Strange Bedfellows: Farmers and Big Greens square off against Biden and the GOP

·20 min read

HARDIN COUNTY, Iowa — Kathy Stockdale is no climate activist. The corn and soybean grower and conservative Christian says God controls the weather — “not the carbon dioxide.”

Until now, Stockdale and her husband Ray couldn’t imagine linking arms with the Sierra Club, a critic of the corn ethanol industry and an environmental ally of President Joe Biden.

But in this overwhelmingly Republican part of central Iowa, farmers who sell their crop to ethanol makers, like the Stockdales, have been thrust into Biden’s search for a climate policy that both slashes greenhouse gas emissions and satisfies crosscutting political interests.

At the center of the drama are three proposed carbon dioxide pipelines — greenhouse gas superhighways that would traverse the nation’s breadbasket, carrying emissions from ethanol refineries to storage in underground rock formations in North Dakota and Illinois.

Standing behind one $4.5 billion project is Iowa’s Republican kingmaker and agribusiness mogul Bruce Rastetter, who has made a pitch to farmers and to the Trump-era GOP. Capturing climate pollution from dozens of ethanol refineries across the Corn Belt is good for business, he says, and will help biofuels compete in a low-carbon economy.

But just as the pipeline would slice through Iowa’s prized cornfields, it also cuts against the usual grain of American politics and flips age-old alliances on their head.

Conservative farmers are teaming up with the Sierra Club in open rebellion against the ethanol industry. They fear a pipeline running under their land could ruin their crop yield and potentially expose their families to a hazardous gas.

And the Sierra Club is targeting a Democratic White House eager to bring federal bucks to Iowa and anywhere else willing to invest big on solving the climate problem. The environmental group is pushing back against the idea that any technology that can drive down heat-trapping carbon emissions deserves a place in Biden’s policy playbook.

Progressives are upset about Biden’s openness to a decadeslong GOP talking point — carbon capture and storage technology, or CCS, or “clean coal” — the idea that climate pollution can be bagged and eradicated forever at its source: whether it’s a coal plant or an ethanol refinery.

For Biden, though, CCS is a critical bargaining chip as he negotiates with Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia and pivotal moderates over a $500 billion plan for addressing climate change.

But for farmers like the Stockdales, who oppose the pipeline as both unnecessary and a scar on their landscape, Biden is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. And they’ll take allies wherever they can find them.

“I told God that I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to be involved at first and he said, ‘No. I want you to,’” Kathy Stockdale says. “Because the land ultimately belongs to him and I need to take care of it. It is our responsibility.”

Dried stalks from last year’s corn harvest scraped the bottom of the four-wheeler barreling across the Stockdales farm on a frigid morning last month. The family has worked the land here about an hour and a half north of Des Moines for a century.

After a wet, cold spring, Ray and Kathy were getting ready to plant 500 acres.

Until recently, the Stockdales, both in their 70s, and their 37-year-old son Kurtis, would have said that what is good for ethanol is good for the family.

Now, they aren’t so sure.

On that April morning, when the four-wheeler came to a stop on a patch of soggy black soil between their family homes, Ray and Kathy talked about the future of their farm.

“The land, the farm, the ethanol, it becomes a part of you,” Kathy said. “So, it’s a Catch-22, because I’m for the ethanol, but I’m not for the carbon sequestration.”

Summit Carbon Solutions, financed by a Rastetter company, plans to capture 12 million metric tons of carbon a year from the smokestacks of ethanol makers in five Midwestern states. That’s roughly equivalent to trapping the emissions of a large coal-fired power plant. The 2,000-mile pipeline, called the Midwest Carbon Express, would transport the heat-trapping gas to North Dakota to be permanently sequestered underground.

Company maps show the pipeline diagonally crossing the Stockdale farm. Other than Rastetter, its leadership team represents the who’s who of Iowa’s political establishment, among them a former governor and the son of the U.S. agriculture secretary.

