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Native Americans And White Farmers Form An Unlikely Alliance

Above Photo: An Anti-Pipeline Sign On The Property Of South Dakota Landowner Ed Fischbach. NBC News.

‘Our Horses Are Ready’

“Maybe the Native Americans weren’t all wrong,” said Ed Fischbach, a South Dakota farmer who’s against the Summit carbon capture pipeline, which would cross five states.

South Dakota – Since 2010, Joye Braun, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, has fought the construction of oil and gas pipelines in her region, working to protect sacred places where her forebears hunted and fished and lived and died. In many of those battles, Braun came up against white ranchers and farmers who supported the pipelines and received fees from the developers for the use of their land.

Today, Braun is opposing a huge new pipeline that would transport carbon dioxide across five Midwestern states — Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and North and South Dakota. But this time she finds herself in an unusual alliance with white landowners who are also against the pipeline, like Ed Fischbach, a South Dakota farmer.

Farmers have long supported oil pipelines, Fischbach told NBC News, because “we all need fuel and gas to run. But now they’re realizing that maybe, maybe the Native Americans weren’t all wrong. Because it wasn’t just an issue about whether we needed something — it’s an issue of protecting the environment, protecting our land, and protecting your own rights.”

The pipeline Fischbach and Braun are united against is proposed by Summit Carbon Solutions, an affiliate of the Summit Agriculture Group, a global agricultural production, investment and farm management company. The project will sprawl 2,000 miles across the five states, capturing carbon dioxide before it is released into the air by 32 producers of ethanol, a biofuel made from fermented corn. Pressurized and liquified, the carbon dioxide will flow through the buried pipeline to storage reservoirs several thousand feet underground at various locations in western North Dakota, the company says. The proposed pipeline will be the largest of its type in the world and is projected to cost $4.5 billion.

Summit Agriculture is a big producer of ethanol; in South America, its Summit Brazil Renewables can produce 140 million gallons of ethanol per year. And the company maintains its pipeline will help the environment by ridding the atmosphere of greenhouse gases generated by ethanol production.

“We’ll be removing or preventing 12 million metric tons of CO2 from being released to the atmosphere,” Christopher Hill, senior project advisor at Summit Carbon Solutions, said in an interview. “That’s like removing 2.6 million vehicles off the road.” The typical passenger car produces almost 5 tons of carbon dioxide per year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates.

But some energy experts say safety is an issue with carbon capture pipelines — carbon dioxide doesn’t like to stay put, and the fear is that a pipeline could rupture and leak.

“There isn’t really enough experience with these pipelines to be able to say they’ll be safe going forward for five years, or 10 years or 15 years,” said Dennis Wamsted, an energy analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. Given the potential for an accident along the route, “you have to train the first responders in all the little towns,” he added.

Wamsted also questions the need for the massive project, citing the rising popularity of electric vehicles that could eventually eliminate the demand for biofuel. “We are moving to a situation where we’re not going to have internal combustion engines in the long-term future, and we’re better off preparing for that now, instead of building a $4.5 billion pipeline,” he said.

Before Summit can begin construction, scheduled for next August, the company must gain approval from landowners and officials in all five states, including public utility commissions.

Summit says it plans to construct its pipeline with 100 percent voluntary participation by landowners along the route and will not use their property without the owners’ consent. That type of compulsory process, known as eminent domain, has caused problems with prior pipeline projects.

The company says its pipeline will not go through Native American lands but said it has reached out to 62 tribes for comments on the project. The company is seeking input, but not sign-off, from the tribes.

The company’s persuasion process has resulted in town hall meetings, public hearings and community forums across affected states.

Earlier this year, Summit said the project would create 18,000 jobs and generate millions of dollars in tax revenues for communities along the route. A subsequent analysis for the company lowered the job estimate to 12,600.

But some landowners are skeptical of the company’s promises, according to Erin Magrum of North Dakota, chairman of the Emmons County Commission, which governs the county. “There’ve always been a lot of promises with these projects, and we find later on they’re not as good as what’s been pitched,” Magrum told NBC News. “We’re starting to get tougher on these projects, asking a lot more questions. People want more from their government when the big projects come through.”

At a vote in early August, the Emmons County Commission voted to require Summit to gain voluntary easements from all affected landowners in the county. It also raised the cost it said Summit had to pay the county for what’s called an industrial conditional use permit from $450 to 3 percent of the pipeline’s total cost. Based on $4.5 billion, that translates to roughly $135 million.

In mid-October, Magrum said he had not received feedback from Summit about the county’s changes. Because Emmons County is large — approximately 1,500 square miles, he said — it would be difficult for the pipeline to go around the county to avoid having to comply with its new rules.

Asked about the vote in Emmons County, a Summit spokesman said in a statement: “Opponents of modern agriculture and traditional energy have mobilized and are activating landowners against the project using misinformation. Summit Carbon Solutions will continue to work with local leaders and landowners to identify and address local concerns that are at the root of the changes to Emmons County conditional use permit requirements.” The spokesman said Summit has received signed easement agreements “with more than half” the landowners along the pipeline route in the county.

Farmers and landowners in other states along the route have expressed concerns about the Summit project after other pipelines caused problems with their crops and property.

Summit says it has reached agreements with landowners covering approximately 47 percent of the pipeline’s route.

NBC News reached out to three landowners whose contact information Summit provided so they could talk about their support for the pipeline. Keith Kessler, a rancher in western North Dakota, is one. “I think this is a good project,” Kessler said. “You take agriculture and industry — we need both.”

‘A Greenish Cloud’

Carbon capture technology has been around since the 1970s, but only 5,000 miles of pipeline is currently dedicated to the process nationwide. Summit’s proposed pipeline would add 40 percent to that total.

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