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'Our horses are ready': Native Americans and white farmers form an unlikely alliance to oppose a pipeline in the Dakotas

"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.

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.

Ed Fischbach on his farm in Spink County, S.D., said no to the carbon pipeline on his land.
Ed Fischbach, on his farm in Spink County, S.D., said no to the carbon pipeline on his land. NBC News

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.”

Anti-pipeline sign on property of South Dakota landowner Ed Fischbach.
An anti-pipeline sign on the property of South Dakota landowner Ed Fischbach. NBC News

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.

Questions about the safety of carbon capture pipelines arose in 2020 when one ruptured in Sartoria, Mississippi. At least two dozen residents became ill when the leak created a greenish cloud that smelled like rotten eggs, HuffPost reported.

Asked about the Mississippi leak, Hill of Summit Carbon Solutions characterized the event as tragic but anomalous. “That being the worst-case scenario,” Hill said, “there were no fatalities, no overnight hospitalizations, no animals that died.” Summit’s pipeline will be different from the one that exploded, he added.

Summit Carbon Solutions has raised $1 billion in financing for its pipeline from well-heeled investors, including the hedge fund Tiger Infrastructure Partners and TPG Rise Climate, a unit of the private equity firm TPG. But the financial viability of the project rests heavily on subsidies, including a generous federal tax credit in the Inflation Reduction Act that awards $85 per ton of captured and sequestered carbon. Before the law was enacted, the tax credits maxed out at $50 per ton.

At $4.5 billion, Summit’s proposed pipeline will cost $1 billion less than what TC Energy, developer of the defunct Keystone XL pipeline, estimated that project would have cost. Keystone XL was supposed to run through South Dakota but was scuttled in June 2021 after President Joe Biden rescinded the project’s permit. 

Keystone XL drew many protests and Braun, who also goes by Eagle Feather Woman, was there for some of them in her role as national pipelines organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network, a nonprofit advocacy group.

This spring, Braun applied to the South Dakota Public Utility Commission to be an intervenor representing herself in the Summit pipeline matter so she could make legal objections to the company’s license applications. “There are historic sites, tribal sites, archaeological sites — so we’re concerned about that,” Braun said. The commission denied Braun’s request for intervenor status.

Joye Braun, member of the Cheyenne River Sioux and national pipelines organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network, a nonprofit advocacy group, worries that the pipeline will disturb sacred tribal sites.
Joye Braun, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux and the national pipelines organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network, a nonprofit advocacy group, worries that the pipeline will disturb sacred tribal sites.NBC News

Summit said its tribal outreach shows its commitment to addressing Native Americans’ concerns. “Our project currently has more than 30 tribal monitors from nine tribes participating in cultural field surveys across the entirety of the land where our project is proposed to be located,” a spokeswoman said in an email. “I think that reflects our commitment to going about this important work the right way.”

That’s not enough, said Waniya Locke, a resident of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in South Dakota and a member of the Ahtna Dene, Dakota, Lakota and Anishinaabe tribes. Locke, well known as a grassroots coordinator organizing opposition to the 2017 Dakota Access Pipeline, also opposes Summit’s project. “They contacted the tribes but that doesn’t mean they gave permission or any type of consent,” she said. “We are federally recognized people with treaties in place that protect us, so it is important that they respect our sovereignty.”

Troy Eid, a former U.S. attorney for the district of Colorado, is Summit’s outside counsel on tribal matters. Eid, a lawyer at Greenberg Traurig in Denver, has served as a mediator in complex disputes between Indian tribes and energy companies, and between tribes and state governments.

“I have never worked on a project, and I’ve worked on 50, that did more early in the process,” Eid said in an interview. “If tribes have the information they need early on, they can make good decisions. If they don’t have the information, they can’t participate. That’s been our guiding principle, that’s what we’re doing.”

In addition to concerns about sacred tribal sites along the Summit pipeline route, Locke questions the environmental benefits of carbon capture technology, saying it buries a problem rather than eliminates it.

“It’s like when you have a messy bedroom and you stuff all the junk under the bed,” she said. “It may look clean but it’s not.”

Massacre at Whitestone Hill

In September 1863, U.S. soldiers attacked a peaceful Native American encampment in southern North Dakota in a raid that would go down in history as the state’s bloodiest. Descendants of Native Americans that survived the massacre at Whitestone Hill say more than 2,000 Indigenous people lost their lives there; white historians say as many as 300 died.

Whitestone Hill State Historical Site in southeastern North Dakota, where U.S. soldiers killed hundreds of Native American men, women and children in Sept. 1863.
Whitestone Hill State Historical Site in southeastern North Dakota, where U.S. soldiers killed hundreds of Native American men, women and children in September 1863. NBC News

The Whitestone Hill State Historic Site marks the area of the conflict. It was massive hunting camp used by Native Americans for centuries; the site was also used for ceremonies.

Braun says she is afraid the Summit pipeline will disturb sacred land around Whitestone Hill. “Heaven forbid that somebody gets disturbed or something gets disturbed here,” she said. 

The Summit pipeline’s proposed route will be 17 miles from Whitestone Hill, the company says, and will therefore “have no impact to that historical area.” But because the company has not filed its route with North Dakota officials, the final path is unclear. Summit says that its interactions with stakeholders have resulted in refinements to the path and that it plans to submit its final route “in the coming months.”

Whitestone Hill, southeastern North Dakota, site of the state's bloodiest battle between U.S. soldiers and Native Americans, in 1863.
Whitestone Hill in southeastern North Dakota, the site of the state's bloodiest conflict between U.S. soldiers and Native Americans.NBC News

Of the tribes Summit has reached out to for input on the project, at least one, the Winnebago of Nebraska, requested an environmental impact survey to determine the project’s effects. The Iowa Utilities board denied the request on Oct. 6. 

Summit’s spokesman said it welcomes the feedback from the Winnebago Tribe. No tribes have come out for or against the project, Summit said, adding that it is important to differentiate between tribes and Native American individuals, like Braun, whom it calls activists. Summit has also hired a Native American-owned company to help construct the pipeline. 

Both Braun and Locke say they are happy to be forging new ties with farmers and ranchers in opposition to the Summit project. Pipeline operators and federal and state governments “are always worried about Indians and cowboys and ranchers getting together and uniting,” Braun said.

“I do think we have a chance of winning in order to stop these pipelines. If any of those Republicans and Democrats think we’re going to roll over, our horses are ready.”