Iowa utility regulators want to finish Summit hearing by month’s end

By: - September 12, 2023 6:12 pm

Summit Carbon Solutions' permit process accelerated after Erik Helland became chairperson of the Iowa Utilities Board. (Photo by Jared Strong/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The Iowa Utilities Board seeks to complete an evidentiary hearing for Summit Carbon Solutions’ pipeline proposal by the end of September, according to a recent board order.

Summit’s hearing is in its fourth week. The company seeks a hazardous liquid pipeline permit in Iowa as part of its five-state project that would transport captured carbon dioxide from ethanol plants for underground sequestration in North Dakota.

The board has not previously indicated a timeline to complete the hearing, but it fits with a potential end date laid out by a Summit attorney last month.

Board staff initially contemplated the hearing could go for at least two months, given the hundreds of landowners who are subject to the company’s eminent domain requests and might testify.

The abbreviated schedule of about six weeks that would result from finishing in September — along with the board’s decision to start the hearing two months earlier — has led pipeline opponents, state legislators and others to criticize the process as rushed. Some allege that elected leaders have quietly advanced the project over objections from their constituents.

The board revealed in its Monday order that it has rented a facility in Fort Dodge to host the hearing until Sept. 28.

“The IUB’s Summit Carbon Solutions hearing was planned to continue until completed,” said Don Tormey, a spokesperson for the board. “When contractual arrangements were made with the venue, it was undetermined how many non-intervening landowners would wish to testify and how long cross-examination of witnesses would take.”

It’s unclear how the hearing might proceed after September, Tormey said. The IUB is reviewing its other commitments “to determine when additional hearing dates can be scheduled,” he said.

“There is virtually no chance all testimony is concluded by end of day Sept. 28,” Brian Jorde, an attorney for more than 100 landowners affected by Summit’s proposal in multiple states, told the Iowa Capital Dispatch.

Hearing has not proceeded on schedule

The hearing has primarily involved the examination of witnesses and its proposed schedules have been pocked with delays. A partial group of the landowners who resist the project and might be forced to sign land easements through eminent domain testified in the first two weeks of the hearing, which started Aug. 22.

The board intended last week to consider testimony from all of Summit’s 15 witnesses, but that didn’t happen. In the first day of the hearing that week, for example, just one of four scheduled witnesses testified. On Thursday, testimony concluded early because Summit did not have another witness available.

“The board had no choice but to end the hearing early, leaving three-plus hours of potential hearing time on the table that day,” the IUB said in its Monday order, in a admonition to be sure witnesses are ready.

The board typically reconvenes the hearing three days each week. A preliminary schedule listed eight Summit witnesses for Tuesday, but four testified and one of them will continue Wednesday. The company indicated one of its remaining witnesses won’t be available until Thursday.

The witness testimony on Tuesday covered some of how Summit adjusted its route based on landowner feedback and to mitigate environmental impacts, the effects of carbon dioxide inhalation on humans, and computer modeling of gas plumes that could be produced by catastrophic leaks from the pipeline. Wednesday’s testimony is expected to start in a private session to discuss that modeling further.

Jorde has also criticized the IUB’s reluctance to establish a concrete schedule for testimony and noted the difficulty of ensuring his witnesses will be available. Some affected landowners and expert witnesses do not live in Iowa.

“The very frustrating aspect is the board has known the time constraints of reserving the Fort Dodge venue for months and could have and should have told the parties of the start date and the end date,” he said.

There are about 900 land parcels that are still subject to eminent domain requests by the company. That is down from more than 1,000, as Summit has signed additional voluntary agreements for easements.

Those easements allow Summit to build and operate its pipeline system on land it doesn’t own.

About 470 people own the outstanding parcels, Micah Rorie, the company’s vice president of land and right of way, testified on Tuesday. It’s unclear how many of those landowners are yet to participate in the hearing.

“Precise information on the witnesses to be offered by intervening parties has yet to be provided by their counsel and is dependent on the parties and not the IUB,” Tormey said.

Pending requests

Bold Iowa, a group that opposes Summit’s project, filed a motion with the IUB on Tuesday to suspend its permit proceedings due to the company’s recent setbacks in other states.

North Dakota regulators denied its permit request last month, and South Dakota denied a permit last week. Those states are critical to the project because North Dakota is the destination for the captured carbon dioxide.

“It makes no sense for the IUB to continue Summit’s hearing,” wrote Ed Fallon, a former Democratic state lawmaker from Des Moines, who leads Bold Iowa.

The board has rejected similar requests, noting that the permit processes in other states do not affect Iowa’s.

GOP lawmakers: Subpoena Bruce Rastetter

Also on Tuesday, a group of Republican state lawmakers joined a pending motion to subpoena Bruce Rastetter, the co-founder of Summit. His testimony is sought to elaborate on the ownership of the company.

The Republican Legislative Intervenors for Justice “believe the general public and, particularly, all citizens of Iowa have a right to know the identity of the persons who are to be in control of the pipeline, should it ever be constructed and caused to be operational,” wrote Rep. Charley Thomson, R-Charles City, who is an attorney.

He continued: “Even if this pipeline proposal were free of disputes on due process and allegations of the appearance of impropriety, the potential risks to public safety involved in this proposal would merit careful public scrutiny of the pipeline’s ownership. The possibility that the pipeline may turn out to be part of a larger effort to manipulate various agricultural markets and/or restrain free competition in various areas of Iowa’s economy make the sworn examination of Mr. Rastetter imperative.”

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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.