Proposed carbon capture project in South Dakota forms unique alliances

July 8, 2023

PIERRE, S.D.–Opponents of eminent domain for carbon dioxide pipeline projects in South Dakota have forged a unique coalition. It includes Republicans, Democrats, climate change deniers who see the pipelines as a boondoggle, and environmentalists skeptical of the pipelines’ benefits.

Many of them agree on one contention: that unlike water and natural gas pipelines, electrical transmission lines and other projects that have used a legal process called eminent domain to gain access to land, a liquified carbon dioxide pipeline would not deliver a product needed by the general public. Therefore, opponents say, carbon pipeline projects should not be allowed to use eminent domain to access land against a landowner’s will.

“It hasn’t mattered to me, in this fight, who is a Democrat, who is a Republican,” said state Rep. Karla Lems, a Republican from rural Canton who owns land that would be crossed by pipelines. “I want to know if you are for the United States of America and the rights written in our Constitution.”

Joshua Haiar with South Dakota Searchlight reports the two pipelines that would pass through eastern South Dakota – which both have permit hearings scheduled later this summer – would create the largest carbon dioxide pipeline networks in the United States. They would gather carbon dioxide emitted from about 60 ethanol plants and biorefineries in the Midwest and transport it for underground storage in North Dakota and Illinois. The combined length of the pipelines would be around 4,000 miles.

The intention behind the projects is to combat climate change, and the projects are eligible for billions of dollars in federal incentives created for that purpose. Additional support stems from the pipelines’ potential to help sustain and grow the ethanol industry.

Opponents of the projects staged a rally Thursday in the state Capitol in Pierre, where the political diversity of the coalition was on display.

Freddie Robinson, a veteran from Aberdeen, claimed the pipeline projects are part of a globalist agenda disguised as environmental action.

“We fought for this country to protect the right that what is yours is yours,” Robinson said. “Not so that communists can come along and take it.”

When asked what communists he was referencing, he replied, “Anybody for the pipeline, I guess.”

Robinson perceives the broader carbon sequestration goal that’s motivating the projects – and climate change science more generally – as a scam.

Some experts say carbon dioxide pipelines are vital to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

That’s a goal of many nations because the earth’s average surface temperature has risen over the past century, with the last few decades being the warmest on record – and it is projected to continue warming. Scientists attribute the trend to an increase in greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide) due to human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.

But while some laud carbon capture technology as a necessary step in combating climate change, for others, it’s a government boondoggle.

“If we didn’t have all these government tax credits involved in this project, this project would not be going anywhere,” said Lems, who introduced unsuccessful legislation during the 2022 legislative session to bar carbon pipelines from using eminent domain.

The credits she referenced were increased by Congress last year. Carbon pipeline projects are now eligible for annual federal payments of up to $85 per metric ton of carbon stored. The two projects that would pass through South Dakota – proposed by Summit Carbon Solutions (pictured) and Navigator CO2 Ventures – could sequester enough carbon to qualify for more than $1 billion apiece in annual incentives.

Lems said money was also involved in the failure of her anti-eminent domain legislation last winter.

“There were over 20 lobbyists on the side of the pipeline companies, and they were wining and dining legislators, and so were the ethanol companies,” Lems said. “They were really pushing this project. On our side, we had maybe three lobbyists. By the time we were done, we maybe had four.”

The two pipelines would traverse a combined four miles of Lems’ own property. She first learned of the proposals in 2021.

“I was like, well, this is the Green New Deal,” Lems said. “Immediately, that’s the first thing that came into my mind.”

The Green New Deal refers to a proposed set of policies and goals aimed at addressing climate change and promoting economic and social justice. As a broad framework, different versions and interpretations exist.

Some carbon pipeline opponents are concerned about climate change. But they’re also concerned about dangerous carbon dioxide plumes from potential pipeline leaks. They question the wisdom of incentivizing carbon capture instead of halting emissions. And they worry that carbon pipelines would aid the ethanol industry, which could lead to the conversion of more grassland for corn.

Some opponents argue the net result is a substantial public expenditure without delivering the intended environmental benefits.

They say the investments in carbon capture technology might be better allocated toward other carbon sequestration methods – such as paying farmers to naturally store more carbon in the ground via soil health practices and protecting grasslands.

“We already have the best carbon sequestration method with natural grasslands,” said state Sen. Red Dawn Foster, a Democrat from Pine Ridge and a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Referencing people at Thursday’s rally in Pierre, she added, “If we put that type of money and focus on our natural grasslands, these people wouldn’t be here today. This is not the solution.”

Foster said it’s not hard to understand why property-rights issues cut through the partisan divide.

“It’s about our connection to the land, and that transcends party,” Foster said. “That’s what it comes down to. We have a privately held company that’s going against the will of our farmers and ranchers who have a connection to their land. Being with them is being with our people.”

State Rep. Scott Odenbach, a Republican from Spearfish, used some of the same language, saying when foundational principles like property are threatened, “it transcends party.”

Many of the lawmakers who oppose the pipeline projects are Democrats or Republicans who don’t have official leadership positions in the Legislature.

However, House Majority Leader Rep. Will Mortenson, a Republican from Pierre, voted for a bill barring carbon pipeline companies from using eminent domain and continues to express opposition to the use of eminent domain by the pipeline companies.

The Democrats who attended Thursday’s rally are from west of the Missouri River, where less corn is grown.

“It’s property rights versus corporate America,” said Rep. Oren Lesmeister, D-Parade. “Proponents will say everyone should turn off their faucets and lights because eminent domain made that happen. I challenge people to look into that. Very little, if any, eminent domain is used to put in a power line or a water line because ‘we the people’ wanted those.”

Rep. Marty Overweg is a Republican from rural New Holland, which is east of the Missouri River, but he and Lesmeister agree on many issues. “You’re going to find out that Oren and I vote together almost 100% when it comes to agricultural issues and property rights, because it’s the worlds we live in,” Overweg said.

“This is about money,” he added. “And sometimes we have to tell these corporations, no, you cannot have that.”

With a coalition of property rights advocates, environmentalists and concerned citizens, opponents are determined to succeed. But so far, Gov. Kristi Noem has not agreed to call the special legislative session that the coalition is demanding, and the two-thirds support needed for the Legislature to call itself into a special session has not materialized.

Meanwhile, Summit Carbon Solutions says it has secured easements – agreements to allow a pipeline to cross land, in exchange for a payment – from 70% of the affected landowners in South Dakota.

“This level of support shows that landowners support Summit’s mission to partner with ethanol plants to make them more profitable by opening new markets not available to them today,” the company said in a written statement. “This will make farmers more profitable, driving economic growth and the ag economy in South Dakota.”

Charlie Johnson, an organic farmer near Madison whose land would be crossed by one of the pipelines, said easements don’t always translate to support.

“Most of the people I know that did sign, they did so because eminent domain was hanging over their heads,” Johnson said.

The Summit and Navigator CO2 Ventures pipelines each have permit hearings scheduled this summer with the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission.