Emma Schmidt, a lifelong environmental activist in Rockwell City, Iowa, had long searched for potent allies in her fight against a massive carbon dioxide pipeline planned for her state.
But she never expected to find herself at former Representative Steve King’s house, making her case as she stared up at a pistol in the paw of a taxidermied raccoon in his home office.
That meeting in June between a liberal Democrat and a conservative Republican who lost his seat in Congress in 2020 after incendiary racist comments was the beginning of a left-right alliance that is trying to push the debate of the pipeline to the forefront of the heated G.O.P. presidential caucuses.
“We’re putting in a whole lot of money into pipelines that are not necessary, that bulldoze their way through some of the richest farmlands in the world, to sequester CO2,” said an incredulous Mr. King on Tuesday.
The $4.5 billion Summit, $3 billion Navigator and $630 million Wolf Carbon pipelines may not be front and center next month at the first Republican presidential debate. They probably won’t be featured in super PAC advertising or mentioned during Fox News appearances. But the pipelines capture a national debate with local consequences, and they will give candidates a chance to showcase their understanding of Iowa, the first state to weigh in on the Republican nominating fight — if they can navigate the issue.
The Summit, Navigator and Wolf pipelines, fueled by federal tax credits embraced by both parties, would draw carbon dioxide from the factories that turn Iowa corn into ethanol. They would snake through 3,300 miles of farmland in Iowa and other Midwestern states, then pump the planet-warming gas into the bedrock beneath Illinois and North Dakota. And they are pitched as a climate protection measure, though some experts and environmentalists say it is only a partial solution at best.
Earlier this month, an Iowa woman seemed to stump the front-runner, former President Donald J. Trump, when she asked how he would “help us in Iowa save our farmland from the CO2 pipelines.”
Mr. Trump stammered that he was “working on that” and that he “had a plan to totally, uh, it’s such a ridiculous situation,” before reassuring the crowd, “if we win, that’s going to be taken care of.”
The moment has been laughed off as a show of Mr. Trump’s ability to bluster his way through anything, but the issue is tricky: Several of the Republican candidates have cast doubt on the established climate science and would seem disinclined to back a project aimed at reducing carbon emissions. But opposing the pipeline also means opposing Iowa’s all-important ethanol industry.
The state’s popular Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, has avoided taking a public position. Opponents believe she supports the deal, which is backed by some of her biggest political contributors, including Bruce Rastetter, founder of the Summit Agricultural Group. Ms. Reynolds’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Powerful figures from both parties have signed with the pipeline companies, including Terry Branstad, Ms. Reynolds’s predecessor, and Jess Vilsack, the son of another former Iowa governor and the current Democratic secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack. Agriculture giants like John Deere and A.D.M. have invested in the efforts.
Presidential candidates have tried to skirt the issue; most campaigns declined to comment, including Mr. Trump’s. But campaign aides said this week that they knew a time for choosing was coming. The first public hearings on the Summit pipeline will begin on Aug. 22 in Fort Dodge, Iowa.
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is expecting questions later this week in a swing through the state, according to people familiar with the campaign.
The left-right alliance is giving voice to Iowa landowners infuriated by the prospect that their land could be seized by eminent domain for the pipelines. Tim Baughman, who farms 330 acres with his sister in Crawford County, Iowa, brought his anti-pipeline sign to a Vivek Ramaswamy event in Dennison, eliciting a promise from the Republican entrepreneur to oppose the projects.
“I’m fighting this to the end,” vowed Dan Wahl, who grows corn, soybeans and alfalfa on 160 acres near Spirit Lake, Iowa, and recently chased Summit surveyors off his land.
Supporters — including agribusiness conglomerates and oil and gas tycoons — see the projects as a way to persuade liberal states like California it is possible to both continue ethanol production and fight global warming. If it works, so-called carbon capture and sequestration, the practice of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, could be expanded to oil and gas, extending the life of the fossil fuel economy.
Dean Ferguson, president of the Canada-based Wolf Carbon Solutions’s American subsidiary, said in a statement that he was hopeful that the pipeline planned from Iowa to Illinois would be built through voluntary easements.
