Summit CEO: CO2 Pipeline's Time is Now

Summit CEO Blank Says Company Attitude 'Hardened' Toward Completing Carbon Pipeline

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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Summit Carbon Solutions CEO Lee Blank provided an update on the company's carbon dioxide pipeline project, at the National Ethanol Conference in San Diego this week. (DTN file photo by Chris Clayton)

SAN DIEGO (DTN) -- Summit Carbon Solutions CEO Lee Blank was blunt in his assessment of where things stand on the development of the Midwest Carbon Express CO2 pipeline, during the National Ethanol Conference in San Diego on Tuesday.

Although regulatory disputes and opposition from environmental groups recently took down Summit's competition in Navigator CO2, Blank said his company's own ongoing battles have stiffened resolve to build the carbon pipeline across Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota and Nebraska.

Blank laid out where the company stands on permitting battles in each state, as well as the nature of the continued opposition to the pipeline project.

"If you see the project and you support the project, it's no time to be meek and it's no time to be mild," Blank sold ethanol producers and farmers during a panel discussion on Tuesday.

"Now is the time because we're right up against these permits. We're right up against legislation and now is the time that if we want this project to be completed, then we believe it's really good for the industry. And I think we all know now is the time. This will not happen again. No one will take this on to try and take these hurdles on this again and spend a lot of money, hit these political environments, utility commissions that have made it very, very difficult. Now is the time."

The project is becoming an easier sell to farmer landowners and others in rural America, he said.

The ethanol industry is expected to play a large role as a feedstock provider in the production of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), so long as the ethanol industry can improve its carbon intensity score. That's why carbon capture and storage is important.

There is potential for another wave of economic expansion in rural communities similar to the early days of the Renewable Fuel Standard starting in 2005 if ethanol producers can become part of the SAF expansion.

Blank said that opportunity is why Summit continues to press forward.

"It really has just hardened our attitude towards accomplishing this project," he said.

"I come from agriculture and so this is important to me as well. I think one of the reasons we're being successful is we're a partnership model and we're also an agricultural company delivering an infrastructure project and we start with that."

REGULATORY OBSTACLES

Blank said the company plans to begin construction in early 2025 with operations launching in early 2026. If completed, the pipeline would connect to 51 ethanol plants and provide a lift to the ethanol industry's prospects of being a part of sustainable aviation fuel production.

In Iowa, Blank said he anticipates a decision coming from the Iowa Utilities Board on the company's permit application "sometime this first quarter." Summit has acquired about 75% of the right of way needed in the state.

After the North Dakota Public Service Commission (PSC) denied Summit's permit application, the company completed reroutes in three counties.

The North Dakota PSC granted a petition for reconsideration and determined that state law preempts county laws. Blank said Summit is waiting for new hearings to be set and has acquired about 80% of needed rights of ways in the state.

In South Dakota, the state's public utilities commission rejected Summit's permit application last fall. The PUC said back in September the proposed pipeline route had conflicts with county guidelines on setbacks and other issues.

Blank said the company continues to work with officials in various counties and has acquired about 75% of the land needed in South Dakota.

In Nebraska this week, the Stanton County Board denied a conditional use permit request from Summit.

According to a story in the Des Moines Register, county officials have asked for additional information on potential health risks and on any potential foreign ownership of the project. In addition, the county is seeking more information on possible alternative routes.

Blank said this week about 90% of needed land acquisitions have been completed in Stanton County.

Also this week, the Dakota County, Nebraska, Planning and Zoning Commission tabled a decision on a conditional use permit application by Summit.

In Minnesota, the company has completed a series of environmental-impact statement meetings with the state and permit hearings are set for May 2024. Blank said about 89% of needed rights of ways have been signed.

NATURE OF OPPOSITION

Blank said it was a "very loud minority" of people expressing opposition to the project. The focus of the opposition, he said, keeps evolving as the company addresses concerns raised.

"Actually, there's a story that changes as we get closer to completion and they find something else that they need to talk about," Blank said.

"It could be landowner rights. It could be safety of the pipeline and what we do to abate that."

In South Dakota, he said, the company was told during public hearings that Summit has a "safety messaging issue" in the state.

Blank said the Summit executive team held 10 safety meetings in South Dakota where they invited 4,000 residents to attend -- only 150 people attended.

"We don't have a safety issue," he said.

"Then the next week we came into an ownership discussion -- we're owned by a foreign entity. It's just simply not true. And so then now it's water. Now it's environmental pushback that we're going to use too much water at the ethanol facilities -- it's a fraction."

Although all the states are important to the project, Blank said its success hinges largely on permitting efforts in Iowa and the Dakotas.

"Ultimately if I can get those three mainline states permitted we have a project," he said.

"There's enough volume in those three states that we can actually get the project completed and finished. So we focus heavily on those three states."

PROJECT SIGNIFICANCE

Blank said he grew up on a farm in north-central Iowa and he understands what "an acre means" to farmers.

The significance of the Summit project, he said, is beginning to be understood by rural Americans as the agriculture economy appears to be softening.

"I think there was a lot of discussion around climate change, the project's role about climate change," Blank said.

"I won't argue climate change. You can believe it. You cannot believe it. But I will argue there are markets that are willing to pay a premium for a low CI (carbon intensity) product and those markets are growing. And so, the project becomes that much more important as we move through the process."

Blank said that because Summit's project is the "last major project standing" company officials "get a lot of clarity" in how it should be completed.

"We also take a lot more bullets from the opposition because frankly, we're kind of the only ones that are left in a sense. But it does increase the weight of it a little bit," he said.

"I think to be fair I think we deserved a little criticism. Which is I think part of the reason that the founders of the company decided to take a more agricultural approach. There aren't many folks that you find, possibly in the Dakotas or Nebraska, that have built this kind of infrastructure before. You really have to go to different places around the country and I'm not sure that we did everything appropriately early. But it's not an apology tour. We're going to continue to do things in the right way."

Read more on DTN:

"Carbon Pipeline Hearings in Iowa," https://www.dtnpf.com/…

"Poet to Add 17 Plants to CO2 Pipeline," https://www.dtnpf.com/…

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

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