Summit’s project could end up being the poster child for the technology-driven and infrastructure-heavy solution to climate change that is now a pillar of Biden’s strategy for achieving deep emissions reductions. But that bipartisan Beltway vision doesn’t take into account folks like the Stockdales, who feel betrayed by politicians and the ethanol industry they worked with for decades.

Now the Stockdales and other farming families across Iowa trying to stop the pipeline are turning to familiar playbooks. Over a decade, a well-organized anti-fossil fuel movement successfully derailed the Keystone XL pipeline expansion that would have carried more Canadian oil to the Gulf Coast.

The push to stop Summit is the biggest campaign to slow a major pipeline project since 2016, when small towns became the unlikely sites for public protests against Dakota Access, an oil pipeline out of the shale fields of North Dakota.

‘Techno-optimism’

The swell of on-the-ground resistance to the Summit project is a warning sign: Pipelines, electric transmission lines, offshore wind farms and everything that may power a future low-carbon economy — it’s all hard to build in America.

“There is a sense of techno-optimism in Washington that doesn’t fit with landowners’ reality on the ground,” said Wil Burns, a professor of environmental policy and culture at Northwestern University. “Whichever way it goes, it will send shock waves.”

In the era of divided government, Manchin of West Virginia, a coal-state Democrat, has outsize influence. He’s pushing for expanded tax credits for CCS — despite the epic technological and market failures, along with exorbitant costs, that have killed or mothballed projects in recent years.

Progressives and environmental groups like the Sierra Club have long opposed CCS, arguing it props up coal, oil, natural gas and some biofuels like ethanol that should be on their way out because of their climate-warming emissions. Rather, they say the world should be unflinching in its move to low- or no-carbon sources of power such as wind, solar and advanced batteries.

Environmental justice advocates have also taken issue with the Biden administration’s singular focus on carbon. A coal plant or oil refinery outfitted with expensive CCS technology would still pollute in other ways, from air toxins to water discharges. That pollution burden often falls on underserved communities of color.

But CCS remains a favorite climate solution for Republicans from states with a stake in the fossil fuel economy because it would keep coal and natural gas-burning plants and factories humming. And if they are ever built, tens of thousands of miles of CO2 pipelines crisscrossing the United States are lifelines for regions with jobs, profits and cultures tied to the dirtier sources of energy.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality wrote in a report to Congress last summer that “significant quantities” of carbon would have to be captured and stored to meet the president’s national goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

CCS, the White House report said, should be “a widely available, increasingly cost-effective and rapidly scalable climate solution across all industrial sectors.”

In response to questions, CEQ said there is “growing scientific consensus” that capturing carbon is “likely needed to prevent the worst impacts of climate change.”

It also responded to environmental justice critics. The White House agency said CCS deployment “can and should reduce emissions of other kinds of pollution” other than carbon dioxide, which would “protect communities from increases in cumulative pollution, and maintain and create good, union-friendly jobs across the country.”

But that’s seeing the bright side of a tortuous road.

Congress appropriated $7 billion between 2008 and 2016 to the Department of Energy so it could help advance carbon capture technology. But scaling it up enough to serve a power plant or a major polluter over the long term has proven difficult.

Big projects in Indiana, Mississippi and Texas were brought online and then shut down, after billions of dollars of investment. In 2020, NRG Energy Inc. mothballed the last remaining project capturing carbon emissions from a U.S. coal-fired power plant. The Petra Nova plant in Texas, one the biggest projects of its kind in the world, stopped shipping its carbon to nearby oil fields to help boost production due to collapsing oil prices.

The highest-profile collapse was the Kemper County power station in Mississippi, which tacked on $4 billion in cost overruns before Atlanta-based utility giant Southern Co. axed it in 2017. The project was never able to capture at a large scale the emissions from lignite coal.

The 65,000 miles of new carbon dioxide pipelines that would be required to meet the White House’s national goals is far more than the current capacity for moving carbon underground. There are just 5,000 miles of those pipelines in operation today. They’re largely concentrated along the Gulf Coast and in North Dakota.

