Monthly Dispatches by Stan Cox; art by Priti Gulati Cox
From City Lights Books
“We’ll Meet Them Out in the Fields”: Challenging the Pipelines to Nowhere
Recent polls suggest that the bonkers, even barbaric, rhetoric coming from far-right MAGA candidates could be undermining Republicans’ chances of capturing both chambers of Congress in November. Now, the greater danger may lie down-ballot. If extremists win key offices in swing-state governments in 2022, they might manage to award their states’ Electoral College votes to the MAGA presidential candidate, against the will of the voters, in 2024 and illegitimately capture the White House.
With the prospect of such coup-plotting in state capitals, and with the Democrats’ much-hyped federal climate bill now passed into law, the focus of struggle on both the political and climate fronts has moved from Washington out to regional, state, and local arenas. Exemplifying this shift is a confrontation now building in the Plains states that pits a grassroots alliance of Native tribes, farmers, and environmental groups against predatory agribusiness interests. It’s a confrontation with potentially profound ramifications for climate and the broader ecological emergency.
A company called Summit Carbon Solutions is proposing to build a 2,000-mile network of pipelines sprawling across parts of Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. The system would collect liquefied carbon dioxide (CO2) from 32 ethanol fuel plants across the region and transport it to North Dakota’s oil country for storage. A second company, Navigator CO2 Ventures, wants to build 1,300 miles of pipeline to pick up CO2 from 20 ethanol and fertilizer plants in the same region but transport it in the opposite direction, to Illinois. At both destinations, the compressed CO2 would be injected into deep rock formations where it is supposed to remain until far-off geologic time.
Why would the industry go to all that work and expense? Because ethanol manufacturing facilities release a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere, canceling out that biofuel’s purported climate advantage over gasoline. Retrofitting plants to capture most of the CO2 from the plant’s exhaust stream, liquefy it, and inject it into the earth could help shore up ethanol’s shaky “green” image.
In 2016–17, the region fought a valiant battle against construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which carries carbon-heavy oil into the Midwest from North Dakota. Now a broad, politically diverse coalition of environmentalists, Indigenous communities, and landowners is arrayed against the proposed carbon pipelines.
Mahmud Fitil serves as Land Defense Organizer for the Great Plains Action Society, an Indigenous-led organization in the forefront of this struggle in Iowa and Nebraska. He gave me a quick verbal tour of the territory that Native tribes and the broader alliance of groups are defending: Western Iowa is home to the Meskwaki, or Sac and Fox. Along the Nebraska–Kansas border live the Ioway people, who were expelled from their homelands by 19th-century white settlers. And several Plains tribes have reservations along the Missouri River dividing Iowa and Nebraska: the Umoⁿhoⁿ or Omaha nation; the Ho-Chunk or Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska; the Santee Sioux; and farther upstream, the Yankton, or Ihanktonwan Sioux. “They all will be impacted by the carbon pipelines that are being proposed for the region,” says Fitil. “The tribes are alarmed by the designs the pipeline companies have on the area and are mobilizing against them.”
The Summit pipeline would cross the Missouri River just north of the Winnebago reservation, and that’s a problem, says Fitil. “These projects typically have transient workforces to build out the infrastructure. During construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, we saw some of the issues that come with these types of transient camps: proliferation of drugs and alcohol, crime, violence, prostitution. That’s just not the type of thing we want in our communities in Iowa and Nebraska, whether you’re Indigenous or you belong to another part of the rural community.” The threat posed by the transient camps would be part of a cascade of damage that the pipelines would inflict on humans, other species, landscapes, and waters across the region.
An ecologically irrational enterprise
The Summit and Navigator projects got a huge shot-in-the-pipe from the climate provisions of the new federal Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which increased the tax credit for carbon capture and burial from $50 up to $85 per metric ton. That’s likely to stimulate even more demand for carbon transport and pump up an industry that has already proven incapable of significantly reducing the nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions, even as taxpayers are compelled to fork over more than $20 billion worth of incentives to keep it afloat.
The primary purpose of these and other carbon pipeline systems was never to reduce atmospheric CO2. Its backers’ aim is to turn a profit by spiffing up the environmental image of US feed-grain agriculture. The lion’s share of US corn production goes to supply two commodities, vehicle fuel and grain-fed meat. And the chief purpose of feedlots and ethanol plants is not to provide for nourishment and transportation; it is to gobble up surplus grain, thereby propping up grain prices and the agricultural economy. Cultivating the tens of millions of acres of feed/fuel grains—mostly corn and soybeans—that generate that huge surplus has led to soil degradation, chemical contamination of air and water, high energy consumption, and massive greenhouse-gas emissions. The pipeline would address only the CO2 waste gas produced by fermentation of corn grain in ethanol plants, which is a teeny tiny sliver of those emissions.
This ecologically irrational system is very lucrative for agribusinesses that supply equipment and inputs to produce the big crop surpluses and big emissions. These businesses are now offering to create yet another profitable industry, one that will, ostensibly, clean up after the ethanol plants that were built to help sop up the grain surplus resulting from the industrialization of farming.
