Governor denies influence over Summit pipeline process

By: - August 31, 2023 4:21 pm

Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks at the Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit on Feb. 7, 2023. (Photo by Jared Strong/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Gov. Kim Reynolds “has not influenced” the state permit process for a proposed carbon dioxide pipeline that is nearing its conclusion, a spokesperson said this week.

The comment was in response to a landowner’s recent assertion that Reynolds and other elected leaders have favored Summit Carbon Solutions’ pipeline project over their constituents’ concerns because of the company co-founder’s wealth and influence.

“Follow the money,” said Richard Davis, a Cherokee County landowner who testified in a permit hearing on Tuesday.

Davis opposes the project and has four parcels of land that are subject to the company’s eminent domain requests. He testified that he sought help from state legislators to protect his land but that they said Bruce Rastetter, the co-founder, has donated a lot of money to Reynolds’ campaigns and that “she will not act on this until the pipeline is through.”

Summit Carbon Solutions wants to transport captured carbon dioxide from ethanol plants to North Dakota for underground sequestration. (Image courtesy of Summit Carbon Solutions)

Summit’s $5.5 billion pipeline would transport captured carbon dioxide from ethanol plants in five states to North Dakota for underground sequestration. More than 680 miles of that pipeline system is planned for Iowa.

Rastetter is an agriculture mogul and a major political donor. From 2015 to 2022, he donated more than $160,000 to the Kim Reynolds for Iowa campaign committee, according to state campaign disclosure reports. Those donations preceded her ascent to governor in 2017, when former Gov. Terry Branstad resigned to be the U.S. ambassador to China.

The allegation of Rastetter’s influence over elected officials is not new. In the past two years as legislators struggled — and ultimately failed — to pass new legislation to restrict eminent domain for carbon dioxide pipelines, some of the legislators publicly said the same.

“How much money did Bruce Rastetter give you?” Rep. Jeff Shipley, R-Birmingham, told people to ask their legislators in March 2022. “There are a lot of people that bend over for money. They bend over so much sometimes I’m surprised they can still walk.”

IUB shake-up

But the allegation gained more traction this summer when the Iowa Utilities Board decided to start Summit’s evidentiary hearing two months earlier than it had previously considered. The move prompted complaints from pipeline opponents and state lawmakers that the permit process was being accelerated toward approval.

Summit has sought a decision on its permit in Iowa by the end of the year, and the company intends to start construction in 2024.

That IUB decision followed Reynolds’ appointment of a new member to the board, Erik Helland, who was a replacement for a member whose term was expiring. Reynolds further named him chairperson.

Geri Huser resigned from the Iowa Utilities Board after the appointment of a new chairperson. (Photo by Jared Strong/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Former chairperson Geri Huser submitted her letter of resignation from the board less than a week later.

Huser’s term as chairperson was set to expire, but it could have been renewed. And she could have remained as a board member until at least 2027.

“Geri Huser announced her resignation at the expiration of her term as chair of IUB after 8 years of service, and Governor Reynolds greatly appreciated her leadership,” said Kollin Crompton, the deputy communications director for Reynolds. “Across state government, the governor has a longstanding policy of rotating board leadership and refreshing board membership to allow for new voices to be heard.”

However, the decision resulted in two new members on the three-person board, and that happened toward the end of Summit’s permit process, which began in August 2021.

The remaining incumbent board member, Josh Byrnes, had initially resisted a Summit hearing start date in October, primarily because it would conflict with harvest season and might prevent farmers affected by the project from participating.

But Byrnes also questioned whether it was possible to effectively evaluate Summit’s proposal in a shortened timeframe because it is “the most resource-intensive project that has come before the board in 50 years, possibly since the board’s inception,” he wrote in February.

He noted that board staff had initially proposed a hearing start date in May 2024.

Brynes reversed course after the appointment of the two new board members and supported the Aug. 22 start date. In July, he wrote that the board’s decision to have some of the landowners who are subject to eminent domain requests testify at the start of the hearing — rather than at the end — alleviated his worries about harvest. He did not address his previous concerns about ensuring that the project is fully vetted.

Other donations

Rastetter also donated to lawmakers in the Iowa Senate who might have been key to blocking legislation this year that was overwhelmingly approved by the Iowa House and would have limited eminent domain for carbon dioxide pipelines.

In 2019, 2020 and 2021, Rastetter gave a total of $37,500 to a campaign committee that supports Sen. Jack Whitver, R-Grimes, the majority leader who decides what bills get a vote by the entire chamber.

And last year, Rastetter gave $5,000 to the campaign of Sen. Mike Bousselot, R-Ankeny. He led a subcommittee to which the House bill was assigned, but the bill was never considered for recommendation.

Bousselot was the subject of an ethics complaint over his handling of that bill, in part, because he formerly worked for Summit Agriculture Group, which owns Summit Carbon Solutions.

Bousselot and Whitver did not immediately respond to requests to comment for this article.

Donations don’t necessarily equate to favorable votes: The Iowa Farm Bureau Federation — which supported the bill — also donated to the senators. The organization’s donations in 2022 to them exceeded Rastetter’s contributions that year. Also, Rastetter has contributed more than $35,000 to a campaign committee that supports Rep. Matt Windschitl, the House majority leader who voted in favor of the bill.

Rastetter also donated $26,000 last year to a campaign committee that supports Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird, who won her first term in the November election.

Bird’s authority over the Office of Consumer Advocate was strengthened by a governmental reorganization bill that was one of Reynolds’ legislative priorities.

The office is charged with representing the interests of the public in utility proceedings such as Summit’s permit application, and a former attorney for the office said she quit her job there in May because it had become “more of an observer and less of an advocate.”

“The concerns of ‘undue influence’ are completely unfounded and untrue,” Crompton, Reynolds’ spokesman, told Iowa Capital Dispatch. “The governor meets regularly with leaders from a wide variety of industries in Iowa including agriculture, insurance, technology, and health care to help inform policy priorities. Governor Reynolds’ work with the legislature over the last four years to improve Iowa’s economy and business climate has resulted in Iowa being recognized nationally as a top ten state to live in, the number one state to retire in, the number one state for the lowest cost of living, the most fiscally responsible state in the country, the number two state for health care, top three state for opportunity, the number four state for labor participation, and a top five state for first time homebuyers.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated with more campaign contribution information.

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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.