‘It’s just helter-skelter’

The Biden administration has cited papers from the Great Plains Institute and Princeton University’s Net-Zero America project that envision “an interstate CO2 highway system.” They talk about building along existing rights of way carved out for other pipelines and telecommunications lines.

Congress has signed onto that deal, too, including funding in the $1 trillion infrastructure bill it passed in November to help finance large-capacity carbon pipeline projects.

But that vision isn’t exactly being followed in Hardin County.

A second proposed pipeline, the Heartland Greenway by Navigator CO2 Ventures, would also run under the Stockdale property. It would cross Summit’s pipeline 12 times in Iowa alone as it makes its way to a geological sink in Illinois. Both have asked Iowa regulators for eminent domain powers to build the pipelines even when landowners don’t agree.

Maps from Summit and Navigator show the pipelines are not sticking to existing rights of way. Individual landowners complaining about plans for the pipeline to cut diagonally across their farm fields and close to their homes have filed objections with the Iowa Utilities Board. A rural water district says the Summit plan would “cause damage to every water line crossed” in their area. And a school district says Navigator’s proposed route across their property would impede construction of already-planned school buildings.

A third project has been proposed from Wolf Carbon Solutions, but the company hasn’t yet filed for state-level approvals and detailed maps have yet to be released.

“It’s just helter-skelter, pipelines in one direction, another direction — there’s no rhyme or reason to it,” said Deb Lavalle, whose Hardin County land would be crossed by the Summit pipeline. “If they really think they need to do it, keep it in the public right of way, for heaven’s sake.”

Matt Fry, a policy manager at the Great Plains Institute, a think tank dedicated to climate change mitigation that supports CCS, acknowledged that the gap between what CCS backers envision and what’s been proposed could spell trouble for the technology as these projects “will set the tone for the whole industry.”

His group is polling Iowans to understand what future projects could do differently to gain more grassroots support. Part of the problem, they believe, is that the pipeline companies are mapping out routes before going to communities and landowners first.

“People are learning as they go,” he said.

‘I am a Christian’

Concerns about safety and crop yields — and a conviction that private companies should not be allowed to use eminent domain — run so deep among landowners that many are battling the pipeline alongside conservationists at the Sierra Club.

“We’ve been told we don’t agree on anything, but we’ve found quite a bit of common ground,” said Jess Mazour, a program coordinator at the group’s Iowa chapter.

Omaha-based attorney Brian Jorde, who helped organize landowners against the Keystone XL pipeline, is working with the Sierra Club, too. He and Mazour co-host weekly Zoom strategy sessions for landowners who oppose the pipeline. They’ve also filed legal documents with the Iowa Utilities Board accusing pipeline developers of not following the letters of the law.

The board still has to rule on eminent domain issues

“At the end of the day we just have to hope that the IUB has the courage to do the right thing for Iowa and not just for the millionaires backing this project,” Jorde said. “You have to place these projects under land, and that land is owned by real people who clearly do not want them.”

The alliance is dumbfounding to those who support the project.

Seth Harder is the CEO of Lincolnway Energy, an ethanol company with a refinery in Nevada, Iowa, next door to Hardin County. He says climate mitigation is one of the main reasons the company wants to connect its plant to the Summit pipeline.

“If we have this opportunity to capture the CO2 and put it back where it came from, we maybe have a duty to do that,” he said.

He said he can understand why landowners would be opposed to the use of eminent domain on principle but can’t fathom why environmental groups aren’t more supportive. “Like the Sierra Club,” he said. “I thought your job was to help us protect the Earth, not stop us from protecting the Earth.”

Some landowners are also struggling to wrap their heads around their new partners. Sitting at the kitchen table over deviled eggs and sloppy Joes on a recent afternoon, Theresa Thoms eyed her friend Kathy Stockdale skeptically when the idea of partnering with Jorde and the Sierra Club came up.

Thoms opposes the pipeline but hasn’t signed up. She doesn’t “agree with the whole climate change thing.” But Stockdale explained to her friend how her Christian faith has driven her to work closely with the environmental group, if only just this once.

“I have struggled with it myself, but I am a Christian and I look back to biblical times when God called Joseph to Egypt to work with them and fix things,” Stockdale said.

“Sometimes God calls us to do things that we really don’t want to do,” she explained, “and God made me a steward of the land and we have to do what we have to do to take care of it.”

Pipeline politics

The race to build the pipelines comes with a big prize.

Expanded tax credits are changing the financial calculus for companies. And it feels like a small gold rush.

Any project that begins construction by 2026 can earn a $50 credit for each metric ton of carbon captured and sequestered. In the stalled Build Back Better Act, that figure would go up to $85 per ton as long as the polluter captures a high percentage of its carbon.

“Sticking carbon down into the earth does not drive independent economic benefit,” said Hunter Johnston, a lawyer at the firm Steptoe & Johnson who works on CCS policy. “So, it’s the tax credit that is driving the economics right now, and we’ve seen a huge amount of ambition.”

Summit could earn $600 million annually in federal tax credits if the company’s current carbon storage projections pan out. The $7.2 billion in tax credits the project could earn over 12 years would more than cover the pipeline’s estimated $4.5 billion up-front building expenses.

The pipeline is just the latest venture for Rastetter, the chief executive of Summit Agricultural Group and a political power broker in Iowa.

To farmers in Hardin County, Rastetter is one of their own. He grew up on a 300-acre farm near the town of Alden, in Hardin County, and got rich off the same ethanol refineries where many farmers still sell their harvest.

He made his fortune bringing large hog confinement operations to Iowa, operations that environmental groups have for decades blamed for the nitrogen pollution plaguing the state’s waterways. In the early 2000s, Rastetter got out of the pork business and invested in ethanol, founding the plant in Hardin County, now under new ownership, where the Stockdales still sell their grain.

The pipeline proposal is not the first time Rastetter has also courted controversy. A decade ago, as a member of the board of regents at Iowa State University, he involved university professors in a business enterprise in Tanzania. His firm, AgriSol Energy LLC, planned to spend $100 million to lease huge parcels of land and develop a commercial farming business in the east African country. The project was scrapped after media reports revealed it would displace more than 100,000 refugees from Burundi.

Presidential hopefuls show up in farming communities like this to pledge fealty to the future of ethanol. The high-profile agricultural summits hosted by Rastetter, a major GOP donor, have become make-or-break moments for presidential hopefuls visiting the state ahead of the first-in-the-nation party caucuses.

The political establishment, Democratic and Republican, is interwoven with the Summit CCS pipeline project.

Jess Vilsack, the son of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, is Summit’s general counsel. Former Republican governor Terry Branstad, who appointed two of the three sitting members of the Iowa Utilities Board, is a senior policy adviser to Summit. And the company’s vice president of government affairs was previously chief of staff to Iowa’s current governor, Republican Kim Reynolds.

The project has also received major investments from John Deere, the farm equipment maker, and Continental Resources, an Oklahoma City-based oil and gas producer founded by billionaire Harold Hamm.

‘The time is right’

Summit says it’s driven by the climate crisis, not political connections. Carbon capture, they say, is workable on the ground. Ethanol emissions are easier to capture than other sources of carbon pollution, and the pipelines can be built.

Rastetter did not respond to an interview request. But without naming the Sierra Club, Summit Carbon Solutions accused its critics of “baseless attacks” and opposing ethanol.

“Opponents of the project are doing everything they can to distract from one simple fact — they oppose ethanol and production agriculture and don’t want to see these industries continue to operate in the years to come,” Summit said in a statement.

Summit has told regulators that its project could cut an ethanol plant’s carbon footprint in half. It increases ethanol’s “long-term viability” in states like California, the company says, and that benefits Iowa farmers.

