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Carbon capture pipeline companies flex financial power

Project developers plan to build carbon capture pipelines connecting dozens of Midwestern ethanol refineries, such as this one in Chancellor, S.D., shown on July 22, 2021.
Stephen Groves
Project developers plan to build carbon capture pipelines connecting dozens of Midwestern ethanol refineries, such as this one in Chancellor, S.D., shown on July 22, 2021.

Carbon capture pipelines are designed to reduce the overall global impact carbon is having on the environment. Several projects plan to carry carbon dioxide from Midwest ethanol plants to underground storage facilities.

Summit Carbon Solutionssays it has easement agreements with more than half of the landowners along the South Dakota route. However, Summit has filed more than 80 condemnation lawsuits against those who’ve turned down the company’s offer - and the number of lawsuits continues to rise.

Brad Fischbach, a landowner who helps run Fischbach Farms, is being sued by Summit. He said Summit’s planned pipeline route will disrupt a number of their farm operations.

“What Summit is trying to do is cross two of our quarters of ground, coming right through our feedlot where we calf and run our cow calf pairs. I also run a repair shop and have employees and it is literally right outside of our shop here,” said Fischbach.

Fischbach said he fears for the safety of his family and his employees in the event of a break in the pipeline. But more importantly, if Summit wins its lawsuit, Fischbach said it could limit the future of his operation.

“They are running literally kitty-corner across our building to the east of our building site. My brother has two boys, I have two boys, and they will never be able to come back here and expand our farm in this position because due to the laws, we will not be allowed to build any closer to the pipeline,” said Fischbach.

The lawsuits come on the heels of a recent court ruling that allows Summit to survey private property without landowner permission.

The lawsuits extend to nine counties across the state including Beadle, Brown, Codington, Edmunds, Hand, Kingsbury, Lake, McPherson and Spink counties.

Sabrina Zenor, director of community relations for Summit Carbon Solutions, spoke recently at a meeting of the Downtown Sioux Falls Rotatory Club. Zenor said the lawsuits are simply the next step in gaining easement rights for the proposed pipeline.

“Some landowners have decided to stop working with us and we have to continue the process," Zenor said. "If those landowners want to come back to the table, we are here. If you know any of those landowners and they want to come back to the table, I have my card, I will share it with you. We want voluntary easements. That is our goal.”    

However, some people say there’s a different goal. Jeff Barth, a former Minnehaha County Commissioner also spoke at the Rotatory meeting and described what he calls intimidation tactics used by pipeline representatives. Barth said while visiting with a landowner he heard a company representative make an offer for easement rights.

“And that’s what's going on here. Teams of attorneys, teams of lobbyist, teams of agents coming out and putting the pressure on people,” said Barth.    

Another company – Navigator CO2 – is behind a similar project called the Heartland Greenway. Navigator has partnered with the nation’s largest ethanol producer, South Dakota-based POET to capture the carbonPOET produces.

Elizabeth Burns-Thompson, vice president of government and public affairs for Navigator CO2. She said their project differs from Summit’s pipeline because it provides benefits to the state with terminals along the route.

Burns-Thompson said she likes using the analogy of highway on-ramps and off-ramps to explain the Heartland Greenway’s defining differences.

“ There is a variety of both onramps in terms of product coming from a variety of different plants.,But also, much like our interstates, a variety of off-ramps such that a shipper could choose to send some of their CO2 to sequestration and some of it to a terminal for dry ice, or a bottling company, or a livestock processing facility,” said Burns-Thompson.

Navigator has not yet filed any eminent domain lawsuits in the state. Burns-Thompson said they want to work with landowners and reroute pipelines where necessary.

“We as companies are incentivized to do as much of the development as is possible in a voluntary fashion and I will tell you that that is how we at Navigator will operate," said Burns-Thompson. "I cannot make a commitment that there won't be some necessary application of condemnation but we are working tirelessly to minimize that as much as possible.” 

Burns-Thompson encouraged members of the public to ask any questions they have about Navigator’s carbon pipeline project.

Summit and Navigator are still waiting for a final permitting discussion and decision from the state’s Public Utilities Commission before beginning construction on their pipelines.

Evan Walton is an SDPB reporter based in Sioux Falls. Evan holds a Master’s in English Literature from Southern New Hampshire University and was honorably discharged from the United States Army in 2015, where he served for five years as an infantryman.