Strange bedfellows: Farmers and Big Greens clash against Biden and the GOP
Major projects in Indiana, Mississippi and Texas have come online and then shut down, after billions of dollars in investment. In 2020, NRG Energy Inc. mothballed the last remaining project capturing carbon emissions from a coal-fired power plant in the United States. The Petra Nova plant in Texas, one of the largest such projects in the world, has stopped shipping its carbon to nearby oil fields to help boost production due to collapsing oil prices .
The most publicized collapse was that of the Kemper County power plant in Mississippi, which suffered $4 billion in cost overruns before Atlanta-based utility giant Southern Co. phased out in 2017. The project was never able to capture large-scale lignite coal emissions.
The 65,000 miles of new carbon dioxide pipelines that would be needed to meet the White House’s national goals is far more than the current capacity to move carbon underground. There are only 5,000 miles of these pipelines in service today. They are largely concentrated along the Gulf Coast and in North Dakota.
“It’s just adrift”
The Biden administration cited articles from the Great Plains Institute and Princeton University’s Net-Zero America project which envisions “an interstate CO2 highway system.” They talk about building along existing rights-of-way dug for other pipelines and telecommunications lines.
Congress also signed that deal, including $1 trillion in funding infrastructure bill it was passed in November to help fund high-capacity carbon pipeline projects.
But this vision is not exactly followed in Hardin County.
A second proposed pipeline, Navigator CO2 Ventures’ Heartland Greenway, would also pass under the Stockdale property. It would cross the Summit pipeline 12 times in Iowa alone as it made its way to a geological well in Illinois. Both have asked Iowa regulators for eminent domain powers to build the pipelines even when landowners disagree.
Maps from Summit and Navigator show that pipelines do not stick to existing rights-of-way. Individual landowners who complain about plans for the pipeline to cut diagonally through their farm fields and near their homes have filed objections with the Iowa Utilities Board. A rural water district says the Summit’s plan “would cause damage to all the water pipes crossed” in their area. And one school district indicates that Navigator’s proposed route through their property would prevent the construction of school buildings already planned.
A third project has been proposed by Wolf Carbon Solutions, but the company has yet to file for state approval and detailed maps have yet to be released.
“It’s just jumbled, pipelines going one direction, another direction – there’s no rhyme or reason,” said Deb Lavalle, whose Hardin County lands would be crossed by the Summit Pipeline. “If they really think they have to, keep it in the public sway, for heaven’s sake.”
Matt Fry, policy manager at the Great Plains Institute, a think tank dedicated to climate change mitigation that supports CCS, acknowledged that the gap between what CCS proponents envision and what has been proposed could cause problems to the technology, as these projects “will set the tone for the entire industry.
His group is surveying Iowans to understand what future projects could do differently to gain more grassroots support. Part of the problem, they say, is that pipeline companies lay out routes before reaching out to communities and landowners first.
“People learn as they go,” he said.
‘I am Christian’
Concerns about crop security and yields — and the belief that private companies should not be allowed to use eminent domain — run so deep among landowners that many are fighting the pipeline alongside advocates for the environment of the Sierra Club.
“We were told we didn’t agree on anything, but we found a lot of common ground,” said Jess Mazour, program coordinator for the group’s Iowa chapter.
Omaha-based attorney Brian Jorde, who helped organize landowners against the Keystone XL pipeline, also works with the Sierra Club. He and Mazour co-host weekly Zoom strategy sessions for landowners who oppose the pipeline. They also filed legal documents with the Iowa Utilities Board accusing the pipeline developers of not following the letters of the law.
Council still to rule on eminent domain issues
“At the end of the day, we just have to hope that IUB has the guts to do the right thing for Iowa and not just for the millionaires who support this project,” Jorde said. “You have to put these projects underground, and that land belongs to real people who clearly don’t want it.”
The alliance is mind-boggling for those who support the project.
