Some Iowa farmers who fought Dakota Access are in the path of world's largest carbon capture pipeline

Donnelle Eller
Des Moines Register

When a letter landed in Keith Puntenney's mailbox a month ago, notifying him that his farm could be in the pathway of a $4.5 billion pipeline, the retired Boone tax attorney thought to himself: "Here we go again."

Puntenney is among the Iowa farmland owners who fought the Dakota Access oil pipeline to the Iowa Supreme Court, which decided the state was justified in allowing the use of eminent domain powers to force right-of-way purchases from unwilling landowners.

Now Summit Carbon Solutions has notified Puntenney and other Iowa landowners it wants to build nearly 710 miles of pipeline within Iowa that would stretch into 30 of the state's 99 counties.

Keith Puntenney, a farmland owner in Boone County, holds up three ears of corn to demonstrate what construction of the Dakota Access pipeline has done to the quality of crops, on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021. Years later, the compacted soil continues to produce smaller ears with fewer rows of kernels.

"It's a stacked deck," Puntenney said, adding that pipeline developers often have deep pockets and several attorneys to fight farmer and landowner opposition. 

"Those of us out here in the hinterlands are … not very powerful," he said.

More:Company wants to build a carbon sequestration pipeline in 30 Iowa counties. Find out where.

Officials with Summit Carbon say the project will help Iowa farmers, who sell half of the state's corn crop each year to ethanol producers. A new Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll, conducted Sept. 12-15, found that 85% of Iowans view ethanol as important to the state's economy.   

But the industry faces a rocky future, given President Joe Biden's push toward electric vehicles to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change. Most U.S. gasoline is blended with 10% ethanol.

Summit, an Ames company created by Bruce Rastetter's Summit Agricultural Group, wants to capture carbon emissions from nearly three dozen ethanol, fertilizer and other industrial ag plants in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota.

Summit plans to compress the gas into liquid and transport it through 2,000 miles of pipeline before permanently sequestering it a mile underground in North Dakota. It would be the world's largest carbon sequestration pipeline, the company says, with the capacity to capture up to 12 million metric tons of carbon annually.

It's the equivalent of removing the emissions from 2.6 million cars a year, Jake Ketzner, Summit Carbon's vice president of government and public affairs, said in a series of public meetings. 

The project would help ethanol and other energy-intensive ag industries remain viable as the nation seeks to cut greenhouse emissions in half by 2030, he said. Capturing emissions would lower ethanol's carbon footprint to net zero by 2030, Ketzner said. 

But the company faces a raft of concerns about the project, from its safety and impact on soil, to its effectiveness in reducing carbon emissions.

Kevin Lambert, who farms near Dayton, said land that Dakota Access trenched through to bury its pipeline continues to produce fewer bushels of corn and soybeans than before the pipeline. Now, his land could be in the path of Summit's carbon capture pipeline.

"I never imagined another pipeline would come through" so soon after Dakota Access, Lambert said. "It's kind of sad. … We'll see the repercussions for years to come."

Summit's proposal isn't the last. Another company, Navigator CO2 Ventures, also plans to cut a pipeline through the state, capturing carbon in Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Illinois, where it would be sequestered.

OUT OF DATE -- DO NOT USE. Navigator CO2 Ventures proposes building a 1,200 pipeline through Iowa and into four other states that will be used to capture carbon dioxide emissions that will be liquefied and sequestered in Illinois.

Summit says experts believe the nation needs 100 times the current carbon capture to help the U.S. meet its climate change goals, and the federal government is expected to invest billions in research and construction. 

Puntenney sees the need to take action on climate change. But he thinks the Biden administration's support of carbon capture pipelines will create another problem as acres for the projects begin to add up.

"We're destroying thousands of acres of productive farmland that will eventually affect food security here in the United States," he said.

Carbon capture has big promise, but does it deliver?

The U.S. already has about 5,000 miles of carbon capture pipelines. The carbon dioxide is mostly used to squeeze more oil out of existing wells, a process called enhanced oil recovery. Iowa has no carbon capture pipelines.

Biden's proposed $550 billion infrastructure package includes about $8 billion to advance carbon capture development and construction. Biden, who wants a net-zero emissions economy no later than 2050, also plans to provide richer tax credits to help offset the cost of new carbon capture projects.

More:Critics of $4.5 billion carbon capture pipeline say Branstad appointees have conflict, should recuse themselves

In addition to ethanol and other biofuels, the technology can be used to cut emissions from coal- and gas-fired power plants, experts say, as well as reduce the carbon footprint of heavy fossil fuel industrial users such as fertilizer and steel operations, which have few green alternatives.

But Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University civil and environmental engineering professor, said that carbon capture systems so far have failed to meet the promises of significantly reduced emissions.

