Landowners feel powerless as lawmakers fail to resolve their eminent domain concerns
In a red pickup truck, Gayle Palmquist drives through the Woodbury County farm that’s been in her family for over 100 years. As she cruises through her property just outside of Sioux City, she points out its unique attributes on the 480-acre land: its pioneer cemetery, its wetlands, its terraces.
She sighs as she looks at a long stretch of land that sits just west of her home.
“The pipeline is going to come from the south and run this way to the north,” she said.
She’s referring to the $4.5 billion pipeline proposed by Summit Carbon Solutions that would run through 30 Iowa counties and straight through a mile of Palmquist’s land. It’s just one of three companies – alongside Navigator CO2 and Archer Midland Daniels Co. – that want to capture carbon, pipe it across the state of Iowa and store it underground.
As the companies begin to negotiate with Iowa landowners for voluntary easements, state legislators are considering a year-long ban on the use of eminent domain for the projects. They believe the moratorium would take the pressure off landowners and help the companies get the land they need voluntarily.
But, the potential delay hasn’t exactly eased farmers' minds. Many landowners still feel powerless to stop pipelines from going through their property.
Many, like Palmquist, are vehemently opposed to the project running through their land. Palmquist said she’s scared of how the pipeline could impact her soil. She’s scared what would happen if the hazardous liquid pipeline burst. But, most of all, she said she doesn’t understand how a private company could be entitled to her land.
“If it's approved, we're going to have problems controlling our land,” Palmquist said. “This is some of the most valuable land in the world. We help feed the world. And I don’t think our land should be abused for pipelines.”
Earlier this year, Summit Carbon Solutions filed a petition to use eminent domain – meaning landowners would unwillingly have to give up use of their land. For it to be granted, the company will have to justly compensate landowners and provide evidence that the pipeline will be for the "public use."
The company said the project will help the environment and Iowa’s ethanol industry. Chris Hill, Summit’s environmental and permitting director, said the pipeline had the potential of capturing 12 million metric tons of CO2.
“In Iowa, the ethanol industry and the agricultural industry are so critical to the public. It's not hard to map the purpose and need of this project with the public need and necessity,” he said.
“Shouldn't that attachment that the individual farmers and other landowners in Iowa have to their land, shouldn't that count for something?”State Sen. Jeff Taylor, R-Sioux Center
But, many Iowa farmers feel their private land is being taken for someone else’s profit. The slogan "No Eminent Domain for Private Gain" is plastered over signs at protests and in landowner's yards.
Drake University law professor Natalie Lynner said it wouldn’t be the first time a private company used eminent domain. When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a private company’s use of it in 2005, it set a precedent for projects like the ones proposed.
“Your property rights aren't as absolute under the Constitution as perhaps you thought,” Lynner said. “The real limitation on the power of eminent domain is political. It's ensuring that your representatives don't favor laws like this that take private property.”
That’s why more than 100 landowners traveled to the state Capitol in Des Moines last week to ask lawmakers for stronger legislation. At a public hearing, they demanded more than a delay on eminent domain. They want an outright ban of its use by private companies.
But not all are confident the Republican-controlled legislature is willing to listen. An influential Republican donor, Bruce Rastetter, heads the Summit Carbon Solutions’ parent company, Summit Agricultural Group. The former Iowa Board of Regents president has donated over $2 million dollars to candidates in the last two decades, according to OpenSecrets.org.
Former Republican Gov. Terry Branstad serves as the company’s advisor. He appointed two of the three members of the Iowa Utilities Board who will ultimately vote on the pipeline’s permit.
All of which makes Roger Schmid, a landowner in Plymouth County, feel like he’s fighting an uphill battle.
“It's kind of like a David and Goliath type thing. You're going against the politics, the money, the donations, and all that sort of thing,” Schmid said. “It’s kind of a helpless feeling in a way.”
A spokesperson for Summit Carbon Solutions said they do not see their team’s connections as a conflict of interest. They said they’re following the same processes that every project must follow.
“We have a bipartisan team, and we continue to follow all of the state and regular and federal regulations when it comes to this project,” said Courtney Ryan, communication specialist for the company.
Sen. Jeff Taylor, R-Sioux Center, is one of few Republican lawmakers who openly supported a ban on eminent domain for private companies. Earlier in the session, he proposed legislation that would do just that, but it failed.
Taylor said he was disappointed Republicans didn’t come together to protect their constituents’ rights. He said he believes political loyalties likely prevented many party leaders from supporting stronger legislation.
“Shouldn't that attachment that the individual farmers and other landowners in Iowa have to their land, shouldn't that count for something?,” he asked. “Or is that just going to be swept aside in some kind of money making venture that is politically well connected?”
At Deb Main’s home in Woodbury County, black and white family photos line the walls. She’s able to trace the farm’s 100 year history through each frame.
When she thinks about a company installing a pipeline into her land, tears form in her eyes. She said no amount of money would make her give up all that her family worked for.
“If they grant that permit, then we go to eminent domain and then the bulldozer comes,” she said. “I can't tell my dad that would happen. I can't tell him.”
Main said she’ll do everything in her power to avoid that fate. But she said sometimes she doesn’t feel like she has enough of it to make a difference.
“I don't have money to contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to a political party or a particular candidate, but I have a vote. And that's my power,” she said.
Copyright 2022 Iowa Public Radio. To see more, visit Iowa Public Radio.