“Our approach is to build lasting relationships with landowners, so we can work together for years to come,” he said.
In a statement, Summit Carbon Solutions said 75 percent of Iowa landowners along the project route had signed voluntary easements “and more are signing every day.”
To opponents, the pipelines are dangerous, taxpayer-subsidized boondoggles that will destroy farmland and do nothing to curb global warming. A carbon dioxide pipeline ruptured in tiny Satartia, Miss., in 2020, sending 40 people to the hospital, forcing the evacuation of more than 300 others and releasing more than 31,000 barrels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
“Climate change money should be spent on things that are proven to actually work,” said Jessica Mazour, the conservation program coordinator of the Sierra Club in Iowa, who is helping to unite environmental activists with conservative farmers who doubt climate change is real.
The unusual alliance can be strained. Sherri Webb, 73, who owns 40 acres of farmland in Shelby County, Iowa, said she had her doubts about climate change: “I don’t believe it’s as bad as some people are thinking.” If anything, she added, she worries more about taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and away from her crops.
But it was the threat of eminent domain that got her involved in the fight against the Summit pipeline. Summit Carbon Solutions says the pipeline on her land would be buried four feet deep, covered with top soil and reseeded. But her climate-friendly, no-till farm has been in her family for 123 years and hasn’t had the soil turned in decades. The pipeline digging, she said, will bring heavy diesel-powered equipment onto her property, and may cause erosion and crop loss for years. .
Ms. Schmidt is fine with climate skepticism. “A key tenet for change,” she said, “is to meet people where they’re at.”
Mr. King was first ousted from his committee assignments, then defeated in a primary challenge, after a series of racist comments culminated in an interview with The New York Times in which he asked, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”
But Ms. Schmidt said that Mr. King, after 18 years in Congress, remained influential in conservative western Iowa.
“I certainly never thought we’d be in a position to have a meeting where you have incredibly liberal socialists teaming with very right-wing QAnon believers,” she continued. “People have to open their minds a little bit, and sometimes they have to shut their mouths.”
How Republican presidential candidates respond is, at this point, anyone’s guess. Despite Mr. Trump’s more recent comments, when he was president, his administration said it had no plan to stop the pipelines. In fact, a tax credit created in 2008 to incentivize carbon capture programs like Summit, Navigator and Wolf was expanded by a budget law in 2018 that Mr. Trump signed, and expanded again by a tax bill signed by Mr. Trump in 2020. The credit was expanded yet again by President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.
Mr. Rastetter has donated around $10,000 to Mr. Trump’s campaigns since 2016, along with the hundreds of thousands he has donated to national and state Republican interests over the past 15 years.
Officials at Navigator declined to comment.
Critics say Mr. Trump has every reason to oppose the pipeline now. He has called climate change a “hoax” devised by China, so the pipelines are billed as a solution to a problem he does not recognize. Even better, he could use his stated opposition to continue a feud with Ms. Reynolds, whom he has blasted for refusing to endorse him, said Jane Kleeb, a Nebraska Democrat and anti-pipeline activist who has been pressing Mr. Trump to get involved.
“There’s no downside for him,” she said.
When Mr. Ramaswamy, who has called climate activism a cult, was asked about the issue last month in Davenport, Iowa, he dismissed the pipelines as a solution in search of a problem.
But in an interview this week, Mr. Ramaswamy did not blame economic and political interests in Iowa. They are merely responding to incentives set by the federal government, large states like California, and even climate-conscious European nations, he said.
“The debate in Iowa is just collateral damage,” he said.
Other candidates might have a tougher time threading that needle. The companies backing the pipelines frame them as a salvation for ethanol, which Iowa corn farmers depend on, in a world increasingly hostile to internal combustion engines.
One candidate, Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota, does not have the luxury of silence. He has already championed the Summit pipeline, which would end in his state, telling The Bismarck Tribune in May that two carbon dioxide pipelines have operated safely in the state for years.
“And then now it’s like these are the most dangerous things in the world,” he scoffed.