None of this carbon juggling is justifiable on climate grounds. In a 2022 open letter published as a paid ad in the Washington Post, almost 500 climate, environmental, and civil society groups urged the governmental policymakers of North America to “abandon the dirty, dangerous myth of carbon capture and storage.” Their conclusion: “We don’t need to fix fossil fuels; we need to ditch them. Instead of capturing carbon to pump it back underground, we should keep fossil fuels in the ground in the first place” (emphasis in original).
Stopping the double-steal
Burying and maintaining more than 3,000 miles of pipe requires access to huge amounts of land. In Iowa alone, Navigator’s pipeline will pass through 35 counties, Summit’s through 24. Company representatives have been approaching property owners across those counties about signing over control of portions of their land as an easement. Hundreds are refusing to sign, citing safety concerns (CO2 leaks can be extremely dangerous), damage to their cropland and waterways, and corporate intrusion on their property. In response, Summit is moving toward taking over their land outright through eminent domain.
“If these companies have actually secured as many voluntary easements as they allege,” asks Fitil, “then why are they moving to seize land through eminent domain so soon? People are starting to understand what these guys are up to, and a lot of people are reeling. It’s a very sensitive matter for Indigenous folks. This country was founded on land stolen from them, and now they are trying to prevent some of that land from being stolen again, this time by big corporations. So Indigenous people are standing shoulder to shoulder with farmers.” There is also the serious matter of burial mounds and other culturally sensitive areas that lie in the pipeline route: “We’re working with the State Historic Preservation Office and tribal officers to get those sacred sites preserved and make sure that they aren’t ransacked, basically, by these projects,” Fitil adds.
Farmers have excellent reasons to deny easements and to fight eminent domain. Many of them are cultivating some of the nation’s most productive agricultural lands, and the last thing they want is massive earth-moving equipment driving on, digging into, and compacting the soil in a 50-foot-wide swath across their farm. To bury pipelines, crews dig deep trenches, piling up the soil alongside them. Once the pipes are in place and the soil is dumped back into the trench, topsoil gets mixed with the less fertile subsoil.
The results of this soil abuse are predictable. In 2021, Iowa State University agronomists found that on Dakota Access Pipeline easements, corn yields were reduced by 15 percent, soybean yields by 25 percent. The study’s lead scientist, Robert Horton, said, “Overall, in the first two years, we found the construction caused severe subsoil compaction, impaired soil physical structure that can discourage root growth and reduce water infiltration in the right-of-way.”
An improbable alliance
The pipeline struggle has brought together communities that rarely find common cause and can often be adversaries. “We really have formed an unlikely alliance,” says Fitil. “A lot of conservative Republicans are joining up with Indigenous folks, and they all are joining up with environmentalists. These people normally don’t get along, they don’t join in anything together. But here they’re really pissed off and joining hand in hand in the struggle against these pipelines.”
Fitil told me that this improbable coalition is applying valuable lessons that were learned from the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. That epic 2016 confrontation on the banks of the Missouri River at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation managed to win a months-long halt in work on a stretch of the pipeline in South Dakota, before the newly elected Trump administration authorized a restart. But in Nebraska and Iowa at that time, says Fitil, the opposition was less unified: “People kind of went their own directions, rolled up their sleeves to fight it on their own, and we lost. But now things are different. We’re networking all up and down this pipeline route. Organizers, landowners, tribes . . . there’s a huge groundswell of grassroots activism going on. In Linn County, Iowa [home to Cedar Rapids], every other farm that you pass by, they’ve got grassroots signage up there, you know, ‘country billboards,’ saying ‘No eminent domain for private gain,’ ‘Not on my farm,’ ‘Not through my timber.’ These are just people, not ‘dot-orgs’ or nonprofits, saying, ‘Hell no, we’re not going to have it.’”
“This time, the tribes started networking before the companies even figured out which tribes were which,” says Fitil. “We started networking with our counterparts up in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska. As soon as we heard about the carbon pipeline more than a year and a half ago, we started coming together and discussing what we’re going to do. See, last time, North Dakota was doing their own thing, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, were all doing their own things. Now, we’re holding joint monthly meetings, we’re holding national and state meetings. The landowners are signing up with an easement action team. And that’s something that’s way different than it was with DAPL.”
On August 12, 2022, members of the Great Plains Action Society and allies from across the movement met with the Iowa Utilities Board, the body that will make decisions on eminent domain declarations, among other issues. Says Fitil, “They couldn’t have been any less interested in what ‘we the people’ had to say. These folks were handpicked by governors, current and past, one of whom is now working for one of the pipeline corporations. We let ’em have it! We and the landowners told them, ‘Hey, we’re all locking arms, we’re standing up against this.’”
“Is this pipeline really what we need to be spending our taxpayer dollars on?” he asks. “No! These are the industries that have contributed the most to the very crisis that they now claim to be addressing. This has really galvanized resistance like very few issues can do. And, you know, if it comes down to a matter of will, we’ll meet them out in the fields, and we’ll let them know how strong our resolve is. The land is worth it, the water is worth it. Future generations are worth it.”
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Stan Cox (@CoxStan) is the author of The Green New Deal and Beyond (2020) and The Path to a Livable Future (2021). The original version of this article was published by City Lights Books as part of the ‘In Real Time’ series. See the evolving ‘In Real Time’ visual work at the illustrated archive; listen to the ‘In Real Time’ podcast for the spoken version of this article; and hear a discussion of it on the Anti-Empire Project podcast (coming soon).