Public utility regulators in Iowa will begin a hearing Tuesday on a proposed carbon dioxide pipeline for transporting emissions of the climate-warming greenhouse gas for storage underground that has been met by resistant landowners who fear the taking of their land and dangers of a pipeline rupture.
Summit Carbon Solutions’ proposed $5.5 billion, 3,219-kilometer pipeline network would carry CO2 from 34 ethanol plants in five states to North Dakota for storage deep underground — a project involving carbon capture technology, which has attracted both interest and scrutiny in the U.S.
North Dakota regulators earlier this month denied a siting permit for Summit’s proposed route in the state, citing myriad issues they say Summit didn’t appropriately address, such as cultural resource impacts, geologic instability and landowner concerns. On Friday, Summit petitioned regulators to reconsider.
Other similar projects are proposed around the country, including ones by Navigator CO2 Ventures and Wolf Carbon Solutions, which would also have routes in Iowa.
Here is what to know about Summit’s project as more proceedings begin.
What is carbon capture?
Carbon capture entails the gathering and removal of planet-warming CO2 emissions from industrial plants to be pumped deep underground for permanent storage.
Supporters view the technology as a combatant of climate change. But opponents say carbon capture and storage isn’t proven at scale and could require huge investments at the expense of cheaper alternatives such as solar and wind power, all at a time when there is an urgent need to phase out all fossil fuels.
Carbon capture also is viewed by opponents as a way for fossil fuel companies to claim they are addressing climate change without actually having to significantly change their ways.
“I think there’s a recognition even in the fossil fuel industry that, whether you like it or not and agree or not, (climate change) is a reality you’re going to deal with from a regulatory standpoint, and you’d better get out in front of it or you’re going to get left behind,” said Derrick Braaten, a Bismarck-based attorney involved in issues related to Summit’s project.
New federal tax incentives have made carbon capture a lucrative enterprise. The technology has the support of the Biden administration, with billions of dollars approved by Congress for various carbon capture efforts.
High-profile supporters of Summit’s project include North Dakota Republican Gov. Doug Burgum, a presidential candidate who has hailed the state’s underground CO2 storage ability as a “geologic jackpot,” and oil magnate Harold Hamm, whose company last year announced a $250 million commitment to Summit’s project.
“Carbon capture and storage is going to be more and more important every day as we go forward in America,” Hamm has said.
What is happening in the five states?
The Iowa Utilities Board begins its public evidentiary hearing Tuesday in Fort Dodge, a hearing “anticipated to last several weeks,” according to a news release. The board’s final decision on Summit’s permit request will come sometime after the hearing.
Minnesota’s Public Utilities Commission has a hearing set for Aug. 31 in which the panel “will make decisions about the scope of environmental review” regarding Summit’s permit application for its pipeline in two counties, said Charley Bruce, an energy facilities planner with the commission.
A Summit attorney recently indicated to Minnesota that North Dakota regulators’ decision to deny a permit will not affect the company’s plans, including for other proposed routes in southern Minnesota.
The South Dakota Public Utilities Commission is set to begin its evidentiary hearing for the project on Sept. 11 and expects to make a final decision by Nov. 15.
Nebraska has no state-level regulatory authority for CO2 pipelines. Summit is working with counties individually in Nebraska.
Counties don’t approve or deny a route, but can institute ordinances’ setbacks for land-use purposes that can dictate where a pipeline may go, and can enter into road haul agreements and road crossing permits, said Omaha-based attorney Brian Jorde. He represents more than 1,000 landowners opposed to CO2 pipeline projects in four states.
Summit hasn’t hit “an insurmountable legal obstacle” in North Dakota regulators’ denial “because they literally said, ‘Try again,’” Braaten said.
“If they get over themselves I think that they could do it and get approved, but I think they certainly shot themselves in the foot and they’re making it much harder in those other states because they’re going to come in with those commissioners there looking at them with a certain level of skepticism because you literally just got denied a permit in North Dakota,” he said.
Why are landowners opposed?
Landowners have raised concerns about the pipeline breaking, as well as eminent domain, or the taking of private land for the project, with compensation.
Eminent domain laws vary state by state, said Jorde, who represents hundreds of people Summit has sued in South Dakota to take their land for its pipeline.
“When you have the power of eminent domain like a hammer over a landowner’s head, you can intimidate them into doing things they wouldn’t otherwise do, which is sign easements, which Summit then turns around and says, ‘Look at all these “voluntary” easements we have. Look at all the “support” we have,’ which is completely false,” Jorde said.
Summit has submitted eminent domain requests to the Iowa board. A Summit spokesperson did not specifically address the company’s intentions related to eminent domain when asked by the AP.
“Our team remains incredibly encouraged that Iowa landowners have signed voluntary easement agreements accounting for nearly 75% of the proposed pipeline route,” spokesperson Sabrina Ahmed Zenor said in an email. “This overwhelming level of support is a clear reflection that they believe like we do that our project will ensure the long-term viability of the ethanol industry, strengthen the agricultural marketplace for farmers, and generate tens of millions of dollars in new revenue for local communities across the Midwest.”
What about underground storage?
Summit submitted a draft application for underground storage to a three-member state panel which Burgum chairs and includes the attorney general. The timeline for a hearing and decision by the panel is unclear.
Last year, Summit and Minnkota Power Cooperative agreed to “co-develop” CO2 storage facilities in central North Dakota. Their agreement gives Summit access to Minnkota’s storage site and sets a framework for jointly developing more CO2 storage nearby.
Minnkota is pursuing Project Tundra, a project to install carbon capture technology at a coal-fired power plant.
Braaten views Summit’s Minnkota partnership as a backup plan, to “piggyback on a sure thing,” he said.
A North Dakota landowners’ group is suing over the state’s process for allowing CO2 and gas storage on private land, and land survey laws.
Braaten said the lawsuit, which would affect the permitting of a Summit storage site in North Dakota, is not directed at Summit but is tied to longtime legal battles related to landowner rights.