“The time is right,” said Jimmy Powell, Summit’s chief operating officer, who came to Iowa after working at Kinder Morgan Inc., one of the world’s largest pipeline operators, and for oil producer BP on projects in Brazil and Oman.

“That’s what attracted me to this project,” Powell said. “It’s the size and scale and uniqueness of it, and it has this climate change component where you’re retrieving or capturing CO2 before it is released into the atmosphere, and that’s beneficial to the environment.”

Summit has signed easements with roughly 30 percent of the landowners it needs to build in the state. But it’s requesting eminent domain powers to obtain rights-of-way from landowners who aren’t willing to sign on to the project.

“Let’s be up front: We are trying to buy something that is not for sale,” Powell said. “The landowners in these states didn’t say ‘I want a pipeline across my property.’ But I think when you explain to them the benefits of the project from a climate perspective, from an ag industry perspective, from an ethanol perspective, then most landowners are open to it.”

Many farmers view it more skeptically, and the staunchest critics aren’t sold at all.

Not just ‘NIMBY’

For all its political connections, Summit has tapped into a uniquely Iowan strain of populism.

“About the last thing you want to do if you have that sense of connectivity to that patch of land is give it away to corporate interests,” said Mack Shelley, a political science professor at Iowa State University.

Shelley said Iowa’s just as pro-business as other red states. But it isn’t unusual to see the fissures show up around the issue of eminent domain — the power of the state to grant access to private land to build infrastructure deemed in the public interest. In the United States, the builder is often a very large energy company with a huge financial stake in accessing the land.

Landowners here who oppose the pipeline say it isn’t just NIMBY-ism, a “not-in-my-backyard” resistance to any and all building projects near their property.

Summit’s proposed route runs a similar path as Dakota Access, an oil pipeline farmers say damaged intricate tile drainage systems that keep fields dry enough to grow crops. The drainage systems critical to farming in soggy Iowa can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and they can be difficult to repair.

The result: Corn production fell an average of 15 percent in Dakota Access easements, and soy production fell 25 percent after pipeline construction, according to one ISU study.

Locals also worry about the safety of piping carbon dioxide, an asphyxiant that displaces ambient oxygen and can be fatal in relatively low doses. Transported in a supercritical fluid state, carbon dioxide plumes can spread 1,500 feet in 4 minutes when pipelines burst, and the denser-than-air gas hugs to the ground upon the release. Carbon dioxide has no smell, color or taste, so landowners may not even know they are in danger if a leak occurs.

CCS proponents say the risk of pipeline leaks is infinitesimal and note that carbon dioxide pipeline leaks have never caused a fatality in the U.S. That’s true, but a CO2 pipeline leak in Mississippi two years ago hospitalized nearly 50 people and required hundreds to be evacuated as emergency responders struggled to reach victims when their vehicle’s internal combustion engines stopped working for lack of oxygen.

Skeptics also point to a lack of safety rules, noting that federal regulations governing the projects require setbacks of just 50 feet.

Safety concerns are also top of mind for the supervisors of nearly 30 Iowa counties that have written to the Iowa Utilities Board objecting to the Summit pipeline. They said volunteer fire departments would be ill-prepared to respond to a leak of an unfamiliar hazardous gas.

The Biden administration knows its regulations are lacking. The White House’s CEQ has recommended that federal pipeline regulators reexamine rules for carbon dioxide pipelines. The Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration announced Thursday it would start updating standards for carbon dioxide pipelines, including new rules related to emergency preparedness. Those rules often take years to draw up, finalize and implement.

DOT also made public a 269-page investigative report on the pipeline breach in Mississippi and sought a nearly $4 million fine from the company. The agency updated its safety advisory to the industry.

“As far as the pipelines that would be required for CCS, we are nowhere near building safe ones,” said Bill Caram, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit that promotes pipeline safety.

“But these tax credits have an expiration date,” he said, “so the projects are moving ahead without all of those elements being considered.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story included an outdated figure provided by the company. Summit says it has now signed easements with roughly 30 percent of the landowners it needs to build a pipeline in Iowa.