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Iowa lawmakers avoid taking sides on CO2 pipelines
Iowa House speaker says he expects legislation ‘of some form’
Given how many Iowans are concerned about proposed carbon dioxide pipelines in the state, House Speaker Pat Grassley expects a bill in the 2023 session addressing some aspects of the projects.
Would legislation set a moratorium on the use of eminent domain to acquire land for construction of the CO2 pipelines, as some lawmakers sought to do last year? Would it establish safety setbacks from schools or other buildings?
Or would Iowa lawmakers go the other direction and ease the permitting process for pipelines, or sweeten the pot with state incentives?
Grassley, R-New Hartford, can’t say at this point. The legislative session starts Monday.
“I would expect to see something from the House's perspective or from members of the caucus working together,” he said in an interview with The Gazette. “I can't tell you what that bill looks like right now. But I would expect that there will be some form of something. I know members are having those conversations.”
Three companies — Summit Carbon Solutions, Navigator Heartland Greenway and Wolf Carbon Solutions — have proposed building pipelines to transport liquefied CO2 from Iowa ethanol plants to underground sequestration sites in North Dakota and Illinois.Companies that get permits stand to gain billions of dollars in federal tax credits granted because some scientists think carbon sequestration may help reduce the impact of climate change. By reducing the carbon footprint of ethanol production, companies like ADM, POET and other ethanol producers hope to make their fuel more competitive in states, like California, with low carbon fuel standards.
Summit and Navigator each have filed for permits with the Iowa Utilities Board, a three-person appointed board that would decide whether and where CO2 pipelines could be built in Iowa. So far, the board has not granted a hearing on either project. Wolf has said it plans to file its application later this month.
More opponents, more vocal
At informational meetings held about the projects, opponents have far outnumbered supporters. In the docket for Summit’s project, for example, there are more than 340 written objections and about 35 letters of support.
Primary supporters of the projects have been those linked with Iowa’s 40 ethanol plants, economic development groups or unions whose employees would be hired to build the pipelines.
Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance leaders said in August they support the Wolf project, which includes Linn County, because “to support the agribusiness economy of Iowa we need companies like ADM to be successful.”
The pipeline projects also have deep political connections, including Bruce Rastetter, a major Republican donor who leads Summit’s parent company; Terry Branstad, the six-term former Republican governor of Iowa and former U.S. ambassador to China who is a Summit senior policy adviser; and Jess Vilsack, Summit’s general counsel and son of U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a Democrat.
People who oppose the projects worry about safety after a CO2 pipeline exploded in Mississippi in 2020, sending 45 people to the hospital. Other concerns include the disruption of topsoil and underground drainage tile for farm fields. Many Iowans don’t think storing CO2 underground is the best way to reduce the impacts of climate change.
But the biggest complaint about the pipelines is backers might be allowed to use eminent domain to force easements from unwilling landowners.
What is eminent domain?
The government has the power to buy private property for public use, such as roads or bridges, even if the landowner doesn’t want to sell.
Iowa law gives the Iowa Utilities Board authority to allow eminent domain for things like electric transmission lines and underground pipelines. To be granted this power, municipal governments or private companies must show their projects serve a public use.
If the power of eminent domain is granted, a county compensation commission determines fair market value for the properties.
Both Summit and Navigator have asked the utilities board to grant them eminent domain rights. Wolf has not yet applied for a permit, but Pat Brierley, Wolf’s vice president of engineering, said the company will not ask to use eminent domain.
The board that would decide whether to grant the permits consists of Chair Geri Huser, of Altoona, first appointed by Branstad in 2015; Richard Lozier, of Des Moines, appointed by Branstad in 2017; and Joshua J. Byrnes, of rural Mitchell County, appointed by Gov. Kim Reynolds in 2020.
Lawmakers tread carefully
Iowa lawmakers interviewed by The Gazette aren’t taking sides on the pipelines and have given few clues about possible bills in 2023.
“Private property rights are a critical aspect of our country and the economic success it has seen for the last 250 years,” Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Grimes, said in an email to The Gazette. “The carbon capture pipeline is on the mind of some of our members.”
Whitver declined to answer three questions:
- What, if any, legislation would he expect in the coming session regarding pipelines?
- To what degree does he think Iowans expect Iowa lawmakers to take up this topic, whether in regard to use of eminent domain, siting or other angles?
- If lawmakers do not take up this topic, does that mean you are comfortable with the Iowa Utilities Board making all the decisions at the state level?
Whitver said “an agreement was made” in 2022 to “ensure no Iowa Utilities Board action occurred before March of 2023.” It’s not clear what he means by this. A bill last year that would have prohibited the board from ruling on eminent domain until March 2023 failed.
“I expect to continue to closely monitor the pipelines process to ensure the law is followed and the property rights of Iowa landowners are being respected,” Whitver said.
Democratic leaders in the Iowa House and Senate also are not saying much.
“Democrats stand on the side of local control and the responsible use of eminent domain,” said Senate Democratic Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville. “And, you know, my firm belief is that when you're talking about eminent domain, these projects have to be in the public good.”
House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, said she’d like to “have a robust conversation” about the issue.
“I think that it's critical that we have a conversation, the Legislature, about pipelines, their use, landowner rights, ensuring safety, while also balancing jobs and opportunities that are provided,” she said.
Threshold for eminent domain
Rep. Chad Ingels, R-Randalia, is a Fayette County farmer and member of the House Agriculture Committee.
He attended an informational meeting for the Navigator project, a 1,300-mile pipeline that would collect CO2 from 18 POET plants — including one near Fairbank, in Ingels’s district — before sequestering the liquefied CO2 in underground rock formations near Decatur, Ill.
“There are people very opposed to it,” Ingels said of the pipeline. “Others are kind of ambivalent. Others are strong supporters, even as much as saying ‘I wish they are going across my land because I heard they are paying well’.”
Summit announced in November having signed voluntary leases for 50 percent of the proposed 2,000-mile, five-state pipeline. Ingels said projects should have more willing landowners for the state to consider eminent domain for the remainder.
“It would have to be quite a bit higher than that for me to be comfortable,” he said. “I would think at least 75 percent.”
The Iowa Farm Bureau, which often has a lot of influence on the Iowa Legislature, voted in September to advocate for legislation requiring 90 percent of land be committed voluntarily before eminent domain is used for energy projects, including pipelines and electricity transmission lines.
Legislative preview series
The Iowa Legislature begins its 2003 session on Monday. The Gazette will examine these state issues in the days leading up to the session:
Sunday: Tax policy and the state budget
Monday: Abortion policy
Tuesday: Health and Human Services merger
Wednesday: K-12 and higher education policy
Thursday: Water quality
Friday: Elections and recounts laws
Today: Carbon capture pipelines
Sunday: Private school tuition assistance
Monday. 9: Demographics of the new Legislature
Erin Murphy and Tom Barton of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed to this report.
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