Published March 4, 2022

Carbon Capture Pipeline: The Farmer's Side of the Story

Written by
Charlene Nelson
| The Dakotan
North Dakota landscape [Photo: North Dakota Tourism]
North Dakota landscape [Photo: North Dakota Tourism]

By all accounts the proposed carbon capture pipeline that Summit Carbon Solutions plans to build through five states (North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa) will have a positive impact on North Dakota's economy, agriculture, and the environment. It promises to create more than 14,000 construction jobs in the region, as well as hundreds of permanent jobs.

The 2000 mile long pipeline will capture 12 Million metric tons per annum (Mmtpa) of CO2 every year, with the capacity to eventually capture 20 Mmtpa. With carbon capture of this magnitude, farmers, ethanol plants, and oil producers can all reduce their carbon footprint. According to Governor Doug Burgum, that's like taking 2.6 million cars off the road.

But not everyone is happy with the project. There are three groups of people that are concerned about this project: farmers and landowners, taxpayer watchdog groups, and, most surprisingly, environmental groups.

Poor communication, below market compensation, concerns about drain tile, the threat of eminent domain and forcing farmers to assume liabilities leaves local farmers dubious about this project. They see the project has the full backing of state government and now, with the announcement that the state's wealthiest businessman is investing $250 million into the project, some farmers say they feel that they are voiceless in how the project moves forward.

Rep. Cindy Schreiber-Beck, R-Dis. 25, Wahpeton, says she's gotten several calls from constituents in Richland County who are upset about the project. She says there are many who feel that they are being railroaded into something they don't understand and might not agree with.

“The company's initial contacts with my constituents was not very diplomatic. Summit Carbon Solutions (SCS) will have to do a lot of bridge mending if they want to move forward with this,” she says.

Todd McMichael of Casselton is spokesman for a group of 40-50 landowners, most of them in Richland County. They say they are unhappy with how SCS has dealt with them. McMichael says that landowners had no knowledge of the pipeline until they received a letter notifying them that a “civil, archaeological, and biological survey” would be done on their property.

It took quite a bit of digging before they learned what the survey was for. And the more they learned, the more concerned they became.

“This company has held thirty meetings with legislators in the last couple years, but there has been only two public meetings with landowners,” McMichael said, leading landowners to feel that they have no voice in the process.

Daryl Lies, president of North Dakota Farm Bureau, expressed similar dismay over the negotiations. “Any project of this magnitude is going to have a lot of details to iron out. The difference between this pipeline and the Dakota Access Pipeline is that DAPL actually got into a room with the all the landowners and negotiated an agreement everyone could live with.”

Lies says he's even more disappointed in SCS,  because “the owners are supposedly ag-based and yet they're treating the farmers so badly.”

In addition to poor negotiation, the compensation SCS is paying for the easements is “garbage, and you can quote me on that,” says McMichael. SCS offered to pay McMichael $3.80 per foot of his pastureland. But according to McMichael, the Bureau of Land Trust says that the value of his land is $21.21 per foot, almost six times as much.

While landowners balk at being paid below market prices, they say they are concerned that SCS will just bypass all negotiation and claim eminent domain. North Dakota passed a constitutional measure in 2006 that prohibits using eminent domain to take property “for the use of, or ownership by, any private individual or entity, unless that property is necessary for conducting a common carrier or utility business.”

And therein lies the rub. Is SCS a private company or is it a public utility? McMichael and Schrieber-Beck say they believe it's a private company, and SCS should not be able to secure easements using eminent domain. But, Schreiber-Beck says that SCS could easily petition the Public Service Commission (PSC) to be recognized as a pubic utility. That would open the door for SCS to invoke eminent domain if landowners are reluctant to grant easements.

Schrieber-Beck said she was doubtful that SCS would go to the PSC. She said she thinks the project would be better off with the company engaging in good faith negotiation. But public records show that SCS is already pursuing eminent domain in Iowa. In February SCS petitioned the Iowa Utilities Board for permission to use eminent domain. This action in Iowa leads many farmers in North Dakota to think that they will be railroaded into easement contracts they don't want.

Lies says that the Farm Bureau is against any infringement on property rights and is especially opposed to the use of quick claim eminent domain. 

One farmer from Casselton who asked not to be named said that he was concerned about damage to his drain tile from pipeline construction. “They say they'll fix it if it's damaged, but we have no guarantees,” he said. With drain tile costing up to $1200/acre to install, their investment could be irreparably harmed. “We've heard the promises, [to fix damaged drain tile] but we don't feel that we can rely on those promises”, this farmer said.

One reason farmers distrust the promises to repair damaged drain tile is that at many sites SCS wants to place the pipeline in the middle of fields instead of at the edge of fields, where construction will be less likely to damage the tiles. The farmers say they feel that putting the pipeline at the perimeter of the field is not only a reasonable concession, it also gives them the assurance that if there is any damage, it will be minimal.

Another concern is that the current language in the easements says all of the liability falls upon the land owner. “If pipe ruptures and harms a person or if livestock or pets perish, all of the liability falls upon the landowner. Insurance companies have a pollution exclusion clause in their policies because CO2 is considered a pollutant. So the landowner is not covered. All liability for the easement rests with the farmers,” says McMichael.

So far, most of the opposition is among Richland County landowners, but as word spreads, farmers in other counties say they are becoming concerned, and opposition to the pipeline is growing. One farmer, who asked to not be named, said that none of these problems are insurmountable. He says he hopes that SCS will approach landowners with a more even-handed approach to the negotiations, so that everyone benefits as the project moves forward. 

Related stories:

Carbon Capture Project Comes to North Dakota

Carbon Capture Project: The Environmentalists' Side

Carbon Capture Project: The Taxpayer's Side

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