PUC head focuses on Minnehaha County as 'battleground for PUC race'

·3 min read
South Dakota Public Utilities Commission chair Chris Nelson visited a Minnehaha County Republicans meeting at Pizza Ranch on 41st Street in Sioux Falls to campaign for his re-election. Photo taken on Wednesday, August 3, 2022.
South Dakota Public Utilities Commission chair Chris Nelson visited a Minnehaha County Republicans meeting at Pizza Ranch on 41st Street in Sioux Falls to campaign for his re-election. Photo taken on Wednesday, August 3, 2022.

Chair of the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission is asking the public to trust the commission's process and state law when it comes to unprecedented, large-scale CO2 pipelines moving into South Dakota.

Republican incumbent Chris Nelson, facing Democrat opponent and Minnehaha County commissioner Jeff Barth in November's election, addressed a group of local Republicans at a Minnehaha County Republicans meeting on Wednesday afternoon at a a Sioux Falls Pizza Ranch about his promises to keep a lid on utility rates and follow a formal, comprehensive process with whether to permit Summit Carbon Solution's 2,000-mile CO2 pipeline.

That pipeline is expected to stretch between five states, including Iowa and South  Dakota.

Nelson spent a majority of the time explaining PUC's process and distinguishing its role from elected officials like legislators and county commissioners, but avoided the topic of eminent domain and ongoing legal fights against Summit from landowners, many who fear the Iowa-based agricultural energy company will utilize a law to take away land if landowners don't sign onto the route.

More: Landowners 'disappointed' as Minnehaha County defers moratorium on CO2 pipeline permits, land use

"The question I want to answer today is, is the PUC and PUC commissioners the same as those elected officials I just talked about?," Nelson said, standing next to a "Truth" sign. "The emphatic answer to that is no."

Nelson explained the PUC's process is more like a court system than a legislature, because all decisions made by the PUC must be determined based on facts, evidence and testimony presented in a formal docket and hearing process.

But PUC commissioners are accountable to voters, and Nelson is confident he'll pull enough voters in Minnehaha County. He's expecting Minnehaha County to be the battleground for the PUC race this upcoming fall.

More: Minnehaha County Democrat lodges attacks against Republicans allegedly backing Summit pipeline

"I've outpolled my opponents 'significantly' in Minnehaha County in the races that I run compared to the races that he's run," Nelson said at the Republican meeting.

Nelson tells frustrated landowners to go to their legislators

Nelson also mentioned, according to state law, Barth wouldn't be able to vote specifically on the PUC docket, because of an impartiality law.

"... Based on the statute and the Supreme Court precedent, even if my opponent is elected, I don't think he'll ever have an opportunity to vote on that issue because, by law, you simply cannot," stated Nelson.

When asked about eminent domain by a few attendees, he explained he's under the limitations of ex parte communication, which prohibits communication outside the presence of all parties in the case. He wouldn't answer in much more detail besides explaining what's already laid out in state statute, to the dismay of those who pushed him on it.

More: Landowners in 7 more South Dakota counties file complaints against Summit Carbon Solutions

"If folks believe that our eminent domain laws are not right, then who needs to resolve that?" Nelson asked.

Nelson's answer is legislators, since PUC doesn't have the jurisdiction. He's certain, too, there will be discussion about eminent domain in this upcoming legislative session

"In Iowa, our counterparts do have some involvement in determining who can and cannot exercise eminent domain. Why is that? Because their law is different," said Nelson.

Email human rights reporter Nicole Ki at nki@argusleader.com or follow on Twitter at @_nicoleki.

This article originally appeared on Sioux Falls Argus Leader: PUC chair dodges questions on eminent domain at local Republicans meeting