'Line in the sand' at anti-CO2 pipeline rally in South Dakota's McPherson County

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May 16—LEOLA, S.D. — The McPherson County Courthouse, newly into spring, sat against a backdrop of near-cloudless sky as dozens of landowners, lawmakers and local officials packed onto picnic benches in the green grass below.

Energized by recent eminent domain lawsuits against residents in McPherson and surrounding counties by Summit Carbon Solutions as well as an increasing frequency of surveys on private land in the proposed footprint, some 200 attendees had flocked together in the late morning on May 15 for a rally against proposed carbon pipelines in the state.

"I think the people of McPherson County don't think they are being heard," Rep. Karla Lems, of Canton, one of the speakers at the event, told Forum News Service in a May 16 interview. "That's why we did this. So that we could go out and say, 'Yes, we are hearing you, we are concerned and we want to elevate this so that other people know about it.'"

Beyond the raising of awareness, the nearly two-hour event charted the beginning of a way forward for landowners and lawmakers who came up short on pipeline-related bills in the winter legislative session: one combining pressure on local and state officials with increasing county regulations, as well as building a network of opponents to multiple private megaprojects in the state that may require the power of eminent domain.

The Summit Carbon pipeline, top of mind for those in rural McPherson County in the northern part of the state, would cross six states and chart a nearly 500-mile path through South Dakota on its way to a carbon burial site in North Dakota. Another proposed pipeline, this one backed by Navigator CO2, would chart a shorter course through western and southeastern South Dakota on its way to a similar sequestration site in Illinois.

They're being marketed as a way for ethanol plants and other greenhouse emitters to capture carbon, lower their environmental footprints and continue to sell their products in low-carbon fuel markets like California and Canada.

Though Summit Carbon has signaled success in negotiating voluntary easements with landowners — the company-provided figure estimates around 70% of the proposed route in South Dakota is so far on board with the "safe and critical" project — McPherson County especially, and surrounding counties like Edmunds, Spink and Brown, have become hotbeds of anti-pipeline sentiment.

Thirty-three of the more than 80 eminent domain lawsuits filed by Summit Carbon along the pipeline route were filed in McPherson County, a county of fewer than 2,500 people. Opponents generally broach topics like uncertain safety regulations, future land uses and the right of refusal inherent to private property rights as reasons for their resistance.

The litany of speakers formed a message of unity: not just for landowners in the eastern part of South Dakota dealing with the Summit Carbon and Navigator CO2 pipelines but for other pockets in the state worried about potential eminent domain proceedings.

Rep. Marty Overweg, of New Holland, mentioned a proposed pumped storage project in Gregory County, an upper reservoir and transition line that would sit entirely in his district and condemn thousands of acres of farmland were it to be permitted at the federal level.

The project has also been sold as part of a green energy transition: it would store unused wind and solar energy as potential energy in the upper reservoir and send the water downhill into the Missouri River for hydropower at peak electricity demand.

"You guys have bad luck because you're first," Overweg told the crowd. "So we're going to put the fight here. Because this is where it starts, we draw a line in the sand."

The connection, and the potential expansion of a network of landowners who have shared information along the pipeline route, felt natural, according to Mike Klipfel, a Leola landowner who attended the rally.

"His connection was spot on. These things, even though they're in different parts of the state, are affecting the people in the same way," he said. "They're taking land for private companies and for private gain. And for actually no benefit to the environment whatsoever."

Another shared target of the speakers — who included several state lawmakers, county commissioners and activists in the state — was Gov. Kristi Noem, who has so far refrained from commenting on the carbon pipelines.

"With the carbon pipelines, behind the scenes, there are so many political connections, whether it's in our state or in Iowa or in North Dakota," Lems said of the governor's silence. "This is in six states and we're just seeing this behind the scenes continually of who is involved in this, and it just raises a lot of eyebrows."

One political heavyweight listed on Summit Carbon's


as a senior policy adviser is Terry Branstad, a former six-term governor in Iowa and a towering figure among Iowa Republicans.

"Every four years for the past 22, Republican White House hopefuls have traveled to Iowa hoping to receive Branstad's blessing," a 2016 Washington Post


said about Branstad's status as kingmaker in the first-in-the-nation caucuses in Iowa.

As far as Gov. Noem's personal powers go, Rep. Jon Hansen, of Dell Rapids, another speaker at the rally, specifically called on Noem to move forward with a special session to reconsider pipeline-related bills, like House Bill 1133, that failed to land on her desk during the annual legislative session this past winter.

"Sadly, some people in my own party have decided to stay silent, or to kill bills to defend your rights," said Hansen, a Republican. "From your county commissioners to your state legislature to the governor's office to your federal delegation, they need to stand up for you right now."

Most of the responsibility at the state level lies with the members of the Public Utilities Commission, who will consider permits for the Navigator and Summit pipelines in July and September, respectively. Were the PUC to award these permits, an eminent domain decision would be made by state courts.

At the county level, several commissions in the northern and northeastern parts of the state implemented moratoriums throughout last year to look at zoning ordinances.

Some of those reviews are now being finalized: in Brown County, for example, the county commission voted in late April to enact a 1,500-foot setback on carbon sequestration pipelines for homes and other structures, a decision made on safety and economic development grounds.

Though Summit Carbon has been somewhat litigious at the county level, suing several commissions that approved pipeline moratoriums, the Brown County setback decision has not yet been challenged, according to Drew Dennert, who sits on the county commission in Brown and attended the rally in Leola.

Beyond landowner-specific challenges in state courts to surveying laws or defenses against eminent domain lawsuits, Dennert argued that the most immediate mechanism for landowners looking to beef up pipeline protections likely sits at the county level.

"At this point, it's trying to slow this thing down on a county level if possible. But obviously, [the lawmakers who spoke are] still looking for more support when they come back into session," said Dennert, a former lawmaker himself. "I know there's still that concern with the makeup and the composition of the Senate the way it is, they do have a tough road."

Jason Harward is a

Report for America

corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at