Public not sold on Navigator pipeline despite attempts to build landowner trust
After filing papers with the Public Utilities Commission in late September, Navigator CO2, which is looking to build a 1300-mile pipeline across parts of the Midwest, completed their legally-required public input meetings along the short route in South Dakota. Landowners oppose the pipeline on safety and economic concerns.
SIOUX FALLS — At each of a trio of public input meetings last week regarding the proposed carbon sequestration pipeline by Navigator CO2, one attendee asked the crowd to raise their hand if they were in favor of moving ahead with the project.
And, between the three meetings held in Canton, Flandreau and Sioux Falls on Nov. 21 and 22, only a handful were in favor out of the more than 400 total attendees.
Elizabeth Burns-Thompson, the vice president of government and public affairs with Navigator CO2, who led presentations and answered questions at all three meetings, said it was an important part of building a partnership with the owners of land in the proposed pipeline route.
“There is a lot of value in the big informational meetings that we did with the PUC,” Burns-Thompson said. “I think the greatest value comes in being able to sit down one on one with landowners and have them see that we are there to listen.”
Filing paperwork with the Public Utilities Commission on Sept. 27, Navigator is the second player in what could become a gold rush for sequestering excess carbon from ethanol plants around the Midwest in exchange for billions in federal tax credits.
Unlike the proposal by Summit Carbon Solutions, which goes through a large swath of eastern South Dakota and deposits carbon in North Dakota, the Navigator pipeline’s footprint in South Dakota currently encompasses just over 100 miles through five counties in the southeast portion of the state. Burns-Thompson said the project is planning to expand to other POET locations in Mitchell, Groton and Big Stone City.
The majority of the 1,300 miles of proposed pipeline travels through Iowa and will deposit carbon in Illinois.
Navigator responds to economic, safety concerns
In deciding whether to give a permit to these proposed pipelines, Public Utilities Commission Chair Chris Nelson says the general permitting process is an inquiry into whether the “health, safety, welfare and economy can be maintained” if the pipeline is built.
Opponents of the project at the meetings gave a resounding “no” to this question, in part on economic grounds.
In addition to a high investment in construction beginning as early as 2024, Burns-Thompson and other proponents point out that sequestering excess carbon from ethanol production can allow the product to be sold at a premium in a growing number of states like California that have passed low-emission fuel standards.
Bev Nelson, a farmer from Valley Springs who opposes the pipeline, told Forum News Service this would only mean increased profits for ethanol producers, and that those dollars would not be passed to South Dakota’s farmers in the form of higher prices.
In addition, Nelson, who owns farmland on the proposed route, said the construction process could do long-term damage to topsoil and thus the productivity of important farmland.
“It's been six, seven years since [the Dakota Access] pipelines went in, and they still don't have their crop productivity back,” Nelson said.
But the main thrust of opposition relates to safety. Donald Johnson, the fire chief in Valley Springs, said at the Sioux Falls meeting that the largely volunteer emergency services in rural areas of the pipeline route do not have the gear to effectively respond to a potential carbon leak, which could cause asphyxiation.
Burns-Thompson emphasized to Forum News Service that the Navigator pipeline would put safety first, adding that pipelines are the “safest means” of transporting liquified carbon.
The opposition points to an incident in Mississippi in 2020 in which a carbon pipeline leaked and put dozens of people in the hospital. The federal body in charge of these pipelines is still in a rulemaking process regarding how to make them safer.
Johnson warned that the colorless, odorless carbon gas could travel to population centers even if the leak occurs in a rural area.
“If this thing leaks, carbon is heavier than air, so it's going to stay on the ground,” Johnson said at the Nov. 22 meeting in Sioux Falls. “And it's called Valley Springs for a reason. There's a valley. That gas is going to lay in the valley and float down to Brandon and Sioux Falls.”
Next steps involve both public and private actors
With the required public input meetings in the rearview, Burns-Thompson said the next steps include biological and other surveys on land in the project footprint — surveys which Nelson called “invasive” and are under scrutiny in Iowa. The company is also working to negotiate voluntary easements with some 300 landowners on the route.
Nelson said that, despite this appearance of goodwill, some landowners feel the company has not always been congenial in their dealings with individuals.
The problem is they sometimes just show up at people's doors, their homes, without invitation without notification, they just show up,” Nelson said.
On another point of contention, Burns-Thompson said the prospect of eminent domain, which has been a rallying cry among some opponents, is not something that Navigator CO2 wants to deal in.
“It doesn’t save us money and involves a lot of litigation. And it also doesn't make us any friends,” Burns-Thompson said about eminent domain, which would require individual lawsuits and could only happen after a permit is approved. “The optimization of your time and your financial resource, and making sure that the people you're doing business with like you, are critically important to operating a business.”
Another party that could have an impact on the construction is the county commissions in the footprint of the project. A handful of counties in the northeast part of the state have implemented moratoriums as they mull over rules related to the Summit Carbon pipeline.
Joel Arends, a commissioner in Lincoln County, said the body was hesitant to institute setback or depth requirements without requisite knowledge about pipeline safety and engineering.
Arends is also worried about individual counties creating a patchwork of hard-to-follow rules, potentially opening themselves up to lawsuits in the process.
“That's exactly the kind of government overreach and incompetence that county commissions should not be engaged in,” Arends said.
Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.