(This April 25 story corrects spelling of IUB spokesperson's name in paragraph 14)
By Leah Douglas
(Reuters) - Summit Carbon Solutions, the company behind a huge carbon pipeline proposal in the U.S. Midwest, has close ties to Iowa officials and regulators charged with approving a large part of its route, according to a Reuters review of public documents and company websites.
At least four members of Summit's leadership have direct links to the Iowa governor's office or the Iowa Utility Board (IUB), both of which could influence the future of the roughly 2,000-mile (3,200-km) pipeline, according to the review. One is the top individual donor to the current governor, Kim Reynolds. Another is a former Iowa governor, Terry Branstad, who nominated two of the IUB's three commissioners, including its chair.
The links between Summit's leadership and public officials in Iowa, which would host the largest share of Summit's proposed Midwest Carbon Express project, have raised worries among ethics watchdogs and environmental groups over whether project opponents will get a fair hearing.
"I would say there is a valid concern on the part of the (pipeline opponents) that they're not getting equal treatment by the government," said Robert Maguire, research director at the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, who examined the Reuters reporting.
Ames, Iowa-based Summit said it was following legal and ethics guidelines and that it is typical for former officials and regulators to take private-sector roles in which their expertise is relevant.
"It's not surprising that the company has attracted a strong bipartisan team with a diverse set of experiences in agriculture, engineering and public policy," Summit spokesperson Jesse Harris said.
Summit's project is meant to capture millions of tons of carbon dioxide from 32 Midwest ethanol plants and pipe it to an underground storage site in North Dakota. Iowa, the top ethanol state, would host about 680 miles (1,100 km) of the pipeline.
The project would help the biofuels industry secure a place in a climate-friendly future by reducing its carbon footprint, while also taking advantage of federal and state subsidies for carbon capture and low carbon fuels.
Landowners have expressed concern that the pipeline could reduce farm yields, lower property values or pose a public safety threat if it leaks.
The Reuters review found that Bruce Rastetter, the head of Summit's parent company Summit Agricultural Group, is the top individual donor to Reynolds, Iowa's Republican governor. Rastetter gave nearly $150,000 to Reynolds between 2018 and 2022, according to records maintained by the National Institute on Money in Politics.
Opponents are concerned that Reynolds would veto any bills critical of the pipeline like one recently passed in the state House that would delay the project's permitting process.
Summit's senior policy advisor is Branstad, Iowa's Republican former governor and a former U.S. ambassador to China during President Donald Trump's administration. During Branstad's 22-year tenure as governor, he appointed two of the three IUB commissioners, including its chair. The IUB will decide whether to permit the project.
Summit's lobbyists in Iowa include Jake Ketzner, who is Reynolds' former chief of staff, and Jeffrey Boeyink, who served as Branstad's chief of staff.
IUB spokesperson Don Tormey said the board members are held to ethics standards and would decide for themselves whether there was a conflict of interest in their participation in the pipeline proceedings "at the appropriate time."
Alex Murphy, spokesperson for Reynolds, said the governor conducts "a full, fair, and impartial review of every bill that makes it to her desk."
Rastetter's Summit Agricultural Group did not respond to a request for comment.
Jess Mazour, an organizer with the Sierra Club environmental group, said the relationships between Summit and Iowa officials made her worry that public opposition to the project could be ignored.
Some 98.9% of comments in the Summit pipeline docket at the IUB were opposed to the pipeline in March.
"If they are listening to the people, it's very clear that this shouldn't be approved," Mazour said.
Another pipeline company, Navigator CO2 Ventures, is also proposing a carbon pipeline through the region. The main attorney representing Navigator, Samantha Norris, was once general counsel of the IUB, according to the IUB docket.
Norris directed Reuters to Navigator for comment. The company called concerns about the relationship "baseless."
Reynolds has not taken a public position on the pipelines, but in 2021 named representatives from both Navigator and Summit to a state carbon sequestration task force or related working group.
(Reporting by Leah Douglas in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham and Richard Valdmanis)