In the fight over carbon capture pipelines, everyday people, not big money, will win

“Isn’t it sad that money controls everything?”

That is what Kim Junker says, lamenting the iron grip wealthy pipeline interests seem to have over some of Iowa’s most powerful lawmakers. What she is referring to is a yearslong fight against a massive carbon dioxide pipeline project planned to run through the state.

Junker and her husband own farmland in both Grundy and Butler counties, where they grow corn and soybeans. She describes a “David vs. Goliath” fight. The irony is that in this case, David — in terms of the number of people on that side of the fight — is bigger.

The Iowans fighting the pipelines and the use of eminent domain to seize people’s land for the project, are a wide-ranging coalition of farmers and landowners, environmentalists, county supervisors and attorneys and others. It is a coalition that crosses all party lines. Junker identifies as a Republican-raised conservative who is also a conservationist.

The bill that went to legislators this year was overwhelmingly popular, as is opposition to the pipeline project. Written to maximize its chance of passage, the bill would have protected landowners’ due process rights by allowing them to challenge eminent domain requests in court earlier in the permitting process. Hardly radical stuff.

By comparison, in neighboring Illinois, state lawmakers just passed a moratorium on all CO2 pipeline projects for up to two years, or until the federal government issues new safety rules.

The bill in Iowa passed the Republican-majority Iowa House of Representatives in March by an 86-7 vote, with massive bipartisan support. That bill was a watered-down version of the bill that passed the Iowa House last year by a vote of 73-20. But this year, just like last year, the bill was killed in the state Senate before it could get a floor vote.

Organizers in Iowa think the bill would have had enough support in the Senate to pass. Yet a handful of Senate leaders continue to prevent a vote, and in doing so are conveniently preventing it from getting to the governor’s desk.

You see, Summit Carbon Solutions, the company behind the current pipeline plans, is owned by one of the state’s largest GOP donors and one of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ biggest benefactors, Bruce Rastetter.

In 2023, as Kim Junker spoke at a rally on the steps of the state capitol in support of that year’s eminent domain bill, a member of the crowd shouted out that if the bill passed in the Senate, “those people won’t get any money from Bruce!” The knowing laughter from the crowd showed that Rastetter’s influence is hardly a well-kept secret among Iowans.

The CO2 pipelines in question are part of a carbon capture and storage project to help capture carbon emissions from dozens of ethanol plants in Midwestern states and pipe them out of state for deep underground storage. There are many reasons CCS pipelines are not a good solution for curbing carbon emissions.

The pressure required to liquefy CO2 for pipeline transport is immense — three times the pressure required for liquefying natural gas. That creates a dangerous possibility of pipeline ruptures. Any amount of water getting into the pipelines can react with the CO2 to weaken them. Intense storms, which are getting worse and more frequent due to climate change, can threaten pipeline stability. A pipeline explosion can turn the pipeline itself into shrapnel. And then there is the toxic air pollution risk.

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In 2020, a plume of CO2 from a ruptured nearby pipeline settled over Satartia, Mississippi. Residents felt the effects within minutes. More than 200 were evacuated, and 45 people were hospitalized. Experts say it was incredibly lucky no one died. Three years later, some residents reported still dealing with residual health issues like severe asthma attacks, headaches, muscle tremors and trouble concentrating.

The CO2 pipelines also harm the soil and reduce crop yields. And for people like the Junkers, who have worked hard to own and maintain their land, the threat of losing their land is perhaps the worst dagger in the heart.

Junker says if these eminent domain claims were for a public good, it might be a different story — “if it was a road or bridge, or something that was a necessity … but it’s not.” She calls it a “scam.”

“They’re going to use our tax dollars to steal our land from us. … They’re getting all these tax credits and subsidies to do this. We pay for that,” she says.

Perhaps the clearest lesson goes back to Kim Junker’s point about money and power. People across this country are consistent that they want more examples of bipartisan agreement and progress. Well, here it is. But Big Money’s influence in our politics will not let us have it.

Yet in a battle between organized people and organized money, when the people are truly organized, the people can win. And the Iowans fighting the pipelines and the use of eminent domain for their construction are extremely organized. They are making progress. And they are growing their movement. I believe they will ultimately win.

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Ben Jealous is the executive director of the Sierra Club and a professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania.

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