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Pipeline company wants permit decision in Iowa by year’s end

Aug 06, 2023Aug 06, 2023

Erik Helland is the new chairperson of the Iowa Utilities Board. (Screenshot of IUB meeting livestream)

The Iowa Utilities Board should determine whether or not to grant Summit Carbon Solutions a permit for its multistate carbon dioxide pipeline by the end of the year, an attorney for the company argued Tuesday.

"Iowa was the first state in which an application was filed," said Bret Dublinske, a Des Moines attorney who represents the company. "Even with an end-of-the-year schedule, Iowa will still likely be the last state to issue an order."

Summit's pipeline proposal is one of three pending in Iowa, and it is the furthest along in the permit process. The project would span five states, including about 680 miles in northern and western Iowa.

The board has not set a final permit hearing for Summit, which will go for weeks. The board's former chairperson had said the hearing would begin in late October and conclude in December at the earliest, although it was unclear whether the permit decision would have been made that month.

Gov. Kim Reynolds indicated in April that now-former chairperson Geri Huser — who had overseen Summit's permit process since it began in August 2021 — would be replaced as the head of the three-person board. Huser could have remained on the board until at least 2027 when her term was set to expire, but she resigned less than a week after the announcement.

That was effective April 30, according to her resignation letter.

"As my term as chair expires on that date, I feel it is appropriate to submit this resignation for the same date that your new appointee will begin his term," Huser wrote to Reynolds.

Her successor as chairperson, Erik Helland, indicated during a Tuesday board meeting that this year's harvest would not impede the permit process. Pipeline opponents and others — including the influential Iowa Farm Bureau Federation — have said holding the permit hearing during October would limit farmers’ availability to attend the hearing because they are busy working in their fields.

Helland, who is an attorney and said he grew up on a farm, said it is difficult to schedule the hearing during farm downtime because farmers are busy throughout the year.

"It is not lost on me that harvest is a brutal time, but it's also not lost on me that there is no good time," he said.

The Office of Consumer Advocate, several counties, the Sierra Club of Iowa and landowners who oppose Summit's pipeline said Tuesday the permit hearing should be held next year, perhaps after spring planting concludes.

Christina Gruenhagen, a Farm Bureau attorney who specializes in government relations, asked the board to "avoid May and October, because those are the very busiest months for the people that are going to be impacted by this pipeline."

Dublinske said that having a decision on the permit by the end of the year would help farmers plan for pipeline construction activities that might disrupt their land during growing season. He said requests for delays are merely meant to kill the project. Opponents said the board needs more time to gather information before making a decision.

Board members did not say when the permit hearing is likely to begin. Rather, they will issue a written order that lays out the schedule.

The board issued a partial scheduling order in May that set deadlines for certain aspects of the application process. The order also suggested providing mediators to landowners who have not signed land easements with Summit to help facilitate those negotiations.

There are about 1,000 parcels — or about 30% of the pipeline route in Iowa — for which Summit has not obtained voluntary easements that might be subject to eminent domain. That has the potential to elongate the final permit hearing, when the eminent domain requests are individually considered.

But to offer the help of mediators to landowners has led to a "perception that somehow the board is saying that they have to or at least should engage in mediation," said Wally Taylor, of the Sierra Club.

Helland dismissed that perception, saying it's merely an offer to provide a "neutral platform" for negotiations.

"There's a lot of stress with something weighing on your head, and sometimes all that is needed is a conversation," he said. "So our proposal was simply an offer."

Whether the IUB will offer mediators to landowners remained unclear on Tuesday. It is expected to issue an order that addresses the proposal soon.

Several landowners in the path of the proposed pipeline told the board Tuesday they have no interest in mediation.

"Why would you add to the harassment that we are already suffering?" said Cynthia Hansen, a Shelby County landowner and prominent opponent of the project. "When is ‘no’ accepted as ‘no’? How many times do we have to say no? My answer in 2021 for an easement was ‘no.’ My answer today is ‘no.’ My answer tomorrow and any days forward will be a resounding ‘no.’ Our land is not for sale."

by Jared Strong, Iowa Capital Dispatch June 6, 2023

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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.