Some farmers in the path of the Dakota Access pipeline now find themselves in the path of a proposed Summit Carbon Solutions pipeline planned to capture carbon emissions and permanently sequester them in North Dakota. Some farmers in the path say their crops have yet to rebound from the Dakota Access construction.

For example, a carbon capture system at a Texas coal power plant cut emissions 55% the first year and 70% after three years. But the company, which used the carbon to extract oil, claimed it would capture 90% or more of the emissions, Jacobson said.

The picture worsened when the emissions from coal mining and other activities were taken into account, said Jacobson, who calculated there would have been a 12% reduction in carbon emissions over 20 years had the plant not closed. 

Sequestering carbon from ethanol plants could improve the outlook somewhat, Jacobson said, but he doubts that pipeline developers can reach net-zero carbon emissions, even using wind, solar or other renewable energy to power the fuel plants.

Keith Puntenney, a farmer in Boone County, talks about the construction of pipelines through Iowa farmland, on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021.

Instead of trying to extend ethanol's viability, Carolyn Raffensperger, an Ames environmental lawyer, said Iowa should focus on transitioning the state's farming economy away from producing renewable fuel, and the corn and soybean crops needed to make it.

Iowa produces the most ethanol and biodiesel in the nation and is the largest U.S. corn and second-largest soybean grower.

But Biden's push toward electric vehicles raises questions "about the long-term future of Iowa corn production," Raffensperger said. The president wants half of all new cars and trucks sold by 2030 to be electric. That would cut demand for fuel, including the ethanol and biodiesel that's blended into the national supply.

More:Will Biden's push for electric vehicles kill ethanol? Not if he wants to cut carbon emissions now, its supporters say

Experts say more opportunities will emerge for renewable fuels as the nation moves toward a decarbonized economy. Petroleum products go into everything from plastics and chemicals to fabrics and cosmetics.

But Raffensperger said adding new crops to farmers' corn-and-soybean rotation would improve the state's soil health and water quality. 

"We need to begin to think long term about regenerative agriculture that will clean Iowa’s water," said Raffensperger, who also serves as executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network.

Officials are pushing farmers to adopt more conservation practices such as using cover crops to reduce the loss of nitrogen and phosphorus to the state's rivers and streams. The nutrients are needed to fertilize crops, but when lost from fields, they pollute Iowa's waterways.

Jeff Kistner, Lincolnway Energy interim chief financial officer, said the Summit project would help the Nevada, Iowa, ethanol plant lower its carbon footprint so it can sell into California, Oregon and other markets where low-carbon fuel is required.

"This will let us capture a premium, which goes back to our farmers and 960 shareholders," Kistner said, adding that the plant buys millions of bushels of corn from central Iowa farmers. "We want to be here for the long term."

Summit promises safety with its pipeline

Jimmy Powell, Summit's chief operating officer, said the Iowa company will use only "best practices" to ensure the pipeline's safety, drawing on decades of experience from the oil industry and more recent tests capturing carbon dioxide from ethanol facilities.

Powell pointed to Archer Daniels Midland Co. as an example. ADM is working with the U.S. Department of Energy, the University of Illinois and others to capture carbon from its ethanol plant near Decatur, Illinois, and is sequestering it underground nearby. The company said in May it had sequestered about 3.4 million tons of carbon so far.

Powell said Summit plans to take extra precautions to ensure the pipeline is safe, such as X-raying every weld in the pipeline, even though the federal government requires that only 10% be tested.

Powell acknowledged that residents have "heard stories about the safety of CO2 pipelines." But, he said, in the past 20 years, "there have been no fatalities associated" with the projects.

The Dakota Access pipeline runs through farmland in Boone County, as shown on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2021.

Iowans such as Ed Fallon, an environmental activist and former state representative, point to a carbon dioxide pipeline leak a year ago in Mississippi that sickened dozens of nearby residents. A recent Huffington Post story said Satartia residents were engulfed inside a greenish cloud and within minutes were "gasping for air, nauseated and dazed." 

Powell said the Mississippi carbon dioxide pipeline also contained hydrogen sulfide gas, which made the leak much more dangerous. Summit's pipeline "is the purest form of CO2 that's available," he said. "It's not analogous to the situation in Mississippi." 

Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said concentrated levels of carbon dioxide are dangerous. "It's an asphyxiant," he said, often used to euthanize livestock.

"CO2 is heavier than air and settles to the ground and displaces oxygen," Schettler said. "People who are caught in a pure CO2 cloud that might be released from a pipeline" face "a real threat to safety and survivability," he said.

Powell said the pipeline would be built with the latest technology, including leak detection that tracks its pressure and temperature.

