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Crowd at Sioux Falls meeting expresses skepticism about proposed carbon pipeline

Landowners told organizers of the Midwest Carbon Express Project they doubted science on carbon sequestration, suspected federal tax credits were the real objective, and would sue. The Public Utilities Commission has until February 2023 to approve or deny the project's application.

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Concerned citizens packed the Ramkota ballroom in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on Wednesday, March 23, 2022, to hear a public presentation by the ownership of the Midwest Carbon Express Project.
Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — At one point on Wednesday, March 23, Jimmy Powell, the leader of a proposed carbon pipeline , held the microphone closely to his mouth so everyone in the packed hotel ballroom could hear him.

"Is this better?"

The ensuing applause was about the warmest reception he and leadership of Midwest Carbon Express Project would receive all night.

The South Dakota Public Utilities Commission on Wednesday held a public meeting about a proposed 2,000-mile pipeline that would, if approved, ferry carbon from more than 30 ethanol plants across the Upper Midwest to a sequestration dig in northwestern North Dakota.

But many of the hundreds who gathered had already made up their mind they were opposed to the project.

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Iowa-based Summit Carbon Solutions have said in their 129-page permit application that the project would be the "largest and single most meaningful technology-based" clean energy carbon-reducer in the world.

But even those members of the public who said they'd considered the project with an open mind wcere, by Wednesday, now in opposition.

"I've evolved into not being in favor of this project," said Minnehaha County Commissioner Jeff Barth, who stepped up first to the temperamental microphone.

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The audience listens to a speaker on Wednesday, March 23, 2022 at the Ramkota Hotel in Sioux Falls during a South Dakota Public Utilities Commission public meeting on a proposed carbon pipeline.
Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service

Barth said the county's population, which encompasses much of Sioux Falls, could someday number 1 million, and he saw better carbon capture technologies, such as Texas company Occidental Petroleum's so-called "direct air capture" plants .

Other landowners, such as Rick Bonander of Valley Springs, South Dakota, seemed less skeptical of renewable energy pathways.

"Have you heard we're going electric?" he mused to the PUC, drawing laughter from the audience.

Chris Hall, Summit Carbon's director of environmental and permitting, responded that the crowd needed to "think critically" about reducing carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Hall said gasoline — and thus, ethanol — will still be relied upon even if every car runs on electricity.

Bonander appeared unmoved, vowing to fight the company "tooth and nail."

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Summit Carbon leadership says the pipeline would cost $785 million to build across South Dakota, beginning in the southeast corner and exiting into North Dakota. Along the way, spurs would connect to ethanol plants in Watertown and Madison.

Summit Carbon also says the pipeline will help over 30 ethanol plants from the Dakotas to Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois become carbon neutral. Environmentally, they suggest the pipeline is the equivalent of removing the emissions of 2.5 million cars from highways annually.

A growing body of research has darkened the cloud of ethanol's future. A new study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that ethanol is 24% more carbon-intensive than traditional gasoline, and Summit Carbon's representatives on Wednesday suggested sequestering the emissions kicked out by the corn-to-fuel plants could be necessary to maintain the industry's viability in the future.

The project has secured investments from John Deere and Continental Resources, and counts among its advisers former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who served as the Trump administration's ambassador to China.

"We've all seen the momentum building across our globe, across our nation for the reduction of carbon emissions," Hall said at the outset of Wednesday's meeting. "We are not here to debate that trend or those more global policy decisions."

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Chris Nelson, commissioner with the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, addresses a crowd in Sioux Falls on March 23, 2022, gathered to hear about a proposed carbon pipeline.
Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service

Hall said the carbon pipeline will help keep ethanol plants competitive, saying a "do nothing alternative" is not a viable solution for an industry that eats up over half of every bushel of corn grown in South Dakota.

But the public, many of whom have been contacted by the company as early as last August about a pipeline potentially running through their property, seemed skeptical that they'd receive a fair monetary value for their easement from the company. And they doubted the goals of the project.

"How come one of the biggest ethanol producers in South Dakota (POET) isn't on board with you guys?" asked Robert Geary, of Elk Point, South Dakota. Powell said the company was talking to POET.

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Oran Sorenson, of Garretson, South Dakota, said he suspected that Summit Carbon actually sought federal tax credits for carbon sequestration.

"I don't believe we should be altering our lifestyle even a little bit to line some people's pockets," Sorenson said to more applause.

The PUC has until February 2023 to accept or deny the pipeline application. State Treasurer Josh Haeder is sitting in for commissioner Kristie Fiegen who has recused herself.

If the PUC accepts the pipeline, eminent domain will become a legal tool for Summit Carbon to obtain land from unwilling property owners.

Powell, however, tried to assure the crowd they preferred what he termed "voluntary easement acquisition."

"We're striving for 100%," Powell said. "And that's a difficult chore because we know we're buying something that's not for sale."

Once again, the crowd and the pipeline company seemed on the same page.

Christopher Vondracek is the South Dakota correspondent for Forum News Service. Contact Vondracek at cvondracek@forumcomm.com , or follow him on Twitter: @ChrisVondracek .

MORE FROM CHRISTOPHER VONDRACEK:
The state's biggest political leaders have touted inbound migration, so-called "blue state refugees" who flooded South Dakota. But the biggest driver of partisan races this coming summer and fall appears to be a redistricting process, log-jamming Republicans in primaries and opening up new turf for Democrats.

Christopher Vondracek covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at cvondracek@forumcomm.com or follow him on Twitter at @ChrisVondracek.
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