Supporters of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe rally in opposition of the Dakota Access oil pipeline in front of the White House in September 2016.
Supporters of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe rally in opposition of the Dakota Access oil pipeline in front of the White House in September 2016. Credit: Jacquelyn Martin / AP Photo

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We’re a long way from another Standing Rock.

In Iowa, though, a coalition similar to the one that took a stand against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016 is emerging to fight a proposed interstate carbon dioxide pipeline network, and opponents say they’re more organized and energized at this stage thanks to lessons learned last decade.

“People forget the fight against DAPL” — the Dakota Access Pipeline — “started in Iowa,” said Sikowis Nobiss, founder and executive director of Great Plains Action Society, a regional organization of Indigenous activists formed in part to help galvanize resistance to Dakota Access. “Here we are again starting a fight against a pipeline in Iowa.”

The organization’s latest target is a project by Summit Carbon Solutions that would carry carbon dioxide captured at more than 30 Midwest ethanol plants to underground storage sites in North Dakota. The proposed route would not cross tribal land, but the same was true of the early Dakota Access route before it was rerouted through the Standing Rock Reservation.

Nobiss, a citizen of the George Gordon First Nation, sees parallels with the Dakota Access movement, specifically in the unlikely alliances forming among environmental and Indigenous activists and White landowners who see pipeline construction as a threat to their farmland. Concerns about eminent domain have drawn local governments and groups such as the Farm Bureau into the fray, too. 

“They’re in the fight for their reasons, and we’re in it for ours,” Nobiss said. 

Early outreach

The biggest difference from Dakota Access is the level of organization this early in the process. By the time Great Plains Action Society mobilized against DAPL, many tribal governments along the route had already heard presentations and promises from the pipeline’s developer. Today, their outreach efforts are often outpacing the company’s, she said, giving them a chance to reach local leaders before they have already formed positions.

“Back during the DAPL days, I don’t think that tribal folks were hearing the other side of the conversation at this time,” Nobiss said.

The Iowa Sierra Club was similarly quick to organize after Summit’s project was announced last year, putting much of its effort so far into educating and organizing property owners in the project’s path. Its lead organizer has been in contact with more than 1,000 landowners, and more than 100 have signed with an Omaha law firm to represent them as a group.

“We didn’t do enough with Dakota Access, and we didn’t get in soon enough,” said Wally Taylor, an attorney representing the Iowa Sierra Club who advised the environmental group early on to prioritize creating a unified voice for landowners instead of having them intervene individually as they did for Dakota Access. 

Jessica Mazour, the Sierra Club’s lead organizer on the project, said the type of conversations she’s having today are different from the ones she had around Dakota Access. While many people have strong political opinions about oil pipelines, they’re often less familiar with carbon capture pipelines. 

“I think because people don’t know a lot about carbon pipelines, it gave us an opportunity to teach people about something they don’t have a preconceived notion about,” Mazour said. She credits two organizations, the Center for International Environmental Law and the Science and Environmental Health Network, for helping the Sierra Club put together education materials.

The argument against the pipeline

The developer is pitching the project as a way to address climate change, but the Sierra Club and other environmental critics say it’s a risky and unnecessary distraction from more proven solutions such as investments in renewable energy, electrification, and energy efficiency.

“We think that, number one, it destroys farmland,” Taylor said. “Number two, there is a very real prospect of injury and damage both to humans and the environment if there is a rupture, and we don’t believe it’s a solution to the climate crisis. … It’s strictly for the benefit of the ethanol industry and the promoter.”

The project’s economics are largely driven by the low-carbon fuel standards adopted by West Coast states, which offer financial incentives for emission-reducing transportation fuels. Summit Carbon Solutions says its project will put 31 Midwest ethanol plants on track to be able to market net-zero fuel by 2030, in addition to creating thousands of construction jobs and hundreds of long-term positions. The project will have capacity to capture and permanently store up to 12 million tons of CO2 per year, it says.

But first, it needs to be built. Taylor says there are signs that early organizing by the Sierra Club and its allies is having an effect. The company said last month that it had only secured about 20% of the nearly 3,000 voluntary easements it is seeking for its route across Iowa, and more than two dozen counties have now objected to the project or the use of eminent domain for carbon pipelines.

While opponents feel ahead of the curve compared to where they were with Dakota Access, they also recognize that they are in uncharted territory. 

“Because this is the first and largest interstate carbon pipeline, there’s not a playbook to follow,” Mazour said. “We’re writing the playbook.”

Dan Haugen

Dan has two decades' experience working in print, digital and broadcast media. Prior to joining the Energy News Network as managing editor in December 2017, he oversaw watchdog reporting at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, part of the USA Today Network, and before that spent several years as a freelance journalist covering energy, business and technology. Dan is a former Midwest Energy News journalism fellow and a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and mass communications from University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.