Iowa landowners in pipeline’s path ask: ‘We’re supposed to take one for the team?’


Here we go again!

Once again, we’re talking about putting pipelines across Iowa – and a private company is pursuing Iowa’s eminent domain power. Here in Boone County in 2015, we went through this with an oil pipeline — the Dakota Access Pipeline; it runs only a quarter mile from our farm.

Now Summit Carbon Solutions wants to build more than 2,000 miles of pipeline transporting carbon dioxide from 34 ethanol plants in five Midwestern states, with North Dakota as its end point for underground storage of 18 million tons of carbon annually.

Carbon capture has been a hot topic for several years, but regional carbon capture pipelines are being driven today by the 2022 climate law increasing tax credits to $85 from $50 per metric tons of carbon stored underground. The cost of carbon sequestration to ethanol producers is $36 to $41 per metric ton, making it an attractive venture.

So attractive that two other carbon capture pipeline companies are standing in line to build in Iowa.

Summit says it has voluntary landowner easements for almost 75% of its 688-mile Iowa route. Now the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) is conducting evidentiary hearings in Fort Dodge, and Iowa landowners who have not signed easements are being heard.

During these hearings, I’ve recognized many of the same issues raised by landowners regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline:

· Compaction of land by the heavy equipment used to dig the trenches for the pipe will reduce yields for up to 10 years;

· Removal of rich topsoil, and landowner skepticism regarding promises to restore it;

· Cutting of water tile lines creating havoc with field drainage;

· Gaining only a few jobs for mostly out-of-state workers, due to Iowa’s 3% unemployment rate. Jobs will last two years or less.

Most of all, I heard stories of disrupted lives, and thwarted plans: prime real estate acreages for sale, SBA loans on hold, and Charles City’s state certified industrial development site up in the air. They spoke of fears for the future, threats to their livelihood, and the need to remain stewards of the farmland passed down to them.

Rushing the process

One farmer’s daughter, with a degree in chemical engineering, was sworn in to speak for her dad who had passed away last year. Others began their testimony by professing that they didn’t know how to prepare, felt out of place, and the disclaimer, “I’m no lawyer.” But it was obvious that they were savvy folks with loads of common sense. Many spoke with great eloquence. All adamantly opposed the use of eminent domain, but all remained respectful.

In fact, this IUB hearing deviates from precedent by beginning with testimony from landowners who have refused to sign voluntary easements. Attorneys repeatedly reminded IUB that landowners were deprived of their due process rights because they had not first heard detailed testimony from Summit. The unusual order of witnesses ostensibly was an effort to avoid harvest conflicts, but Summit had requested earlier hearings that could yield a permit by year end.

Landowners used words like “vague, evasive, lack of transparency, and confusing” to describe Summit’s behavior. All complained that the pipeline diameter kept increasing: from 6 inches to 12 inches and now a maximum of 24 inches. I listened to landowners from Woodbury, Shelby, Kossuth, Hancock, Floyd, and Clay; 29 Iowa counties would be impacted.

A Sergeant Bluff woman told of how Summit surveyors had cut a fence, driven ATVs into their cornfield in June, and gathered soil samples on their 150-year-old family farm.

Lack of safety training and regulations

Although the Dakota Access Pipeline also poses threats of rupture, safety, and contamination of soil and water, the Summit carbon pipeline amplifies these threats. Carbon dioxide is odorless, colorless, and heavier than air.

Glen Alden, a retired Garner, Iowa, farmer, also testified from his role as chair of the Ell Township Trustees. Trustees are responsible for budgeting and levying taxes to provide for the needs of township fire and medical services.

“We have responsibility for safety in case of unforeseen accident with the pipeline,” Alden said. “Summit started by calling it a carbon dioxide pipeline, then it became a hazardous liquid pipeline, and now they call it a super critical liquid pipeline,” he said. “At first they tried to downplay it by saying CO2 is in soda pop! But we know CO2 is used to euthanize hogs and poultry at packing plants.”

Carbon dioxide plumes from ruptured pipelines travel great distances, settling in low sites. “We’re talking about several tons of pressurized carbon, combined with ambient air pressure,” Alden said. “That’s a huge cloud.”

Alden and his father live in separate residences about a half mile from the proposed pipeline site. “The Klemme Fire Department wouldn’t be able to get to us because combustible engines shut down without oxygen,” he said. “My 102-year-old father wouldn’t be able to get out in time.”

