With the Iowa Utilities Board expected to grant Energy Transfer Partners’ subsidiary Dakota Access LLC a construction permit for its proposed Bakken crude oil pipeline as early as Wednesday, the Informer looked at state and federal campaign finance databases and reached out to the 22 politicians from Iowa who have received campaign contributions from the Texas energy company’s political action committee.

In 2015, 17 state politicians got contributions from ETP’s Energy Transfer Employee Management Company PAC: six senators, 10 representatives, and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds. Since the 2014 election cycle, when ETP first announced the project, every member of Iowa’s congressional delegation except for Republican Congressman Rod Blum, whose district lies outside of the pipeline’s path, also received money from the PAC.

By and large, Iowa lawmakers have been notably unwilling to go on the record with a stance on the project, often avoiding direct answers by simply stating that the IUB, not the Legislature (or Congress, or the governor’s office), has the independent authority to make a decision on Dakota Access’ permit request.

As we’ve detailed below, responses to the Informer’s repeated inquiries largely followed the trend. With the exception of Steve King’s, the offices of each member of Iowa’s congressional delegation who received contributions responded, but none stated a position on whether they supported or opposed the project. We heard back from just four of the 17 state politicians who got PAC money from the pipeline company.

We asked each of the politicians, or their spokespeople, if they currently supported or opposed the project, whether they believed the state Legislature (or Congress) should have more of a role in the regulatory and approval process, what they thought of IUB member Nick Wagner’s recent comment that climate change should not play a role in the board’s consideration of the pipeline, if the PAC money they received had any influence over their position, and if they had otherwise been in communication with Dakota Access since the project was announced.

The following is a list of the 22 candidates in order of the money they received from ETP’s PAC and their responses to our questions, if any.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-New Hartford; $7,500: “The permitting and construction of the pipeline are state issues. Senator Grassley would advise Iowans to express their concerns to the Iowa Utilities Board, their state legislative representatives and Gov. Branstad,” Grassley’s office said in a statement. “Campaign contributions have no impact on Senator Grassley’s work. He accepts campaign contributions that are legal and have no strings attached. And again, the pipeline is a state matter.”

U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Mount Vernon; $5,500 “The Congressman has been paying attention to the debate and has heard from constituents on both sides, but because there is no federal role, he is hopeful that stakeholders, the state, and most importantly, Iowans can reach a conclusion that ensures their views are taken into account,” said Joe Hand, Loebsack’s communications director. “His number one concern has been and remains the safety and security of folks who live along the proposed route.” Hand also suggested that increased legislative involvement might be appropriate: “Dave believes that the concerns of Iowans must be heard and if that requires the state legislature playing a role, then they should weigh in.” He said that Loebsack has personally met with constituents on both sides of the issue and that his staff has received a progress report from and list of informational meetings held by ETP.

Regarding Wagner’s comment, Hand added, “Dave believes that climate change is real, the science is settled and the debate is over.” (Frustrating some progressives in his liberal eastern Iowa district, Loebsack previously voted for the Keystone XL pipeline that President Obama later blocked while citing climate change as a key reason.)

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Red Oak; $5,000: “Senator Ernst has no role in the approval process,” communications director Brook Hougesen said. Asked to respond more directly, Hougesen replied, “This is a state process and the Iowa Utilities Board has clear authority and jurisdiction for the siting and routing of this pipeline.”

U.S. Rep. David Young, R-Van Meter; $5,000: In a statement, Young’s office said: “Because the approval for construction of the pipeline is a state issue, members of Congress play no role in the decision making process. Congressman Young, who serves Iowans in the United States Congress, has no role in this proposal or process.”

U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron; $3,500: King’s office did not respond to our requests for comment. In 2014, during his re-election bid against Democrat Jim Mowrer, King reportedly suggested that he would support the project if Dakota Access secured voluntary easement agreements with enough property owners along the pipeline’s route. The company says it has reached agreements for 80 percent of the parcels, leaving about 290 others subject to eminent domain proceedings.

Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, R-Osceola; $2,500: “Lt. Gov. Reynolds has nothing to do with the Iowa Utilities Board decision to grant or deny approval to Dakota Access, LLC,” Ben Hammes, communications director for the governor’s office, said in an email. “These decisions, as outlined in Iowa code, are left to the Iowa Utilities Board and are completely independent of the Lt. Governor.” When asked to respond directly to our questions, Hammes instead repeated his original statement and did not respond to subsequent inquiries.

