First Carbon Pipeline Before Iowa Regulators Brings Fight

Market to Market | Clip
Jul 29, 2022 | 7 min

The Midwest Carbon Express, the first of 3 similar proposals to seek final approval from Iowa regulators, would annually transport 20 million tons of liquefied CO2, captured as a by-product of corn-based ethanol production from plants in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota and the Dakotas, to sequester in an underground reservoir in North Dakota. 


Protester: “No carbon pipelines!”

After rallying in vain against the Dakota Access Pipeline, activists in Iowa brought reinforcements to push back on a new proposal to transport a different hazardous material beneath the state’s fertile landscapes.

Jess Mazour/Sierra Club of Iowa: “Dakota Access, we did not win, with the Iowa Utilities Board, because we didn’t have the support of the landowners.  But because of Dakota Access, we saw the damage it does to the land.  People are now aware that this is not a good thing.”

Complaints of crop loss and soil issues have followed since 2017, when Dakota Access began pumping over half a million barrels of Bakken Crude per day across four Midwestern states.

The Midwest Carbon Express, the first of 3 similar proposals to seek final approval from Iowa regulators, would annually transport 20 million tons of liquefied CO2, captured as a by-product of corn-based ethanol production from plants in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota and the Dakotas, to sequester in an underground reservoir in North Dakota. 

The Iowa Utilities Board has final say on pipeline construction permits, and stakeholders who’ve dug in their heels fear the board will grant eminent domain again.                       

Dan Tronchetti/Greene County, Iowa: “CO2 is an asphyxiant.  CO2 is heavier than air and it can flow to low lying areas.  Based on a demonstration in Europe, with an 8 inch line, if there is a leak or rupture, every living thing within 1,300 feet will be dead in less than four minutes.”

According to IUB officials, as of mid-July, Boards of Supervisors in 25 of 30 counties affected have formally objected to the route over use of eminent domain.  Proponents prefer the voluntary easements they’ve secured from over 650 landowners so far – about 40 percent of the 680 miles needed in Iowa.

Justin Kirchhoff/President – Summit Ag Investors: “If you take a step back and say: ‘Why are we doing this project?’  It’s to make ethanol more profitable.  We think this will be as transformational as the original Renewable Fuel Standard was for Iowa landowners…and the landowners across the 5 states that we are operating in.  That ethanol plant is going to make more money.  That farmer is going to make more money long term.  It’s going to support land values and it’s going to support those local communities.”

Justin Kirchhoff is president of Summit Ag Investors, parent company of Summit Carbon Solutions, which has proposed the $4.5 billion pipeline.  Kirchhoff says an average ethanol plant stands to make an additional $15 million per year when partnered with Summit.  Summit claims the project will support 360,000 jobs and, in Iowa, generate $73 million in state and local taxes during construction and continue filling coffers during operation. 

Justin Kirchhoff/President – Summit Ag Investors: “I think the scar tissue of Dakota Access, in many ways, has actually brought out a lot of good, new regulation.”

A farmer himself, Kirchhoff says the Iowa Legislature and the Iowa Utilities Board have tightened up pipeline requirements - and Summit has vowed to cover lost yields.

The ethanol industry has been actively working to lower emissions for years.  Summit claims new federal climate priorities make their project viable.

Justin Kirchhoff/President – Summit Ag Investors: “If ethanol has the ability to get their carbon footprint lower than an electric vehicle, we need to take advantage of those incentives and build the infrastructure out and make them more competitive, long-term.”

According to global financial conglomerate KPMG, U.S. code section 45Q tax credits reward carbon sequestration, but also pertain to use in enhanced oil recovery, or fracking.  Summit denies their product will be used for fracking and say their petition for a hazardous liquid pipeline permit clearly spells out their intentions.

Dan Tronchetti/Greene County, Iowa: “The pipeline is supposed to be 4 foot deep, and most of my tile are buried 3-to-5 feet deep.  I can’t imagine that my tile system will ever work as good as it does today.”

Farmer turned activist Dan Tronchetti doesn’t buy it, pointing to a spring 2021 Bismarck Tribune article with Summit CEO Bruce Rastetter, a high-profile Iowa GOP donor, who said the company was exploring other gas injection options.

Opponents cry foul on myriad political connections associated with the pipeline, and blame such clout for sluggish review in the state legislature.

Jess Mazour/Sierra Club of Iowa: “Things like these pipeline issues are what remind us that our value systems are actually the same, it’s the political system that’s telling us we’re so different.”

Iowa Sierra Club Conservation Coordinator Jess Mazour says unlikely allies in the fight have been seeking an audience with the governor for over six months.

Dan Tronchetti/Greene County, Iowa: “Governor Kim Reynolds, in her response to Joe Biden’s State of the Union Address – She said you shouldn’t have to wake up…”

Governor Kim Reynolds/R-Iowa:  “…every morning and worry about the next thing the government is going to do to you, your business, or your children.”

Dan Tronchetti/Greene County, Iowa: “I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights worrying about what the Iowa Utilities Board is going to do to me.”

Tronchetti says any pipeline could be sold and assurances wiped out - and his insurance underwriters won’t guarantee him indemnity. 

Tom Dorr/Cherokee County, Iowa: “You know, when the ethanol industry first started…I was pretty skeptical.”

Retired Cherokee County farmer Tom Dorr says the benefits outweigh the costs, and, for better or worse, government and business are going all-in on capturing carbon.  A former president of the U.S. Grains Council, and USDA Undersecretary for Rural Development during the Bush Administration, Dorr helped provide funds to build out ethanol plants spurred by the RFS.  His family have signed easements with Summit.  Just like ethanol and wind turbines, he says pipelines are unique rural development opportunities that impact local schools, health care, real estate and workforces.

Tom Dorr/Cherokee County, Iowa: “All these things collectively create significant economic growth that I think…it’s not responsible to dismiss it.”

As Summit continues to seek cooperation, the Dakota Access controversy has provided a road map for all sides.  Critics say taxpayers subsidize the mandated ethanol industry and shouldn’t have to pay more to clean-up associated pollution.

Jess Mazour/Sierra Club of Iowa: “We’re going to fight the approval of it, and then if it is approved, we’re going to take it to court – and like we’ve seen in many other pipeline fights, then we’ll be fighting the construction.”

For Market to Market, I’m Josh Buettner.