment nor to the social and economic condition of inhabitants or expected inhabitants in the siting area. An applicant for an electric transmission line, a solar energy facility, or a wind energy facility that holds a conditional use permit from the applicable local units of government is determined not to threaten the social and economic condition of inhabitants or expected inhabitants in the siting area;
  3. The facility will not substantially impair the health, safety or welfare of the inhabitants; and
  4. The facility will not unduly interfere with the orderly development of the region with due consideration having been given the views of governing bodies of affected local units of government. An applicant for an electric transmission line, a solar energy facility, or a wind energy facility that holds a conditional use permit from the applicable local units of government is in compliance with this subdivision.
South Dakota Utilities Commission and Summit Carbon Solutions representatives listening to heated feedback at a public meeting for a proposed 2,000 mile CO2 capture pipeline held at the Ramkota Conference Center in Sioux Falls on Wednesday, March 23, 2022.

The PUC exists, to regulate the six investor-owned utilities, typically operating in a monopoly environment, to keep a lid on price and a floor underneath service quality, Nelson said.

Excel and MidAmerican, for instance, can't change their rates or service parameters without PUC's permission. 

More:South Dakota farmers get two-week extension to intervene in Summit's CO2 pipeline project

"There's other things we do," he said. "One of those things is state law says before certain large projects can be built in the state, they have to get a siting permit from the PUC."

Those are usually larger wind farms, natural gas, electricity generators, oil pipelines, and now "for the very first time ever," a carbon dioxide pipeline, said Nelson, who's been with the commission for 11 years.

Commissioner Chris Nelson of the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission took notes and listened to landowners, as they lined up one by one, to field their concerns on Summit's Midwest CO2 pipeline, at a public meeting located at Ramkota Conference Center on Wednesday, March 23, 2022.

When a developer files an application for a siting permit, the entire process is guided by state law, he said. One of the first things state law says to do is conduct public meetings, so the public can learn about the project, and for commissioners to hear from the public what their concerns are.

"We had tremendously productive meetings in the five locations that had great turnout from the public," said Nelson.

Nelson says the commission uses those public meetings to understand what to focus on as the process moves forward.

But ultimately, the decision isn't up to the whims of the commissioners. It's whether the project is in line with what's outlined in South Dakota statute.

What does state law mandate of Summit in the permitting process?

And Summit has followed those requirements, said Chris Hill, director of environmental and permitting.

"From a regulatory requirements perspective, there's actually generally no requirement on a federal level [for communications with impacted landowners]," Hill told the Argus Leader.

That means the routing process in the state of South Dakota is governed by the PUC, he says.

Chris Hill, Summit Carbon Solutions' Director of Environmental and Permitting. answering questions from landowners about pipeline safety at the Ramkota Conference Center in Sioux Falls on Wednesday, March 23, 2022.

"Those regulations spell out what's required of us through this process, and what we put in our application we submitted Feb. 7," said Hill.

South Dakota law states Summit has to send a notice, mailed by certified mail, within 30 days following the filing of the application for a permit to "the owner of record of any land that is located within one-half mile of the proposed site where the facility is to be constructed."

Summit sent out those written notices to every landowner within the half mile buffer from the centerline of their route, Hill said. They also sent notices to anyone who fell around or near the half-mile buffer for alternative routes, and informed impacted residents of public meetings held in conjunction with PUC.

More:Residents plead with Lincoln County to fight Summit CO2 pipeline, protect ‘unsuspecting landowners’

"At this phase, as the South Dakota PUC understands, we're putting additional information into the docket and taking input from communities early on as we get further on in the process," explained Hill.

Interactions with Summit's land agents and landowners started last fall. They've also been conducting land, civil, environmental and cultural surveys since then, too.

If you asked Hill, Summit is exceeding current standards set forth by South Dakota law.

More:Hundreds gather to push back against new CO2 pipeline through South Dakota

Commissioner Chris Nelson thanks an audience of over 300 for coming to a South Dakota Public Utilities Commission public meeting with Summit Carbon Solutions at Ramkota Conference Center in Sioux Falls on Wednesday, March 23, 2022.

"We send out news announcements, have updated information on our website, are conducting voluntary open houses for landowners," said Hill, in addition to outreach with county commissioners and engineers.

That's not required of Summit, but Hill says, "it's the right thing to do." Summit has had some of their biggest weeks "just recently" with seeing an accelerated number of parties signing on to the idea of the pipeline per week, and Hill says that's a good sign.

"There's a lot of landowners that are very happy to sign our fair easement agreements and can get their check," said Hill. "It's really meaningful for people, the compensation associated with these easements."

In Iowa, Summit has now more than 20% of the right of way acquired and that's "growing rapidly." So far in South Dakota, Summit reports more than 100 tracts of land signed up already, Summit officials stated. 

More:Concerned landowners lobby Minnehaha County Commission to oppose Midwest CO2 pipeline

Email human rights reporter Nicole Ki at nki@argusleader.com or follow on Twitter at @_nicoleki.