Pipeline opponents to lawmakers: Do something to protect landowners

Compromise proposal is stalled to delay eminent domain for carbon pipelines

By: - April 19, 2022 5:30 pm

Opponents of three liquid carbon pipelines rallied at the Capitol on April 19, 2022, to ask state lawmakers to act on eminent domain this session. (Photo by Katie Akin/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

State lawmakers must act soon to protect landowners from the threat of eminent domain to build nearly 2,000 miles of liquid carbon pipelines across the state, pipeline opponents said Tuesday.

It was the 100th day of the legislative session. That means lawmakers may no longer charge their daily expenses to the state – a financial incentive to wrap up for the year.

But Republican leaders who have overwhelming control of the House and Senate are still deadlocked on Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposal to create state-funded private school scholarships. Several other bills, including the entire state budget, also hang in the balance.

Proposals that would curb private companies’ use of eminent domain to build the pipelines have surfaced intermittently throughout the legislative session and culminated with a House budget bill amendment that would delay final action by the Iowa Utilities Board on the pipeline proposals until February 2023.

The pipelines would transport captured carbon from ethanol plants and other agricultural facilities to other states, where it would be pumped into the ground. The projects are expected to reap billions of dollars in federal incentives that are meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, has pitched that eminent domain moratorium as a compromise with his fellow lawmakers that would give some breathing room to landowners in their negotiations with the pipeline companies for property easements.

Of the three pipeline proposals, the one by Summit Carbon Solutions is the furthest along. The IUB is poised to set a schedule that will culminate with a hearing on the plan and the company’s requests for eminent domain. Eminent domain allows government to take private land for a public purpose with compensation to the landowner set by the government.

The company has said it has reached agreements or is close to reaching agreements with landowners for about a quarter of the pipeline’s 680-mile stretch in the northwestern half of the state. Summit must submit a list of eminent domain requests before the IUB can set the permit hearing.

“If these dangerous pipelines are allowed to use eminent domain, no landowner will be safe from its use by other private companies in the future,” Cynthia Hansen, a Shelby County landowner along the Summit pipeline path, said Tuesday.

She urged lawmakers to act on the issue this session before the Summit proposal has an opportunity to be approved. She said the proposed moratorium isn’t enough, a common refrain among pipeline opponents.

The IUB is expected to take up the Summit proposal early next year, which might give lawmakers little time to act during the next legislative session.

“The Legislature’s inaction this session is shameful,” said Emma Schmit, a western Iowa resident and organizer for Food & Water Watch, which is among the environmental groups that oppose the pipelines.

Legislative loggerheads

The House passed the budget bill that contains the eminent domain moratorium nearly a month ago. The Senate has yet to consider the bill.

“That’s more a function of the ongoing disagreement between the House and the Senate over (school) vouchers and probably a whole bunch of other things,” Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, told Iowa Capital Dispatch. “The Republicans just don’t seem to be able to run a railroad.”

Quirmbach has been among the loudest voices at the Statehouse in opposition of eminent domain for the pipelines and threw his early support behind a bill proposed by Sen. Jeff Taylor, R-Sioux Center, that would have protected unwilling farmland owners from the private projects.

That bill was advanced by a subcommittee but was abruptly pulled from a committee hearing agenda for lack of support.

“I’m disappointed it did not have the support needed to move out of committee,” Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, the chairperson of the committee, said at the time.

Two Republican state lawmakers said recently that the political clout and wealth of Summit co-founder Bruce Rastetter, a major Republican donor, are preventing their colleagues from taking action on eminent domain.

Even the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, a powerful lobbyist for farmers, has been mum on the issue. A spokesperson for the organization has not responded to multiple Capital Dispatch requests to comment about it.

Summit lobbyists have said that Taylor’s bill would sink their project and would cost the company tens of millions of dollars.

“There are people in powerful positions over here in the Senate — Republicans in powerful positions — who are unfriendly to interrupting Bruce Rastetter’s plans,” Quirmbach said. “The people who are speaking up most energetically (against the pipelines) seem to be small landowners — farmers in particular — and they usually have strong support from the Republican Party. If the Republican Party were 100 percent behind that effort, it would go through.”

Many farmland owners who have publicly opposed the pipelines are concerned about the damage their construction will cause. The pipeline companies have acknowledged that damage and the diminished crop production that is a consequence of it and offer payments to offset the losses.

Protecting farmland

Other Republican proposals this session have tended toward the preservation of farmland, especially high-quality cropland:

There was Senate File 2127, which would have restricted solar panel fields to less-productive cropland and limited their locations based on their proximity to other solar fields and nearby landowners.

That bill was advanced by the Senate Agriculture committee in February. Its sponsor, Sen. Dan Zumbach, R-Ryan, the chairperson of the committee, said the bill’s purpose was “showing respect” to farmland, Iowa Public Radio reported.

That bill also had the potential to affect pending utilities projects, including two proposed solar fields in Linn County on a combined total of more than 1,100 acres of agricultural land.

At least one person who lives near the projects asked the IUB to delay final action on the projects until “the Legislature has made a determination” about the bill.

“This is being written to specifically address what is the best use of Iowa’s prime farm land in regards to taking land out of production for the purpose of utility scale solar installations,” Laura Myres, of Palo, wrote to the IUB in February.

The bill was referred again to the agriculture committee about a month ago.

Senate Study Bill 3134 was aimed at diminishing the ability of counties and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to buy farmland for public use.

The bill set purchase price limits for the public entities. The DNR, for example, would only be able to offer 60% of the value of high-quality cropland. The bill also limited state tax breaks for people who donate land for public use or who sell it for less than it’s worth.

The Senate Natural Resources and Environment committee voted for the bill in February. About a month ago it was referred back to the committee.

It’s unclear whether or when the Senate might consider the House budget bill that contains the eminent domain moratorium.

“The Iowa Legislature has failed to take action on one of the most important issues facing Iowa — the carbon pipelines,” Jess Mazour, of the Sierra Club Iowa Chapter, said Tuesday. “There is nothing good about these carbon pipelines. It is all risk for us and all rewards for them.”

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register.