He added, “We know it’s going to happen, but not where or when. Yet we’re asking our volunteer fire department to risk their lives to drag people out.”

Alden says the fire department recently bought some protective equipment, but it wouldn’t be adequate. The nearest HAZMAT unit is in Mason City, 25 miles away. “This is a burden on us,” he told the IUB. “We don’t see any benefit, and maybe only for a minuscule amount of carbon.”

He added that carbon dioxide turns into carbolic acid and acidifies the soils. “But it’s not just the land we’re talking about — people are more important,” he said. “We’re supposed to take one for the team?”

Alden said Hancock County has many uses for corn other than ethanol. He referenced Summit Agricultural Group’s poor reputation among farmers. “Summit Ag sited hog facilities around here, and during this time, hog production changed rapidly. If (Summit Carbon co-founder) Bruce Rastetter is so proud of this pipeline, and it’s so important, why doesn’t he come to testify?”

Hollis Oelmann, Hardin County, said, “Landowners like me don’t see any upside. It’s a train wreck mentality. Go straight for the pot of gold, and get as many people out of the way as they can. There’s no end to this agreement, once we give up the property for an easement,” he said. “They could even put a transmission line on top. They could sell rights to unknown party.”

The pipeline would be 600 feet from David Wildin’s farm near LaVerne, “Summit has no prior experience building and maintaining a pipeline,” he said. “IUB is requiring Summit to only post $250,000 surety bond? It seems it should be in the millions.”

Another Woodbury County landowner testified that not only Summit but also the Navigator CO2 Ventures pipeline is slated to run through his property.

Carbon pipelines aren’t the only climate solution

A new farm program called Partnerships for Climate Smart Commodities would spend more than $3 billion to tackle climate change. Grants for pilot programs will be awarded to universities, agribusinesses and nonprofits working with landowners to try new practices to reduce carbon. There are 60 projects underway across the U.S. It potentially could impact more than 25 million acres of working lands.

Republicans have objected to using funding for this from the Commodity Credit Corp. (CCC). Created during the Depression, the CCC has been used with broad discretion. Former President Donald Trump used it to compensate farmers for increased export tariffs in the trade war with China. The House Appropriations Committee, with a Republican majority, voted to block funding for it in 2024.

Agribusinesses also offer a dozen or more carbon credit programs. One challenge to increasing farmer participation is the high percentage of farmland that’s leased; contracts require multiple years, and land leases typically are only for one year. Another is farmer concern about the privacy and use of their data by these companies.

But the agriculture and ethanol industries aren’t the only pathways to reducing greenhouse gases. A U.N. report in May 2021 stated that immediate reductions in methane would be the best option for slowing climate change.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, municipal solid waste landfills are the third-largest source of human-caused methane emissions in this country. Black Hawk County Solid Waste Management Commission recently reported that by 2024, it will be collecting methane produced by waste to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. An existing pipeline will be used, and the renewable gas will be sold for transportation.

Should carbon capture pipelines from oil refining and ethanol production play a role? Probably. But the tools for measuring success still are very primitive; it will be challenging to verify earned credits, and the tax cuts have created an attractive incentive for corruption.

Appeal to IUB members’ conscience

The Iowa Legislature could have played a role in the proliferation of carbon capture pipelines in Iowa. The House passed legislation this year, but the Senate refused to take it up. One reason Summit may be so focused on gaining a permit by year-end could be to avoid the legislative session.

Summit plans to begin pipeline construction in Iowa during the first half of 2024. So, settle in for another six weeks of hearings as its permit application is considered.

In the meantime, there’s time to reflect on the continuing testimony of real people, whose lives and livelihoods would be disrupted by a private company. Most remain unconvinced by the public good argument of taking one for the team.

As landowner Mark Oehlerking told IUB, “The three of you get to decide this for the rest of us -hundreds of us. At night, when you go to sleep, maybe you’ll reflect on what you’ve heard here. Twenty to thirty years down the road, will you be proud to tell your grandkids that you cast your vote for the gain of a private company, taking away our rights forever? If there’s a failure of the pipeline, how will you live with it on your conscience?”

This column is republished from Iowa Capital Dispatch under a Creative Commons license. Cheryl Tevis retired from Successful Farming magazine after 36 years in 2015 where she was the first woman editor in the magazine’s history to write about business. She farms and is a longtime 4-H leader and community volunteer in Boone County, Iowa.