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Landowner concerns spreading over CO2 pipeline; North Dakota county opposes eminent domain

Skepticism about the $4.5 billion Midwest Carbon Express has grown among landowners in recent months as pipeline developers have sought land deals in North Dakota and other states.

Summit demonstration.jpeg
A few dozen landowners on Nov. 18, 2021, attend Summit Carbon Solutions' demonstration south of Beulah, North Dakota, at the site of one of the company's test wells, which will drill to around 12,000 feet to gauge the suitability of the area for carbon dioxide storage.
Craig Bihrle / The Forum
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BISMARCK — Landowner skepticism has mounted in recent months towards a $4.5 billion Midwest pipeline aiming to permanently bury millions of tons of climate-warming carbon dioxide in North Dakota, with many buzzing about the proposal at a Bismarck event Wednesday, March 16, and one county staking its opposition to eminent domain earlier in the week.

The 2,000 mile pipeline network, a proposal by the Iowa-based Summit Carbon Solutions, has drawn the endorsement of top North Dakota Republicans and recently secured a $250 million investment from one of the state’s leading oil companies . But as word about the project has spread and developers have sought land deals, landowner concerns have become more prevalent.

Commissioners in Richland County, in the southeastern corner of North Dakota, unanimously passed a resolution on Tuesday stating their opposition to the use of eminent domain by Summit. The county would fall along a leg of the pipeline connecting the larger network to an ethanol plant in Minnesota.

And Summit's proposal drove many conversations Wednesday at a Bismarck expo on "pore space," the subterranean cavities where companies could inject their carbon dioxide, hosted by the Northwest Landowners Association.

In one presentation from Summit, Jeff Skaare, the company's director of land, legal and regulatory affairs, told the audience they will "work with landowners, community leaders, stakeholders and more with respect, honesty and transparency.” He encouraged anyone with a different experience to reach out.

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The Summit pipeline, called the Midwest Carbon Express, aims to coalesce the carbon dioxide emissions from ethanol plants in five states and ship it to North Dakota, where Summit is evaluating land in the center of the state to permanently bury the climate-warming gas. If it works, the Midwest Carbon Express would be the world’s largest carbon capture system, pulling in 12 million tons of carbon dioxide per year.

But Wednesday's event took place against a backdrop of increasingly vocal concern over the project among some landowners, both in North Dakota and other parts of the Midwest. Last month, a South Dakota county on the North Dakota border imposed a moratorium on new pipelines in response to the Summit project, South Dakota Public Broadcasting reported . In Iowa, where opposition has been the most pronounced, less than 2% of landowners have signed onto easements for the project, according to an analysis by Reuters .

Kurt Swenson, a landowner in the project’s sequestration zone south of Beulah, presented a step-by-step guide to the audience for protecting their property interests as Summit pursues leases.

Swenson, who has said he doesn't oppose the project itself, has been organizing hold-outs to negotiate better lease terms with Summit . He cautioned Wednesday against construction infringements and safety questions around transport of the highly-pressurized greenhouse gas.

“We love listening to the pheasants crow and the coyotes howl and the morning doves coo, sipping coffee out on the porch in the mornings and especially on the summer evenings,” he said. “So as you can imagine, we'd like to preserve the value that we get out of the enjoyment of our land.”

Summit officials have said that they are aiming to reach mutual agreements with all landowners in the pipeline's path and the storage area, though they have acknowledged that eminent domain becomes an option at some point. Skaare told the audience of landowners that the safety of the pipeline is Summit’s top priority, and added that the company will “protect and restore lands” back to their original form after the project's completion.

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Derrick Braaten, an attorney who specializes in landowner issues, speaks before the Northwest Landowners Association expo in Bismarck on Wednesday, March 16, 2022.
Adam Willis / The Forum

County opposes eminent domain

Richland County commissioners took up a petition Tuesday signed by more than 130 county residents raising concerns over the prospects of Summit resorting to eminent domain, voting unanimously to pass a resolution stating their opposition to any use of the tactic by Summit.

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Megan Kumer, Richland County State's Attorney, said the county has not expressed opposition to the project itself, but wanted to make clear to North Dakota regulators that they don’t want eminent domain enacted in their county. About 40 or 50 people attended Tuesday's meeting to hear discussion on the resolution, the language of which has not been finalized, Kumer said.

Derrick Braaten, a Bismarck attorney who specializes in landowner rights, said Richland's move doesn't have teeth to block Summit from pursuing eminent domain, but he added that it does send a signal to regulators on the state’s Public Service Commission about local sentiments about the pipeline. The Public Service Commission does not directly oversee eminent domain, an issue often settled through the courts in North Dakota.

Todd McMichael, a Richland County landowner whose property would encompass more than a mile of the pipeline, said he doesn't think the privately funded pipeline project would be justified in taking the property of unwilling landowners. While he said he's not opposed to the project itself, he added that he would prefer to see the carbon dioxide from ethanol plants put to productive uses.

“I don’t think eminent domain should be used for this project. Period. End of story,” he said.

Some landowners concerned about the pipeline have called for Gov. Doug Burgum to take steps to protect the interests of private property owners as the pipeline picks up steam.

Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki said that Summit has communicated their goal of achieving right-of-way agreements with all landowners without resorting to eminent domain, “and the governor supports that approach.”

Landowners in two other counties have reached out to the Richland County group expressing interest about taking similar steps, McMichael said, adding that if multiple counties get on board with similar statements, "it will finally get the governor’s attention."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.

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