Vivek Ramaswamy leans into a contentious issue in Iowa in a late bid for traction

DES MOINES, Iowa — With the Iowa caucuses closing in, Vivek Ramaswamy is homing in on a local struggle that’s led to an unlikely union between environmental activists and landowners and farmers in the state seeking to protect their property.

Ramaswamy has started devoting a significant portion of his stump speeches to addressing concerns about efforts by Summit Carbon Solutions to build underground pipelines to move carbon dioxide emitted from ethanol and industrial plants in Iowa to North Dakota. Landowners who do not want the pipelines installed on their property are concerned that the state government may use eminent domain, which allows the government to seize private lands for public projects, to build them anyway.

In a rare speech last week dedicated solely to the carbon capture pipelines, Ramaswamy warned of the ramifications of using eminent domain for private construction.  

“Ethanol plants are not the only things that emit carbon dioxide into the air. You mark my words, if that meets the test, that justifies the Biden administration or anybody else coming after him to be able to come into your home and seize your gas stove and leave a $50 check in your mailbox,” Ramaswamy said to a crowd of about 150 Iowans.

The focus on the issue comes just weeks before Iowa starts the GOP presidential nominating contests with its Jan. 15 caucuses. While Ramaswamy has gained wide notice since he launched his presidential campaign, especially with his combative debate performances, he has not made a big impression in the polls, registering at 4% support in each of the past two NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom polls of Iowa Republicans.

“Anyone who does not have an electric vehicle, bring the tow truck on your driveway, drag that out, leave a $50 check in your mailbox,” said Ramaswamy. “Frankly, for farmers, a cow releases methane. I mean, the same argument applies,” he added after saying the use of eminent domain to seize land for the privately owned pipeline would be unconstitutional.

The 38-year-old businessman has challenged popular Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, to break her silence on using eminent domain to build the pipelines.

“Maybe she has a policy vision, why this is really good for Iowans? If so, she should say instead of cowering and hiding from the issue,” Ramaswamy said, claiming to give Reynolds the benefit of the doubt. “I think it’s just unacceptable for leaders to hide and cower in fear and remain in silence,” Ramaswamy added. “It is a baffling mystery to me why you have so many governors who have been pin-drop silent on this issue.”

A Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa poll from March showed 78% of Iowans oppose private companies using eminent domain to construct carbon dioxide pipelines. 

A sign at a Vivek Ramaswamy event opposes using eminent domain for carbon dioxide pipelines.
A sign at a Vivek Ramaswamy event opposes using eminent domain for carbon dioxide pipelines.Alex Tabet / NBC News

A second pipeline company, Wolf Carbon Solutions, has said it will not use eminent domain and plans to acquire voluntary easements from landowners along the path of its proposed pipeline. In late October, a third company, Navigator CO2 Ventures, ended its $3.5 billion pipeline plan across the Midwest.

Kathy Stockdale, a corn and soybean farmer whose land has been targeted by Summit Carbon Solutions as a place to build, expressed fear about the potential of a carbon capture pipeline explosion. “If there was a leak on our farm, we will be dead. We are in the kill zone,” said Stockdale.

In 2020, a carbon dioxide pipeline leak in Mississippi sickened dozens of people, driving much of the anxiety Iowans are now expressing.

Doyle Turner, a farmer from Moville, Iowa, worries that the pipelines could end his family’s way of life. “My son is a fifth-generation farmer. It does me no good to give my son the land if we don’t give him the right to it,” said Turner. 

And Eileen Sailer, 75, from Denison, worries what the pipeline could mean for farmers like her husband. She says she can understand the need for eminent domain for certain projects, but not this one.

“When it’s used to build new interstates or new highways, I can understand it for public use,” Sailer said. But when it’s used for private use, I am absolutely opposed to it.”

Ahead of the caucuses, the pipeline issue is forcing Republican candidates to demonstrate support for landowners’ rights without minimizing the importance of maintaining the ethanol industry, which many Iowa corn farmers rely on. And Ramaswamy is challenging his GOP rivals to address the issue more directly.

“I think it’d be great if the other presidential candidates took this up,” Ramaswamy said in Des Moines. “For the sake of this cause, that would be a good thing. And I’m rooting for them to do it.”

GOP front-runner Donald Trump largely avoids talking about the pipelines during his swings through the state, but the former president does express support for the ethanol industry at large. In Council Bluffs in July, he hurriedly moved past a question about protecting Iowans’ land from carbon dioxide pipelines.

“Well, you know, we’re working on that,” Trump said in response. “And you know, we had a plan to totally — it’s such a ridiculous situation, isn’t it? But we had a plan, and we would have instituted that plan, and it was all ready, but we will get it — if we win, that’s going to be taken care of. That will be one of the easy things we do.”

Similarly, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis hasn’t devoted much time on the trail to articulating his position on the pipelines, but over the summer, he responded to a question about the scope of eminent domain during a stop in Algona. 

“I believe it’s narrow,” DeSantis said. “I believe it’s for public purposes, and I think when you have some of these projects, you need to negotiate with the property owners rather than use coercive power of the state. Negotiate.” 

And at a town hall event in October in Ida Grove, Nikki Haley, former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina governor, said she supports the concept of carbon capture — but not the practice of using eminent domain to acquire the land to install pipelines.

“I am in favor of carbon capture. I think that’s a great thing,” Haley said. “I am not in favor of eminent domain at all. I’ve never been in favor of it as governor, I wasn’t, you know, we’ve got to make sure that is your property, period. That is your property. And unless there is a national security reason, they shouldn’t be able to take it. And so I will always stand with the property owners.”