People raise their hands to signal their intent to speak in support of an ordinance that would restrict carbon pipelines at a Minnehaha County Commission meeting on May 23, 2023, in Sioux Falls. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
SIOUX FALLS — Minnehaha County commissioners gridlocked Tuesday on setbacks from rural homes and postponed a vote on an ordinance with the potential to scuttle two carbon capture pipelines.
The absence of Commission Chair Jean Bender set the stage for a 2-2 vote and a return to the issue at the June 6 meeting.
Plenty of people are waiting for the county’s call. Tuesday’s discussion on pipeline permitting in the state’s most populous county packed the commission room with supporters and opponents, with another two dozen listening in overflow areas.
The commission is considering an ordinance after months of back-and-forth and well over a year of steady public input from county residents and landowners. It would force any pipelines in the county to stay 750 feet away from rural homes, 1,000 feet from schools, and between a mile and half a mile from cities, depending on their populations.
If a pipeline route is closer to any of those properties, its backers would either need sign-off from property owners or a conditional use permit. Such permits are granted at the discretion of the county commission and require a public hearing with public comment.
Tuesday’s tie vote came after more than two hours of testimony and debate. The subject of the tie was a proposed amendment to the ordinance that would shorten the allowable distances between property lines and pipelines.
The vast majority of those who’ve addressed the issue publicly in Minnehaha County oppose the two companies that aim to pass pipeline projects through South Dakota, Summit Carbon Solutions and Navigator CO2 Ventures. Each project has been promoted as part of an industry-saving innovation for U.S. ethanol that would sequester carbon underground.
Sequestering the carbon they emit while producing ethanol would allow ethanol companies to profit from federal tax credits. It would also grant them the opportunity to sell fuel in states with tighter climate change policies than South Dakota and most of the Midwestern states where ethanol and the corn grown to produce it come from.
Both sides of Tuesday’s debate used that narrative to bolster their claims. Pipeline opponents – who supported the county’s proposal as a “bare minimum” to protect the public in the event of a catastrophic rupture – told commissioners that one industry’s cash flows ought not factor into zoning decisions. High concentrations of carbon can be fatal.
“The amount of money ethanol companies might make or lose should not stand in the way of intelligent development,” said Chase Jensen, an advocate with the nonprofit group Dakota Rural Action, who spoke on behalf of several pipeline opponents. The pipeline ordinance on offer Tuesday “is already bent toward the companies and not the people.”
Several opponents, including Rep. John Sjaarda, R-Valley Springs, said they support and benefit from the state’s ethanol infrastructure, but nonetheless oppose the capture and transport of carbon via underground pipeline.
“I’m a big supporter of ethanol,” Sjaarda said. “This ordinance is not about ethanol, it’s about proper development.”
Representatives from the two companies, ethanol boosters and a pipeline safety consultant characterized the county’s proposal as one that would make it all but impossible to build their projects. Failure to capitalize on the carbon sequestration economy would amount to a death knell for an ethanol industry that’s boosted corn prices and helped keep farmers afloat for the past 30 years, they said.
“You cannot support ethanol and not support this pipeline,” said Walter Wendland of Ringneck Energy, an ethanol plant near Onida.
Aaron Eldridge of Summit Carbon Solutions, meanwhile, was among those to say that pipelines represent the safest way to transport hazardous materials, and to point out that more than 100 miles of hazardous pipelines are already in place beneath Minnehaha County, though none carry carbon.
He also told commissioners that the federal Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) holds sway over carbon pipelines.
That agency requires minimum setbacks of just 50 feet from homes, he said. He pointed to a judge’s comments during arguments on a pipeline-restricting county ordinance in Shelby County, Iowa, as proof that the pipelines would win in court.
“We believe this is pre-empted by PHMSA,” said Eldridge.
Commissioner Joe Kippley attempted to move the zoning ordinance closer to “neutral” ground by changing the distance required between rural homes and pipelines from 750 to 330 feet, citing safety guidance from the federal pipeline authority.
The 750-foot figure, though backed by the county’s planning and zoning board, is “arbitrary,” Kippley said.
“It’s not our role to second-guess PHMSA and the federal government,” he said.
Pipeline opponents lined up to argue against his amendment, with one man suggesting that each commissioner put a plastic bag over their head and try to run 330 feet to simulate what it would feel like to be caught in a cloud of carbon dioxide after a pipeline rupture.
Pipeline supporters didn’t like the setback change, either.
“We remain opposed to the ordinance as a whole,” Eldridge said.
In the end, Commissioners Kippley and Dean Karsky supported the 330-foot change. Commissioners Gerald Beninga and Jen Bleyenberg voted against it.
The commission will reconvene to take up the amendment, with Bender present to break a tie, next month. A vote on the full ordinance would follow.
In the meantime, Brown County commissioners are among those locked in a federal court battle with the pipeline companies over their own restrictive pipeline ordinance, and more than 80 landowners are facing eminent domain action seeking access to their land.
The federal pipeline administration will hold two days of public meetings on the topic of carbon dioxide pipeline safety starting May 31 in Des Moines, Iowa.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect a correction. An earlier version of the story incorrectly identified Chase Jensen’s connection to the pipeline projects.
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