Critics of $4.5 billion carbon capture pipeline say Branstad appointees have conflict, should recuse themselves
Critics of a proposed $4.5 billion pipeline project say Iowa Utilities Board members appointed by former Gov. Terry Branstad have a conflict of interest and should recuse themselves from decisions about the project, which has hired Branstad as an adviser.
Summit Carbon Solutions wants to build a pipeline, called the Midwest Carbon Express, across 30 counties in Iowa to capture carbon emissions from ethanol and other industrial agriculture plants, compress it into a liquid and transport it to North Dakota for permanent sequestration a mile underground.
Altogether, the Ames company, created by Bruce Rastetter's Summit Agricultural Group, proposes building a pipeline 2,000 miles across Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota and North and South Dakota, capturing carbon from 31 biorefineries, including 12 Iowa ethanol plants.
Summit hired Branstad, who was the U.S. ambassador to China under President Donald Trump, in March as a senior policy adviser to provide "oversight, leadership and guidance on public policy matters affecting stakeholders" in what the company says will be the world’s largest carbon capture and storage project.
At a Sept. 13 meeting in Ames, Lee Tesdell, a central Iowa farmland owner, asked whether any of the Iowa Utilities Board members were appointed by Branstad and whether they would recuse themselves from making a decision about whether Summit should receive a permit to build nearly 710 miles of pipeline across Iowa.
TesdelI, whose central Iowa farm is not in the pipeline's pathway, said he believes board members Branstad appointed have a conflict of interest. "Either Branstad should resign from the Midwest Carbon Express team or they (board members) should recuse themselves," he said.
The three-member Iowa Utilities Board can grant eminent domain powers to Summit if the project is determined to serve a public purpose. Eminent domain would give it the ability to buy an easement from landowners who refuse to sell.
A Summit executive said the company's goal is to offer landowners "really attractive proposals" for their rights-of-way and use eminent domain only as "a last resort."
Branstad, who left the state's top job in May 2017 to assume his ambassadorship, appointed Geri Huser in 2015 as a board member and chair, and Gov. Kim Reynolds reappointed her in January. Huser is serving a two-year term as chair and a six-year term as a board member.
Branstad appointed Richard Lozier Jr. to the board in 2017. Lozier will serve through April 2023. Reynolds, who served as Branstad's lieutenant governor, appointed Joshua Byrnes, the third board member, in November.
The utilities board said in an email that board members "are subject to judicial ethics requirements similar to those required for district court judges" and "will make their decision whether there is a conflict of interest that prevents them from participating in the hearing that considers the Summit Carbon Solutions pipeline at the appropriate time."
Neil Hamilton, a retired Drake University law professor, said in an email that he doubts the board members will recuse themselves because of a Branstad appointment.
"I doubt they believe it is a conflict under the applicable rules (it probably isn’t) and second, even if it was a close call, they would probably resist recusing themselves because they might think it casts doubts on their ability to be fair and impartial," Hamilton wrote.
Hamilton added, however, that the point of conflict-of-interest rules is "if you have a conflict, you step out — so no one can accuse you of not being impartial."
Summit said in a statement that the project was announced four years after Branstad, a longtime proponent of ethanol and biodiesel, stepped down as governor.
Summit says the pipeline will help ethanol plants and other energy-intensive agricultural industries remain viable as the nation seeks to cut greenhouse emissions in half by 2030. Capturing emissions will lower ethanol's carbon footprint to zero, the company says.
The pipeline has the capacity to capture up to 12 million metric tons of carbon annually, the equivalent of removing the emissions from 2.6 million cars annually.
Summit said Branstad brings more than 40 years of experience working on "agriculture, ethanol and energy in Iowa, the Midwest and internationally" to the project. "Through that experience, he provides a valuable and unique perspective on how carbon capture and storage projects can expand economic opportunities, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and bolster the ethanol and agricultural industries," Summit said.
Altogether, Summit expects the project will create up to 460 permanent jobs and as many as 17,000 temporary construction jobs.
In 2017, Lozier recused himself from the controversial Dakota Access oil pipeline case because he had represented a pro-pipeline lobby group in court as a private attorney before joining the utilities board.
Ed Fallon, a former state representative and vocal Dakota Access pipeline opponent, said he believes the Iowa Utilities Board members should recuse themselves. "Given their high-salary positions, they're beholden to Branstad, and that gives the impression that they would be inclined to vote his way," Fallon said.
Board members are required to spend their "whole time" on state utility issues. Huser earned a base salary of $128,890 last year, and Lozier, $122,428, according to the state employee salary book. No salary was recorded for Byrnes last year.
Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at email@example.com or 515-284-8457.