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Iowans largely united in opposition to eminent domain for CO2 pipelines. So why aren’t lawmakers?
House bill moves to Iowa Senate, where prospects are unclear
A few dozen landowners and other activists gathered outside the Iowa Capitol last week, using a semi truck emblazoned with “No Hazardous Carbon Pipelines” as a backdrop.
They echoed a refrain they’ve been hammering all session: No eminent domain for private gain.
At a time when the state is deeply divided politically, Iowans across demographics are largely united in their opposition to private companies using eminent domain for carbon-capture pipelines, according to recent polling.
A Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll conducted earlier this month shows a supermajority — nearly 80 percent — of Iowans oppose allowing private corporations to use eminent domain to build the pipelines. The opposition crosses party lines.
“I, personally, am a Democrat, and we’re working with folks on the ground that are staunch Republicans,” Food & Water Watch Senior Iowa Organizer Emma Schmit said.
The group has led rallies at the statehouse calling on lawmakers to pass legislation banning eminent domain for the pipelines.
“Despite these very different political ideologies, we’ve come together because we can recognize there’s power in uniting, even if we don’t agree on all things,” Schmit said.
The issue has forged unique coalitions of interest groups, and made for some strange bedfellows, in some cases joining together those that often find themselves on the opposite side of agricultural and environmental issues in the state, while splintering others.
The Iowa Farm Bureau, for example, has joined environmental groups and property rights advocates in support of a proposal that would restrict carbon dioxide pipeline companies’ ability to use eminent domain to force easements from unwilling landowners, including farmers. Meanwhile, organized labor has joined industry groups, including the state’s renewable fuels association, corn growers and ethanol producers in support of the projects, which will shuttle CO2 from ethanol plants to reservoirs deep underground, taking advantage of federal tax credits.
Three pipeline companies are seeking permits to build C02 pipelines in the state: Navigator CO2 Ventures, Summit Carbon Solutions and Wolf Carbon Solutions.Navigator and Summit, the largest projects, are seeking eminent domain authority from the Iowa Utilities Board. Wolf is proposing a smaller pipeline, covering just four Eastern Iowa counties, and has said it will not seek eminent domain authority to build the pipeline.
Summit Carbon Solutions last week said the company has obtained voluntary easements for nearly 70 percent of its route in the state, and said the support shows landowners agree that the projects are vital to Iowa’s ethanol industry.
The thorny issue has divided lawmakers from both parties in trying to balance competing interests of protecting landowners’ property rights and also protecting the future of Iowa’s ag economy.
The Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, which represents Iowa’s ethanol and biodiesel plants, released studies this month that warned that Iowa would lose up to 75 percent of its ethanol plants, and the value of Iowa corn would drop, should the projects not go through.
More than half of Iowa's corn is used to produce ethanol each year.
“The world is demanding low-carbon fuels,” said Monte Shaw, the renewable energy organization's director. “Our ethanol producers don’t have the luxury to taking a political stand on this issue. It is their economic reality.”
Others raise concerns about safety after a CO2 pipeline exploded in Mississippi in 2020, sending 45 people to the hospital, and worry about damage to farm fields. They question whether storing CO2 underground is the best way to reduce the impacts of climate change.
House acts, will Senate?
Iowa House lawmakers last week passed a bill that would require carbon dioxide pipeline companies looking to build in Iowa to gain voluntary easements for 90 percent of the pipeline’s route before employing eminent domain.
The bill, House File 565, passed 73-20, with nine Republicans and 11 Democrats opposed.
The bill now goes to the Iowa Senate, where the measure faces an uphill climb.
Several lawmakers have publicly questioned whether the Senate will consider the bill and whether Gov. Kim Reynolds would sign it.
Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Grimes, did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
Reynolds said last week she had not spoken with House leaders about the bill. She has previously said she’s open to tweaks to the eminent domain process but emphasized the importance of the CO2 projects to the ethanol industry.
Republican leadership in the Senate thus far has signaled an unwillingness to tackle the issue.
A range of bills seeking to restrict the use eminent domain for the projects failed to clear a legislative deadline earlier this month.
Sen. Jeff Taylor, a Republican from Sioux Center, filed five bills that would ban eminent domain authority for the projects, restrict surveying practices for the pipelines and require pipelines requesting eminent domain to disclose investors. None of the bills received hearings.
Taylor said while “weakened by amendment” on the floor, he remains a supporter of the House bill.
The bill originally placed a moratorium on pipeline construction until a federal regulator released updated safety regulations for the CO2 projects. It also originally required pipelines to receive all permits from other states and comply with all local zoning permits before being granted a permit in Iowa.
The provisions were removed in an agreement among stakeholders, according to Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, the bill’s floor manager.
A number of rules governing land restoration and compensation standards remain in the bill as does a provision creating a committee to study the procedures around eminent domain in Iowa.
Rep. Helena Hayes, a Republican from New Sharon, said last week’s House vote made for one of the most eclectic votes of the session — exposing fissures on an issue that doesn’t cut neatly along party lines.