"We're governed by the federal government," he said. "Not only will we do it because it's the right thing to do, but we do it because we have to."

Summit: Pipeline will maintain value of farmland

Dean Kluss, a Wright County supervisor, urged Summit leaders to use existing rights of way to route the pipeline to avoid crossing hundreds of Iowa farm fields. "So we don't interrupt private (drainage) tiles. So we don't impact the agricultural ground," said Kluss, who also farms in north central Iowa.

Drainage tiles lie under an estimated 9 million acres of Iowa cropland — about a third of the entire state — shedding excess water and helping to make the state's farmland among the most productive in the nation, ag leaders say.

Puntenney, who owns farmland near Boxholm, said he doubted that Summit Carbon would use existing rights of way along highways, railroads and other infrastructure. The most direct route, he said, is the least expensive, even with the cost of paying owners for access.

Justin Kirchhoff, president of Summit Ag Investors, said the company would avoid crossing private land wherever possible. It's important to remember, he said, that parent company Summit Agriculture Group and its employees are rooted in farming.

Summit Agriculture Group grows corn and soybeans and raises cattle and pigs in the U.S. and operates ethanol plants in South America.

"We're incredibly sensitive to minimize the disturbance to farms, and any disturbance is fully repaired … we want to be the best in class," Kirchhoff said.

"And this pipeline will maintain the value of farmland going forward," he said.

The Dakota Access pipeline runs through farmland in Boone County, as shown on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2021.

Capturing carbon makes ethanol "more profitable and viable" as the nation reduces carbon dioxide from its transportation fuel supply, Kirchhoff said. In addition to helping farmers, the project would support a couple of thousand jobs at Iowa ethanol plants, some of the best-paying in rural Iowa, he said.

An economic study, completed for the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, found that the ethanol and biodiesel industry supports about 37,000 Iowa jobs when farming, trucking, livestock production and other indirect positions are factored in. The industry adds nearly $4 billion to the state's economy, or about 2% of its GDP, according to the study.

Iowa egg, pork and beef producers use a high-protein livestock feed that's a byproduct of ethanol production.

"The whole ecosystem of agriculture really revolves around that," Kirchhoff said. "We think it will really benefit the state in a really positive way."

The pipeline itself would create up to 17,000 construction jobs across five states and as many as 460 permanent positions.

But Jacobson, the Stanford professor, questions whether carbon sequestration will be financially feasible.

"There's no economic argument for that," he said, "unless it's going to get subsidized by the government."

About 25% of the company's revenue would come from federal tax credits, Kirchhoff said. And the company would share the added income that ethanol plants get from selling their low-carbon fuel for higher prices.

Kirchhoff said Summit would look to loans, both private and potentially government-backed, and investors to build the pipeline. Summit announced in July that Deere & Co., the giant Moline, Illinois, farm equipment manufacturer, was a "strategic investor" in its carbon capture project.

Kirchhoff hesitated to say that Summit would always sequester the carbon underground. He said other opportunities might emerge, such as using carbon to cure cement, "which permanently stores carbon as well."

"There are other things that could happen, but as it sits today, there are no other viable options other than direct sequestration, and that's what our focus is," Kirchhoff said.

The Dakota Access pipeline runs through farmland in Boone County, as shown on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2021.

Should Summit pay more to farmers for use of their land?

Lambert said Energy Transfer, the company that built the Dakota Access oil pipeline, promised to completely restore the productivity of the land within three years.

However, Lambert said, the company mixed valuable topsoil with subsoil and failed to reconnect underground drainage tiles, causing part of his and other farmers' fields to flood. Both problems have reduced yields, creating a scar across his field that never freezes, given the heat from the pipeline.

"It doesn't matter what we think. They can go through our property" using eminent domain because of the Dakota Access precedent, he said. "That's what happens when you let one pipeline go through. All they have to do is file some paperwork."

The three-member Iowa Utilities Board can grant eminent domain powers to Summit if the project, considered a hazardous liquid pipeline, is determined to serve a public purpose.

Summit is holding informational meetings across the state about the project now through mid-October and can file a new pipeline permit 30 days after the last meeting. Summit expects the pipeline to be operating by 2024.

Kirchhoff 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."

Fred Dorr, a Des Moines attorney, said family members who own five farms in northwest Iowa have been notified they could be in the path of the pipeline.

Even though Summit Carbon will pay landowners for the right of way based on fair market value, as well as three years of lost production, Dorr said he believes Summit and other private companies should pay annually for the use of their land.

"The private entity is doing this because they can make money, and they ought to share some of the revenue with the people whose land they need. Or they shouldn't build their project," Dorr said.

"They won't, unless they're forced to," he said. "They'll say no harm, no foul."

Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at or 515-284-8457.