The governor’s office has always maintained its ostensible neutrality on the Bakken pipeline. However, Gov. Terry Branstad appointed all three of the IUB’s members and last year told the Legislature not to interfere with the board’s regulatory decisions. Branstad later suggested that he would support the use of eminent domain for the project. He is also a close political ally of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who joined ETP’s board of directors as he geared up for a presidential bid last year.

State Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs; $2,500: Gronstal did not respond to our requests for comment. In 2015, the anti-pipeline Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement pressured him to allow an immediate vote on Senate File 506, which would have required companies to secure easement agreements on at least 75 percent of the parcels they sought to access before allowing for the use of eminent domain — which, as mentioned above, would not have stopped the Bakken pipeline project. The bill died in the Judiciary Committee.

State House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake; $2,500: Upmeyer did not respond to our requests for comment.

State Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock; $1,500: Dix did not respond to our requests for comment. In March 2015, Dix was one of eight state lawmakers who signed a letter to the IUB (embedded below) opposing an earlier request (PDF) from another group of lawmakers to commission an independent environmental impact assessment of the project at Dakota Access’ expense. Later that year, Dix and six of the seven other lawmakers who signed the second letter received contributions from ETP’s PAC.

State Rep. Lee Hein, R-Monticello; $750: Hein did not respond to our requests for comment. He also signed the IUB letter opposing the independent environmental impact assessment.

State Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines; $750: Bisignano, who supports the Bakken pipeline because of the temporary jobs it would provide union construction workers, also signed the IUB letter opposing the independent environmental impact assessment. “I have based my support for the pipeline [on] the good jobs they provide during the construction of the project,” he said. “They are referred to as just part-time jobs but trades workers build a lifetime career on part-time jobs.” He also said that the contribution had no impact on his current position and that he “resent[ed]” any suggestions to the contrary.

State Rep. Tom Sands, R-Wapello; $750: Sands did not respond to our requests for comment. He also signed the IUB letter opposing the independent environmental impact assessment.

State Sen. Bill Anderson, R-Pierson; $750: Anderson did not respond to our requests for comment. He also signed the IUB letter opposing the independent environmental impact assessment.

State House Minority Leader Mark Smith, D-Marshalltown; $750: Smith did not respond to our requests for comment.

State Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls; $500: Danielson did not respond to our requests for comment.

State Rep. Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley; $500: Windschitl did not respond to our requests for comment.

State Rep. Brian Meyer, D-Des Moines; $500: Meyer also signed the IUB letter opposing the independent environmental impact assessment. “I support the pipeline,” he said in an email. “The donation had nothing to do with it. I discussed the project at length with organized labor and their arguments persuaded me. Meyer added that he “was not aware of Mr. Wagner’s comments,” but didn’t say whether he thought climate change should be a major part of the discussions. Should lawmakers be part of the regulatory process? “Sure,” he replied, “the Legislature should have a say.”

State Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo; $500: Dotzler, the first lawmaker to respond to our questions, said he didn’t have a position on the Bakken pipeline and was unaware that he had received the contribution from ETP, “as I always try to separate myself from campaign donations and issues.” He said that ETP had not been in contact with him otherwise. Dotzler added that he thought the Legislature had already played a proper regulatory role “by laying down the procedures and guidelines in which the utility board operates.” The final decision, he said, should remain the IUB’s to make independent of the Statehouse. Asked about Wagner’s climate change statement, Dotzler replied: “I do not agree entirely with his statement. I believe that climate change and the effects it has on Iowans should be considered, but not necessarily of ‘great weight.’”

State Rep. Abby Finkenauer, D-Dubuque; $500: Finkenauer did not respond to our requests for comment. She also signed the IUB letter opposing the independent environmental impact assessment and, shortly thereafter, told a local newspaper that it would be “irresponsible not to look at all ways” to transport crude oil through the state given the dangers of train derailments.

State Rep. Chris Hall, D-Sioux City; $500: Hall did not respond to our requests for comment.

State Rep. Joel Fry, R-Osceola; $500: Fry did not respond to our requests for comment.

State Rep. Zach Nunn, R-Altoona; $500: Nunn did not respond to our requests for comment. He was the only one of the 15 lawmakers who signed the IUB letter (PDF) requesting that Dakota Access pay for an independent environmental impact assessment who later received money from the company’s PAC.

The Informer also requested comment from spokespeople at Granado Communications Group, the public relations firm representing the Dakota Access project, about what strategic reasons were involved in the PAC’s decision to contribute to the 22 politicians. They did not respond.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.