Minnehaha County commissioner Jeff Barth is leveraging landowner frustrations on eminent domain to run against South Dakota Public Utilities Commission head Chris Nelson this upcoming November.
With roots in Minnehaha County for more than 16 years as a public official, Barth has been an outspoken opponent to a multi-billion dollar CO2 pipeline project, by Iowa-based Summit Carbon Solutions, that has exacerbated fears of land being taken away from owners who don't want to sign onto the pipeline.
Barth officially announced his run against Nelson this past weekend at the South Dakota Democrat convention.
"[Nelson] has the power to not approve the project... this is empowering private companies to take anything they want," Barth told the Argus Leader.
The long-time county commissioner has also accused his challenger of taking money from pipeline investors to push the project through.
Allegations of "unfettered power" are untrue, says PUC chair
Nelson, in response to Barth's allegations, reiterates PUC is following a process that is laid out and regulated by South Dakota law.
"Any suggestion that we have unfettered power or that we can operate like a king is simply not true," said Nelson, who has more than a decade of experience at PUC.
In a written statement addressing Barth's statements, Nelson said eminent domain is not one of the specified criteria in granting or denying a siting permit application.
"Rather, state law outlines what types of projects are eligible to exercise eminent domain," read the statement. "The PUC simply does not have jurisdiction under law to adjudicate eminent domain disputes."
Those eminent domain disputes must be adjudicated in a court of law, according to Nelson. But Barth says if all the PUC does is fill out paperwork and approve a project that endangers families and damages land, the system is "clearly not working."
In response to allegations of being in the pocket of pipeline investors, the PUC chair said his salary is public record.
"It shows that I am a farmer... and it shows my wife is a retired state employee," Nelson said.
Nelson emphasized the legislature puts forth PUC's jurisdiction to operate under, and he's dedicated to making sure the public is informed about that process.
PUC allows Summit "indefinite extension" to finalize route
As of June 13, PUC gave Summit an "indefinite extension" to come up with a finalized route for the planned CO2 pipeline, said Nelson.
"Without that finalized route, we could not have stayed on the one-year timeframe provided in state law," explained Nelson on the decision to grant an indefinite extension.
Summit filed its application in February, starting the clock for the timeline PUC has to review and give its final decision for the permit.
The Iowa-based energy company initially came to PUC asking for a five-month extension, but Nelson said it was determined by the commission that an indefinite extension was a "more appropriate way of dealing with the circumstance."
"We don't know the extent to which the final route will deviate from the route that was initially proposed," he explained.
If those deviations are significant, PUC will need time to make sure everyone involved and affected has ample opportunity to be a part of the process, said Nelson.
"We wanted to leave that as open question, given the fact we don't know how extensive those changes may or may not be," he stated.
This article originally appeared on Sioux Falls Argus Leader: PUC head dispels allegations of 'unfettered power' by Democrat opponent ahead November elections