LAMBERTON, Minn. — One of the world’s largest planned carbon storage projects is hitting resistance in rural Minnesota as an Iowa company tries to entice landowners to allow a carbon dioxide pipeline to run under their fields.
Summit Carbon Solutions, which is developing the $5.2 billion “Midwest Carbon Express,” has been promising to pay farmers and other landowners for easements, in some cases dangling five-figure signing bonuses.
A company executive said Summit has secured about half the easements it needs in Minnesota. Even so, pushback was evident in this small southwest Minnesota farm town during a Monday evening in January where about 120 people, mostly landowners, packed the American Legion hall for a two-hour community meeting on carbon pipelines.
Summit’s project would capture carbon dioxide emitted by more than 30 ethanol plants in five states, and transport the highly-pressurized fluid carbon dioxide to North Dakota, where it would be injected underground for permanent storage. Lamberton is home to one of those plants, Highwater Ethanol.
Supporters say every possible approach must be taken to cut greenhouse gas emissions; opponents call carbon pipelines a false climate solution that continues fossil fuel reliance.
The January meeting was organized by Carbon Pipelines Minnesota, an opposition group run by Clean Up the River Environment (CURE), a Montevideo-based environmental nonprofit focused on rural communities. The group has been rallying landowners facing whether to sign an easement with Summit, whose pipeline would run about 240 miles in Minnesota.
The main message at the meeting: Landowners need to carefully weigh the risks, and negotiate a fair deal if they decide to sign.
“This is a community issue, not just a private landowner issue, because it will affect all of us,” CURE director Peg Furshong told the crowd.
Landowners are questioning the global warming benefits and safety of piping and sequestering carbon dioxide, as well as the terms of the easement agreements. There’s also distaste with how the land agents for Summit have dealt with landowners. The state has ordered a full environmental review of the pipeline, which is not yet approved.
“Frosting on a cow pie” is how one farmer from Wabasso, Minn., described the easement agreement Summit gave him.
In filings at the state Public Utilities Commission, some property owners said they have revoked permission for land surveys and instructed Summit to stop contacting them. One Jackson County landowner wrote of having to chase agents off her land.
At the meeting, Furshong touched on the carbon dioxide pipeline that burst after heavy rains in 2020 near Satartia, Miss., injuring more than 40 people. She also called the amount of carbon dioxide that Summit says it will sequester each year “a drop in a 5-gallon bucket,” given the volume of carbon dioxide that needs to be removed from the atmosphere to slow global warming.
Two Minnesota landowners told the crowd how their crop land never fully recovered from easements for past pipeline or powerline projects. Removing topsoil destroys the soil structure, and heavy equipment can compact it, they said. Bob Ruebel, a landowner near Olivia, Minn., told the room that two decades later the yields on those easement lands are still down 30% to 35%, and the company stopped paying for those losses.
“You folks should not be subsidizing their pipeline,” Ruebel told the attendees. “You’ve got to get up and do something, folks, or they are going to run you over.”
There was keen interest in the maps CURE hung at the back of the room showing which landowners had signed easements in local counties. CURE has been tracking signed easements through county clerk offices where they are filed. By its count, about 240 have signed in Minnesota.
In an interview, Summit Chief Operating Officer Jimmy Powell said 240 sounds about right. Powell said the project is making progress, and asserted that the pipeline will be safe as the carbon dioxide is not combustible, and that the opposition in Lamberton is no greater than anywhere else.
Powell declined to discuss financial terms or bonuses, but said the company is paying “a significant premium” to landowners in the easement deals that is “two to three times land values.” The agreements place few restrictions on landowners, he said.
Powell said that stories about aggressive agents don’t make sense. Minnesota is the only state Summit is crossing where it doesn’t have eminent domain power, he said, and his company’s only leverage is being respectful.
“We are trying to acquire 2,000 miles of right-of-way in 18 months,” he said. “I don’t know that’s ever been done before.”
Summit’s carbon pipeline is one of two proposed to cross Minnesota. The other, from Texas-based Navigator CO2 Ventures, would reach about 12 miles into Minnesota and run to a storage site in Illinois.
Summit’s project aims to remove up to 18 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, making the ethanol from the plants cleaner, and eligible for low-carbon fuel standards in states such as California. Carbon pipelines got a major boost from the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, the country’s landmark climate legislation, which upped the tax credit for carbon captured from industrial facilities and stored underground. The credit went from $50 per ton to $85 per ton, money Summit would pocket.
Several attendees at the January meeting bemoaned the subsidy.
In an earlier interview, one local resident said she regrets signing an easement. Kerri Zimmerman, a school bus driver whose family farms near Lamberton, said she didn’t know anything about the carbon pipeline when she signed an easement agreement last fall and accepted the $26,000 bonus check the company agent had in his hand.
Zimmerman said she “wasn’t my usual self” when the agent came to her house in August because she had been recovering from surgery.
“We didn’t even know what questions to ask,” she said, adding that the bonus money is sitting in the bank in a certificate of deposit.
“I would gladly give it back to undo it,” she said.
Anita Vogel, a Lamberton resident and landowner who opened the meeting, also rues her family’s interaction with Summit. She accused a Summit agent of taking advantage of her 76-year-old mother when he came to the house last spring. It was the day her mother was arranging for her father, who suffers from vascular dementia, to return from a nursing home after a difficult week of ER visits and hospitalization. She signed the easement “to get them off of her back because she was trying to care for my dad,” Vogel said.
Summit’s Powell said his understanding was that Vogel’s mother was not alone, that a daughter-in-law was present and they were “comfortable” with the signing. “We think her mother was very capable,” he said.
Vogel said her sisters-in-law deny that either of them were present.
Luckily, Vogel said, the deal was null because the land is held in a trust and an easement would require multiple signatures, including hers, and she won’t sign.
Vogel said the sum and signing bonus Summit offered their mother was inadequate for an easement in perpetuity.
Vogel provided a copy of the email she sent the agent in July telling him about her concerns. Vogel wrote that neither he nor Summit Carbon Solutions was welcome on the family’s property, and that she did not want them to contact her again. The company has honored that request.
Vogel is among of about a dozen landowners who have lodged verbal or written complaints to the Attorney General’s Office, according to Furshong.
This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an editorially independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in partnership with Report For America and funded by the Walton Family Foundation. Investigate Midwest is part of this network.
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