Rural and urban lawmakers from both parties joined together both in support and opposition to the bill, for many different reasons.
Some support CO2 pipelines, while others — Republican and Democrat alike — thought the bill didn’t go far enough to prevent land grabs.
Others, like Rep. Norlin Mommsen, R-Dewitt, objected to the restrictions singling out liquefied carbon pipelines and not other projects subject to approval from the Iowa Utilities Board.
“Don’t people that have other types of pipelines running through their property deserve some protection?” Mommsen said.
Holt said while the pipelines are important for Iowa’s ethanol and agriculture industries, that does not qualify them as public use like highways, power lines, natural gas pipelines or other public utility projects.
“If these pipeline projects are essential to ethanol and agriculture, let them be built through voluntary easement and not by allowing the blunt force of government to be used to shatter this fundamental birthright,” Holt said.
Mommsen, a farmer, offered an amendment that would have provided guidelines for how pipeline companies could negotiate with landowners, but kept in place the state's current eminent domain rules.
Other Republicans objected to eminent domain being used for projects propped up by federal tax incentives under legislation signed by Democratic President Joe Biden to foster clean energy development and combat climate change.
Hayes, who supported the bill, called it “invasive and based upon on very speculative information.”
Hayes, too, said she voted to protect the fundamental property rights of her constituents. The proposed Navigator pipeline is set to run through her district.
While Rep. Chuck Isenhart, D-Dubuque, doubted whether carbon capture pipelines will have meaningful impact on lowering greenhouse gas emissions.
"If a majority of this body believes that carbon dioxide pipelines are without public merit, then have the courage to simply block their construction by law," Isenhart said. "Don’t put the burden of the decision on a small group of landowners to hold out, resulting in, no doubt, a besiegement if the bill becomes law."
Reducing the carbon footprint of Iowa's ethanol production has become increasingly important as newer technologies, such as electric vehicles, gain steam and the Biden administration focuses on curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
Shaw, who called the House bill a “de facto ban” of the pipeline projects, said carbon capture and sequestration technology is the single best tool the industry has to keep liquid fuels like ethanol competitive with electric vehicles going forward.
Additionally, he said it positions Iowa ethanol producers to start making low-carbon aviation fuel.
The Biden administration has said it wants to power the nation's airplanes with fuel made from crops like corn and biomass. Shaw said demand for sustainable aviation fuel is projected to support 35 billion gallons of annual sustainable aviation fuel production.
Tax credits have been made available or expanded under the Inflation Reduction Act for CO2 capture and storage projects as well as clean fuel production. But in order for an ethanol producer to claim tax credits, which Shaw said could equate to as much as 60 cents per gallon, they have to lower their carbon footprint, called a carbon intensity score.
Shaw said most Iowa ethanol plants have carbon intensity scores in the mid-50s. Participating in carbon capture and sequestration pipelines, he said, would lower their scores by about 30 points.
He and the pipeline companies say the legislation unfairly singles out carbon dioxide pipelines and puts an arbitrary barrier on the eminent domain process at a time when surrounding states have allowed the projects to go forward.
“There needs to be a fair and equitable path forward for these projects,” Shaw said. “ … What is at stake here economically is scary.”
The pipeline projects also have deep political connections, including Bruce Rastetter, a major Republican donor and backer of Gov. Reynolds who leads Summit’s parent company. Republican Terry Branstad, the six-term former governor of Iowa and former U.S. ambassador to China, is a Summit senior policy adviser; and Jess Vilsack, son of U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, serves as Summit’s general counsel.
“The ethanol industry has major influence over what happens in this state,” said Food & Water Watch’s Emma Schmit, as evidenced by their success last year passing a law mandating most gas stations sell gas with 15 percent ethanol, known as E15
“Ethanol influences them, but so does the labor unions,” Schmit said.
The AFL-CIO is registered against the bill, stating the pipeline projects would support good-paying union jobs.
Schmit said it’s part of the reason the House bill was amended “to make it more palatable" to political donors and various institutions across Iowa.
Schmit said she was surprised to see a fair number of Democrats not support the bill, given the Iowa Democratic Party’s platform opposes eminent domain for carbon pipelines.
“We have a few really loud Democratic supporters,” Schmit said, while others are “conflicted because we’ve seen a huge influx of funding for carbon-capture projects come from the Biden Administration.”
“It does seem to be at the national level a Democratic priority to support carbon-capture technology,” she said.
At the same time, Schmitt said the issue provides an opportunity for Iowa Democrats to regain support in rural areas impacted by the pipelines, where they’ve steadily seen voter support erode in recent election cycles.
House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, pushed back on the notion Democrats have not been vocal on the issue.
“We’ve been talking about this for a year and a half,” Konfrst said. “What we have to make sure we’re doing is defending property owner rights … and we have to make sure any legislation we’re talking about actually accomplished that. … There were a lot of reasons to oppose this legislation, but Democrats consistently stood up for landowner rights. And we believe that’s it critically important that we’re listening to what Iowans say on this issue.”
Caleb McCullough of the Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau contributed reporting
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