Seth Harder is the CEO of Lincolnway Energy, an ethanol company with a refinery in Nevada, Iowa, adjacent to Hardin County. He says climate change mitigation is one of the main reasons the company wants to connect its plant to the Summit pipeline.
“If we have this opportunity to capture CO2 and put it back where it came from, maybe we have a duty to do it,” he said.
He said he can understand why landowners would be against using eminent domain on principle, but can’t understand why environmental groups aren’t more supportive. “Like the Sierra Club,” he said. “I thought your job was to help us protect the Earth, not to stop us from protecting the Earth.”
Some landowners also find it difficult to understand their new partners. Sitting at the kitchen table over deviled eggs and sloppy Joes one recent afternoon, Theresa Thoms eyed her friend Kathy Stockdale skeptically when the idea of teaming up with Jorde and the Sierra Club came up.
Thoms opposes the pipeline but has not signed. She doesn’t “agree with the whole issue of climate change”. But Stockdale told her friend how her Christian faith prompted her to work closely with the environmental group, if only once.
“I struggled with that myself, but I’m a Christian and I think back to the biblical times when God called Joseph to Egypt to work with them and fix things,” Stockdale said.
“Sometimes God calls us to do things that we really don’t want to do,” she explained, “and God made me steward of the earth and we have to do what we have to do to take care of it. .”
The race to build the pipelines comes with a big prize.
Expanded tax credits change the financial calculus of businesses. And it looks like a little gold rush.
Any project that begins construction by 2026 can earn a $50 credit for every metric ton of carbon captured and sequestered. In the hook Building back betterthis figure would rise to 85 dollars per ton as long as the polluter captures a high percentage of its carbon.
“Stick carbon in the earth does not generate independent economic benefits,” said Hunter Johnston, a Steptoe & Johnson lawyer who works on CCS policy. “So it’s the tax credit that’s driving the economy right now, and we’ve seen a tremendous amount of ambition.”
Summit could earn $600 million a year in federal tax credits if the company’s current carbon storage projections come true. The $7.2 billion in tax credits the project could earn over 12 years would more than cover the pipeline’s estimated $4.5 billion initial construction expenses.
The pipeline is just the latest venture from Rastetter, the chief executive of Summit Agricultural Group and an Iowa political broker.
For Hardin County farmers, Rastetter is one of them. He grew up on a 300-acre farm near the town of Alden, Hardin County, and made his fortune from the same ethanol refineries where many farmers still sell their crop.
He made his fortune bringing large hog containment operations to Iowa, operations that environmental groups have for decades blamed for the nitrogen pollution plaguing the state’s waterways. In the early 2000s, Rastetter exited the pork business and invested in ethanol, founding the plant in Hardin County, now under new ownership, where the Stockdales still sell their grain.
The pipeline proposal isn’t the first time Rastetter has also courted controversy. Ten years ago, as a board member at Iowa State University, he involved university professors in a business venture in Tanzania. His company, AgriSol Energy LLC, planned to spend $100 million to lease huge plots of land and develop a commercial agricultural business in the East African country. The project was abandoned after media reports revealed it would displace more than 100,000 refugees from Burundi.
Presidential candidates show up in farming communities like this to swear loyalty to the future of ethanol. High-level farm summits hosted by Rastetter, a top GOP donor, have become defining moments for presidential candidates visiting the state ahead of early party caucuses in the country.
The political establishment, Democrat and Republican, is intimately tied to the Summit CCS pipeline project.
Jess Vilsack, the son of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, is Summit’s general counsel. Former Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, who appointed two of the three serving members of Iowa’s public utility board, is Summit’s senior policy adviser. And the company’s vice president of government affairs was previously chief of staff to current Iowa Gov. Republican Kim Reynolds.
The project has also received major investments from John Deere, the agricultural equipment maker, and Continental Resources, an Oklahoma City-based oil and gas producer founded by billionaire Harold Hamm.