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Iowa landowners fear eminent domain seizure as carbon pipelines are proposed

The Navigator CO2 Ventures pipeline, if completed , would bring captured carbon dioxide to Illinois. The pipeline would also extend through Minnesota, Nebraska and North Dakota. Contributed.

Shawn Reilly isn’t hard to pick out of a crowd of college students when we meet at the Spencer Grill. She’s tall –– “very tall,” she tells me before we meet –– has gray hair and has come prepared.  

When we sit down, Reilly pulls out a binder full of documents and hands me a file-folder full of printouts. We comb through a satellite image of her family’s land. Reilly and her husband moved to Iowa after the housing crisis in 2010, but his stepfather’s family has owned land in Poweshiek County since 1883.  

Today, Reilly and her family live on that same land, where they hunt and raise grass-fed beef and pasture-raised laying chickens. Her father-in-law owns tillable fields he leases out to a tenant farmer.  

In 2024, Texas-based company Navigator CO2 Ventures plans to build a carbon capture pipeline across Iowa. The proposed pipeline would cut across Reilly’s land, 543 feet from her family’s house. 

“It will kill us,” Reilly said. “It will leak, and it will kill us.”

Pipeline planning

Navigator CO2 Ventures LLC is one of three corporate groups that have proposed the construction of carbon capture pipelines in Iowa; the others are Summit Carbon Solutions and ADM and Wolf Carbon Solutions.

The multi-billion dollar pipelines will move pressurized liquidated carbon dioxide captured from ethanol, fertilizer and other biofuel plants to sequestration points in North Dakota and Illinois, where they will be injected permanently into rock formations underground. 

Many landowners have raised concerns about the potential environmental, health-related and economic effects of the pipelines. 

At the Feb. 10 Poweshiek County Board of Supervisors meeting, 11 people, nine of whom are owners of land in Poweshiek that would be affected by the construction of the Navigator CO2 Ventures pipeline, spoke unanimously against the pipeline. 

Issues raised included health hazards in the event of a leak or an explosion. Opponents of carbon capture pipelines have pointed to a CO2 pipeline rupture in Satartia, Mississippi, in which 49 people were hospitalized.  

In Satartia, local firefighters, police officers, and first responders were unequipped and untrained to deal with the effects of the rupture. And although Poweshiek residents said that spokespeople at Navigator CO2 Ventures have promised to train and create local emergency response teams, many of the landowners said they are doubtful that this approach would be effective in practice. 

Reilly said that in the event of a pipeline emergency, the fire and rescue teams would need to come from Barnes City or Montezuma, both of which are volunteer departments and lack hazmat training.  

“And Navigator said, ‘Oh, we’ll train them.’ They would have to train them and pay them full-time salaries to be sitting there ready to come and buy them equipment,” said Reilly. “Navigator didn’t even know that they would have to get an electric vehicle to do this. Someone asking that had to explain that to them.” 

Navigator CO2 Ventures LLC did not respond to request for comment. 

In the event of a carbon dioxide leak, fuel-combustion cars and vehicles like ambulances would not function because oxygen is necessary to burn fuel. 

It will kill us. It will leak, and it will kill us. – Shawn Reilly

Other landowners at the meeting said that they were concerned about degradation of the environment and farmland quality. 

Diana Dawley, chairperson of the Poweshiek County Board of Supervisors, said that some landowners claimed in past projects that companies mixed fertile, black topsoil, with the poorer quality soil that was intended to surround pipelines, decreasing overall quality of the soil and the land’s Corn Suitability Rating, an Iowan measure of the value of farmland. 

“All of the people that I have spoken to about this are against it,” Dawley said. 

Dawley says that the Board of Supervisors plans to write a letter of objection regarding the construction of the pipeline to the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB). 

The Poweshiek County Board of Supervisors will join hundreds of others who have written objections to the IUB over the proposed pipeline. Published objections and other documents related to the proposal can be found at under Docket Number ​​HLP-2021-0003. 

One major objection cited by landowners affected is Navigator CO2 Ventures’ refusal to release a mailing list of landowners along the pipeline route to other landowners. Reilly said that she believed this was an attempt to prevent landowners from organizing. 

Fears of eminent domain

While some of the corporate groups who have proposed pipelines have sought voluntary easements from landowners along the pipeline routes, many landowners have expressed concerns that the companies will use eminent domain to acquire their property without consent. Summit Carbon Solutions has already applied for a permit with the IUB to use eminent domain in its construction of the pipeline. 

A voluntary easement is an agreement in which landowners can give other entities rights to their land. In this case, landowners signing a voluntary easement would give companies the right to construct on their land. Voluntary easements are not reversible, and, if signed, may require limited access for landowners to their property. 

Critics of the proposed pipelines said that, because the pipelines will span thousands of miles collectively, they will be logistically impossible to construct without the use of eminent domain. 

Eminent domain is the process by which the U.S. government can forcibly acquire land or private property. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution mandates that “private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation.” Traditionally, definitions of “public use,” and “just compensation,” have been contested.  

 In 2019, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the use of eminent domain to construct the Dakota Access Pipeline after a lengthy legal process initiated by landowners and the Iowa Sierra Club against the IUB.  

While that legal precedent was discouraging to opponents of the pipelines, some landowners, including Reilly, said that hope for a legislative solution instead. 

State Senator Jeff Taylor, R-Sioux Center, introduced the Senate File 2160 on Feb. 1, 2022. The bill would remove the IUB’s power to use eminent domain for private entities. Although Taylor said that every person, besides lobbyists for the carbon capture pipeline companies, who spoke at the bill’s public hearing was in support of the bill, it was pulled from the Commerce Committee’s agenda because a sufficient number of Republican members were in opposition to kill the bill. 

The bill’s death, Taylor wrote in an email, “… is a disappointment to me. More importantly, it’s a defeat for landowner protection and constitutional rights.” 

Land in peril

Reilly said she felt hesitation in claiming sole ownership of her family’s land. 

“When I hear the words coming out of my mouth that this has been in my father-in-law’s family — well, guess why. Because we stole it from somebody else,” said Reilly in reference to white settlers settling on land historically lived on by Native Americans.

But, she said, land has meaning to many of the Iowans who spend their lives living from and working on it. 

“One of the fields here is ours,” Reilly said, pointing to her map. “The person here [a neighbor], he owns all this. And he doesn’t want it. So my husband said, ‘Well, we’ll trade you this tillable field for that.’ And then he ran it by my father-in-law, and my father-in-law was like, ‘He will sell a kidney, take out a second mortgage, whatever he has to do, to never sell another piece of land.’ He never wants to see another piece of his family’s land out of the family hands.” 

“[Iowans are] not stupid, they’re not disposable … The fact that this company [Navigator CO2 Ventures] named themselves Heartland Greenway — they’re based in Texas and it’s an oil company. Nothing heartland, nothing green about them,” Reilly said. 

(Editor’s note: The quotation “One of the fields here is ours. . .” has been edited to correct a error that occurred from a flaw in the interview transcription software.)

(Editor’s note: Reference to historical context was added after the quotation “Because we stole it from somebody else.”)


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