Iowa is the battle ground where the fate of world’s largest proposed carbon capture and storage pipeline is being decided. Summit Carbon Solutions intends to build a 2,000-mile pipeline to carry CO2 captured from ethanol plants across five states, to eventually inject and store it underground in North Dakota to supposedly reduce carbon emissions. But who truly stands to gain if the pipeline is built? A November 2022 report from the Oakland Institute, The Great Carbon Boondoggle, unmasked the billion-dollar financial interests and high-level political ties driving the project—despite opposition from a large and diverse coalition of Indigenous groups, farmers, and environmentalists.
The promoters of the project have failed to reckon with the evidence exposing carbon capture and storage (CCS) as a false climate solution. CCS projects have systematically overpromised and underdelivered. Despite billions of taxpayer dollars spent on CCS to date, the technology has failed to significantly reduce CO2 emissions, as it has "not been proven feasible or economic at scale." Crucially, the ability to capture and safely contain CO2 permanently underground is a dangerous uncertainty given CO2 must be stored for thousands of years without leaking to effectively reduce emissions.
Having failed to persuade enough landowners in Iowa to sign voluntary easements to construct the pipeline, Summit is now hoping to obtain the land through eminent domain, which will be decided by the three-member Iowa Utilities Board (IUB). There are legitimate concerns about the independence of the IUB given the connections each member has to Summit and its CEO, Bruce Rastetter—an agribusiness baron and conservative political influencer with a record of prioritizing profit over the public good. Though officially mandated to ensure Iowans benefit from infrastructure projects, the IUB has a troubling history of supporting controversial projects, including the Dakota Access Pipeline.
On January 17, 2023, a coalition of community organizations in Iowa delivered the Oakland Institute's exposé to the IUB, Summit's lawyer, and Governor Reynolds at the Iowa State Capitol. They made clear their opposition to carbon pipelines and called for meaningful action. Jaylen Cavil, Advocacy Director for the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement, started off the public comment with a resounding message to the IUB:
"Remember it is not just white landowners in rural Iowa who are concerned about these carbon pipelines, it is Black, Indigenous, and migrant Iowans across the state, who are concerned about the harmful impacts that these pipelines will have because of environmental racism… Do not just continue to pad the pockets of those who have put you in the seats. We know there are conflicts of interest here and we are asking you to ignore those and please listen to your mission and please do what is right for all Iowans."
Summit faces formidable opposition from Indigenous communities, who were not adequately consulted and are all too familiar with the devastation such projects bring. They are alarmed by the influx of transient pipeline construction workers. "Man-camps" built to house out-of-state workers for large construction, fossil fuel, or natural resource extraction projects in the past, increased violence towards Indigenous communities, especially women. The project poses additional threats to tribal reservations and Indigenous communities living near the pipeline route, including land degradation, disturbance to sacred sites, and the threat of a pipeline rupture. Commitment to protect the land and their communities is driving the mobilization of Indigenous groups.
Sikowis Nobiss, Founder and Executive Director of the Great Plains Action Society, let the IUB know what is at stake if they allow Summit to seize land for their project. "Eminent domain does not just affect the largely white landowner contingent that Summit is bullying for land," Nobiss said. " It affects every single person, living thing, and waterway in the state. There are urban centers, rural communities, and migrant towns that have not heard a thing about these pipelines, as the IUB is not making an effort to reach out to them."
Despite this opposition, the pipeline remains under consideration due to the wealthy financial interests backing the project. Summit's investors—a number of whom have a history of failed ventures and illicit financial conduct—are powerful entities who stand to make large gains from the project. Despite Summit's claims that the pipeline "will be good for our environment," several of them are embroiled in the fossil fuel industry. Key investors include TPG Rise Climate Fund (US$300 million); oil giant Continental Resources, Inc (US$250 million); Tiger Infrastructure Partners (US$100 million); and the South Korean natural gas firm SK E&S (US$110 million). Deere & Company, Summit Agriculture Group, and partner ethanol plants have also invested undisclosed amounts.
Investors have backed the project, lured by the massive profits they expect from the federal government. The project's economic profitability relies heavily on federal tax credits, grants and loans, and state-led incentives like low-carbon fuel markets. Whereas Summit boasts about the project's contribution to tax revenue, claiming it will pay $371 million in federal, state, and local taxes between 2022 and 2024, it will actually claim over $1 billion in 45Q tax credits annually—or $12 billion over a 12-year period. Recent federal legislation – including the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act—pours money into carbon sequestration projects as a key strategy to reduce emissions. This flow of public money effectively subsidizes both the fossil fuel and ethanol industries to produce more fuel. While ethanol has been touted as better for the environment, recent research shows that it is actually 24 percent more carbon-intensive than gasoline. Even worse, the 45Q tax credit does not require the carbon to be permanently stored, allowing it to be used in a process called enhanced oil recovery (EOR), where instead of storing the captured carbon, it is injected into depleted underground oil reservoirs to boost oil production. Currently, an astonishing 95 percent of captured carbon is in the U.S. is used for EOR.
After delivering the report and public comments to the IUB, the delegation visited Summit's lawyer and confronted him with the report. The day of mobilization concluded at the Iowa State Capitol where speakers from Great Plains Action Society, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Food & Water Watch, and high-school to elderly citizens shared the numerous reasons for their opposition. The chants of "Hey-Hey-Ho-Ho, These Carbon Pipelines Got to Go!" echoed in the legislative chambers with the message that the people will not be ignored.
If the Midwest Carbon Express is built, residents across the Midwest will bear the risks associated with the pipeline—potential leaks and ruptures, decreased property and crop values, increased violence against Indigenous Peoples—while Summit Carbon Solutions, its financial backers, and Bruce Rastetter will reap the profits. This is why, despite the David vs. Goliath nature of this fight, impacted communities across the Midwest have taken a stand and will not back down until this project is defeated.